When I graduated university, I landed by happenstance completely out of my realm of study into a very corporate IT job. Two years from then, I landed the dubious position of "business analyst" at a local sports retailer. My first project as a philosophaster was to learn the processes underpinning our local factory so that we could select a new software for them. A good software should do anything from report on WIP (work in progress), identify employee expertise and attendance, hold inventory and raw material requirements and basically anything in this wikipedia article.
This project was assigned to me at a time of ennui. I'd achieved a 65% increase in salary and promotion, but after working towards it for several months I felt bored and unexcited by my success. If I'm so smart, I thought, why am I working for a corporate giant. I should be using my skills somewhere like the Sierra Club. My sense of ethic isn't strong enough to break the golden handcuffs unfortunately. Hence, this philosophaster's notebook, and my Rancière-inspired Days (rather than nights) of Labour
The project excited me vaguely, but I worried about getting there. Every other time I'd needed to go to the factory I'd either caught a ride or taken a taxi. A regular taxi ride wouldn't be covered by the department, I know better than to ask. We have a shuttle that leaves from the closest train station for the factory employees. I toyed with the idea of taking the shuttle, or maybe taking a bus or biking.
I ended up taking the train to the station and walking across the Queensborough Bridge. In some ways this is better than driving.
The factory isn't in the nicest part of the city. Head Office, where I normally work, is minutes away from a bubbling river on the one side, and the other, 10 minutes East to a bird sanctuary. It's pretty nice, but it's a trek getting there too.
Across the factory parking lot is the Fraser River, such a tiny part of the river I could touch New Westminster with my arm stretched out. In the water is a large rusting barge, the Fraser Titan. But there's a flurry of activity I didn't expect here, which speaks more to my ignorance of the way the world works than anything else. Trucks come and go to load their deliveries into our Raw Materials warehouse, or to load containers from the bonded port that shares the parking lot with us. We're right next to a giant scrap yard with an old farmhouse that looks like it's about to collapse any minute. When I came for the first time last year, the factory hadn't yet opened. Two scruffy cats hung around the scrap yard, hunting. They probably don't stick around anymore, there's a lot more activity now. Maybe they only come at night. Across from us is also a Canadian Tire warehouse.
This is a very good location -- right off of the Queensborough Bridge, it's easy for freight trucks and people. It's an awful bridge though, and while the fumes aren't overly pleasant to breathe in, I'm still glad I walked. Going by road is arduous. Without traffic it would be a seven minute drive, but traffic easily doubles the time. It basically takes that long to walk, and at least I only depend on myself to get there.
So I walked. It took about 15 minutes to cross the bridge, very fumey. I'm not sure if I could deal with the smog every day. The view from the bridge was beautifully industrial and panoramic; like a Jeff Wall photograph. It was a bit slow due to the snow, and at one point a particularly heavy truck barreled past and shook the bridge and I thought an earthquake had started for sure.
Once you get across the bridge it's very quick to the factory. You just follow the path that you're already on. There is a large ugly house in the new style. That day, it was surround by large gulls of different types, and crows. They swooped and wooped and shrieked.
People come in and out all day; three people have come in response to job advertisements. All of them are Chinese. The third is an older man, late 50s early 60s who comes with his wife. The wife introduces him to the young girl. He's been a baker at T&T, but he wants to apply for the sewing job. He's been working there for 14 years, I think. I didn’t quite catch. His family are tailors, so he can sew, especially men's suits.
The wife asks if he needs to speak English at all, and the girl responds that some English is helpful, basic English. The wife asks if the supervisors speak Chinese. Only some, the girl replies. As they complete the conversation, a group of 3 Asian women come in. The couple is handed an application, and the three women mention they are also interested in the Sewing job.
I feel bad. I can't imagine what it's like to be dependent on another for your communication. Your entire life is based on communication. I also can't help but think of my parents; my father has been a baker his entire life. He's also worked at the large supermarkets like T&T. I've never had a blue collar job -- my tolerance for hardship and conflict is very low. I'm also incredibly sensitive emotionally and physically. I don't think I'd be able to work somewhere blue collar, where management seems a little more impersonal, and the language divide means communication must be more direct, maybe less kind, less patient. My father sometimes speaks very harshly in English, and his French accent and loud voice can be jarring for the more demure, North American business types. Of the sort that work at my company, which is quite international in scope, the brashness is more acceptable in the white collar section.
The wife walks to the center of the very large office, and looks to hand over the husband's application. The young girl is sitting in a desk farther back and is using a pen scanner for something. She doesn't see the woman. The woman makes a step towards a tall Asian Man (Minard, the new factory production manager), and he waves her off. The girl looks up and gently takes the sheet. Her voice is gentle too, but I can't hear what she says. They both walk towards the husband, who is out of my line of sight in the corner with the black couches. He stands very erect, and walks towards his wife and the young girl. He's dressed quite nicely, in a leather blazer that also reminds me of my father, and the trouser like jeans. With that outfit he could definitely be my dad. The girl asks which dialect he speaks -- Mandarin, the wife answers quickly. And he can speak English, he will be able to speak English to do his job.
During this discussion, a young man stands outside the door and rings the doorbell. The doors are all glass and he peers inside at the couple and the young girl who are speaking directly in front of the door. Nobody opens the door for him, so he rings again, looks a little impatient. The girl presses the button to open the door, the couple steps back to let the young man in, and the exit.
In the time it's taken me to write this, the couple has left, the three women are still filling in their application. The young man is here for the Press Operator role.
The young man fills out the Press Operator application, and the girl leaves him to it. She goes to do something or other. Ten minutes later she returns to the three women on the couches. I can't see her but I hear some gentle murmuring-- a pre interview, maybe.
I'm happy to be here in the belly of production, learning how the world works and seeing the types of jobs that are out there. Jobs I've never applied for, never even knew you could apply for.
The ladies leave, the young man leaves shortly after. I hear him ask when he can expect to hear back, and the young girl says, You'll just have to wait. No worries, he says, and leaves with his blue plastic portfolio.
Jobs I never knew you could apply for... Maybe he's going to apply for other positions in the surrounding area? I know our factory is unique, and the jobs are uniquely developed, but they're not the only ones. I'm not sure what the demand for manual skilled labour is in the Lower Mainland.
Anyway, I'm thankful that my work isn't physical, sad that people have to do it, and at the same time, cognizant that this sadness is both patronizing and accurate in its own way. We need people to work in factories and warehouses, but there's no denying the hierarchy of desirability in employment. How can we eradicate this hierarchy? Physical labour is difficult, but it isn't shameful. The only manual labourer I know is my friend's partner, and he seems to love his work. I'm not sure what exactly it is that he does, but it's also not clear if his work is an act of rebellion. His family is pretty rich.
It's hard not to be sad when your entire life your working class parents encourage you to join the white collar workforce. Then you're here and you don't really see the utility in it. Don't all children feel this way?
In the same vein, working here is an opportunity for many people to move into more specialized work in management or design at Head Office. Hiring and retention is difficult, I think, as one would expect. I'm not sure what others offer but we do have pretty good benefits. I know a few refugees from Syria have also been hired, and there's some racial and religious diversity, though of course it skews overwhelmingly Chinese.
For today, though, I'll continue taking notes and creating my process maps. That's what I was asked to do!
Rancière, Jacques. The Nights of Labor: The Workers' Dream in Nineteenth-century France. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989
Taussig, Michael. "100 Notes - 100 Thoughts /100 Notizen - 100 Gedanken: Fieldwork Notebooks." DOCUMENTA (2011)