Factory-line blues

By Helen Frances

Same old nightmare: Charlie Chaplin hard at work.    
Photo / Supplied
Same old nightmare: Charlie Chaplin hard at work. Photo / Supplied

Grind, tamp and wrench - ouch! There's much more to making a latte than the average coffee-holic may realise.

One city barista, who prefers to be anonymous, says he starts work with the coffee rush at 6.30am. By 9am, his wrist is aching - "but we do get breaks every three hours and they rotate us around the store".

The repetitive movements that cause barista's wrist, elbow and arm to ache smack of the factory production line. Technologies may have changed, however, repetitive, low-paid work is still with us. Take a look at Charlie Chaplin's famous silent comedy, Modern Times, made in 1936 during the Great Depression.

Chaplin's irrepressible character, The Little Tramp, is a factory worker sweating it out on the line at Electro Steel Corp. Trying to keep up with his work as a screw tightener, he goes more than a little screwy and tightens screws offline - anything that resembles a nut or a bolt, including buttons on women's clothing.

The boss controls the factory by remote "TV". When The Little Tramp sneaks off for a fag, the boss barks, "Get back to work", from a screen in the bathroom.

The Little Tramp is selected for an experiment with an automatic, on-the-job, feeding machine, which accelerates out of control. Then, caught up in a mind/body-bending sequence he's scrolled through the cogs of the factory machines. Time in an asylum irons out some of the kinks, but he's soon back to his antics. After many attempts to work within "the system", The Little Tramp and his girlfriend stroll arm-in-arm into the sunset - jobless, machine-free and resourceful.

The factory line has changed, at least in the Western world. But Tom Buckley, from Unite Union, sees employees doing a lot of repetitive work still within the fast-food and call-centre industries.

"You watch a barista for an hour and it's the same motions day-in, day-out. I think supermarkets fall into that as well," Buckley says.

In call centres, every minute counts, is monitored and recorded - from the time people arrive at work to time spent in the toilet, time taken on calls and writing up notes. At the end of the week, he says, employee performance is compared and judged.

At a certain point, companies realise they are pushing too far; when workers are leaving in droves or sick days have increased. Buckley has respect for these people working in a stressful industry where the amount of sick leave is substantially higher than in any others he has seen. "I'm not sure they have a Charlie Chaplin tic but if you catch a call-centre worker after an eight-hour shift they can't be quiet."

He hears people say they are in their jobs just temporarily - "only here for a month".

"Often you'll find the same people working in the same kind of job at a later date, because that's their skill. Instead of being at McDonald's, it'll be Burger King or a supermarket where the same pressure is applied to perform."

He thinks the jobs are undervalued, which contributes to feelings of low self-esteem.

Dancing off into the sunset is a dream Buckley thinks many workers entertain in different ways.

"There's a sort of delusion in terms of, 'I can get out of this industry'."

So it's the daily escape at the end of the day, or the possibility, however small, of winning Lotto at the end of the working week.

- Herald on Sunday

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