When I was fifteen, I had different temporary weekend jobs to boost my budget while studying. I used to work through agencies that mainly specialised in short-term work. I remember one position especially vividly. It was a large cold store of a reputable dealer of fruits and vegetables. My role was simple – I was sorting vegetables and fruit that had been imported by trucks. The food was intended for distribution to well-known supermarkets.
I helped out there with my good friend. We rummaged through a ton of vegetables (e.g. peppers) throwing anything that did not correspond to the appearance of a fresh vegetable. All the assortment had to be kept fresh as long as possible, and therefore the stock was always cold. The place resembled one big refrigerator. Work was not easy, but it could be handled as it was a temporary job.
I remember primarily my colleagues who had worked full time for an extended period there, which I could not understand. I was terrified by imagining doing such a job more often than once every two weeks. These colleagues were incredibly exciting people. They only had one major disadvantage – their Czech language had not been good enough to be able to fulfil their potential. They mostly came from Ukraine.
For example, there was one mechanical engineer. He was an incredibly smart and educated man who loved Czech literature, especially Franz Kafka and Karel Capek. I will never forget his critical look when I confessed that I had not read R.U.R, nor War with the Newts yet. (At fifteen, I was more a fan of a magazine called “Top Girls”).
He was a serious man, that engineer. He also took his job seriously and responsibly. I did not understand his attitude at the time because I considered the work to be meaningless and his approach seemed absurd. I have to admit that sometimes he had difficult moments because of me. Once he criticised me for a forgotten, rotten pepper in the pallet of sorted vegetables. I lifted my eyes and answered: ‘Sorting vegetable is not my life mission’.
Today I know he only felt responsible for the outcome of my work. We mostly prepared pallets together. He did not want me to damage his reputation as a good worker. At that age, I did not understand the strength and the importance of teamwork.
About fourteen years later, with the irony of fate, I found myself in a warehouse again at a production line where I was putting round cotton pads in a paper box. It was my first temporary job in England. You would not believe how much hard work lies behind packing simple cotton pads for facial or nail cleaning. I do not perceive working in a factory as a something absurd or degrading anymore as I learned a life lesson and had the chance to experience the everyday life that billions of people in the world live. Until then, I had lived in an idyllic world, and this was literally like falling on my bare buttocks.
I owed the employment agency for this temporary role. Even though it was a job in a factory, I approached it seriously and responsibly just as well as the mechanical engineer from Ukraine had. It was the only way to show that I was somehow valuable for the company and when the company offered workers further work opportunities, a manager called me into his office.
He asked me about my professional life before I moved to the UK and later he closed the discussion with a compliment: “It does not make any sense to offer you a full-time role. I expect you will move to a better place than this soon because you are intelligent and hard-working.” It was the first compliment from my first manager in England and helped me a lot because my self-confidence was too low. My master’s degree and previous experience from the Czech Republic were useless here. It was also because of my language skills which were not sufficient at this time. The agency fortunately soon offered me a new job in an office.
Working through an agency in England is common practice. However, it has significant disadvantages as well. Your salary is, due to commissions, minimal and you have minimal employee benefits. Just one call that you’re not well and they will quickly and permanently replace you. You can easily end up with no job and homeless.
For many foreigners, an agency is often the only and surest way to find work legally. Employment agencies are particularly suitable for employers seeking temporary or seasonal help. Unfortunately, there are also companies that hire long-term external workers, which is the best business for the agency. I experienced a company in which the same people had worked some years through the agency. These people had never been offered an employment relationship directly with the company. The company thus broadcasted a clear message: “We are not interested in the people who work for us. It’s just cheap labour, replaceable cogs functioning for our business. ”
The company’s approach to people is then extensively reflected in the workplace atmosphere. It was a terrible place and showed me how much good and bad relationships could affect the operation of an entire department. Of words such as respect, understanding and tolerance, there was nothing known. Regarding interpersonal and professional relationships, this place was the lowest. Nevertheless, it would have been beneficial if someone devoted a little attention and if the company had capable people in the human resources department. In this case, no one knew if such a thing even existed.
Thanks to this experience, I think of any long-term employment of people via an agency as promoting a specific form of modern slavery. Can you argue that these people do it voluntarily? Sometimes that’s not entirely true. Rent and food do not pay for themselves. Sometimes, unfortunately, you can’t have something better no matter how much you try. I have been through it. Things can never be assessed in black and white because it rarely goes according to plan, and often you have to make do with what your life offers at this moment.
Moreover, not everyone has enough determination, ambition and luck to free themselves from this vicious circle. The saddest thing is when someone then exploits and prospers from this situation. It does not take much to find yourself marginalised.
No man on earth deserves the humiliating designation of “cheap labour” because without these people the whole world would not have anything to wipe its ass with! (I know this since at age sixteen I had a job packing toilet paper into plastic containers).
PS: I have not yet had the good fortune to know a company with an outstanding HR department. Perhaps my life will still surprise me.
This article was translated from Czech.