Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Temp Jobs

I've done stacks of 'temp' work over the years. When I was running my puppet company, Carousel Puppets, which initially toured schools in the Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire education authority areas, I filled in with a variety of temporary work which I got through agencies, such as Blue Arrow and Manpower. I went into warehouses on some assignments, such as Zodiac Toys which I actually rather enjoyed. Picking and packing mostly, for their nationwide branches. You got to see all the latest toys when they came out, particularly in the build-up to Christmas. Also, generally a friendl people in the company's staff team. I don't know what happened to that particular company, as they seemed to be doing fairly well when I was there during the late 1970's. The work certainly kept me busy. I got quite fast at the actual 'picking' part of the work, taking a printed-out sheet with the various items on it, with a code which showed where the items were in the warehouse (for example A/12 would be aisle A and 12 as the number of the area where the item was stored.) Another company was Debenham's, who had their main warehouse in Bedford (and still do, as far as I know, out on the Elm's Farm Industrial Estate on the edge of the town at Goldington.) I don't know whether I liked their shift pattern. Most of these places ran on a shift system, the early shift being from about 7 a.m to 2 p.m, and the late shift from 2 p.m.-10 p.m. I'm not so sure I like going off to work at mid-day, because it messes up any social life you might have, but generally they did a sort of turn and turn about with the shift-pattern so you'd do the early one week and the next the late. I'm not sure they had a night shift. I know some companies did, especially when it was in the weeks leading up to Christmas. At least in those companies they just left you to get on with the work and didn't spend too much time looking over your shoulder, just so long as you were accurate with your work and were reasonably fast at it, it didn't seem to matter much. Some of the companies used temp staff and at the end of the busy periods, such as christmas, they let the temps go, but in other companies such as Debenham's, they sometimes took on staff permanently and used the fact that they were not on their payroll to trial them to see whether they were good at their jobs before offering them permanent positions.

I also worked in a lot of kitchens at one time. I think it was through Blue Arrow who seemed to specialise in all things catering. I was usually a kitchen porter or general assistant. Pot-wash in particular. I got the hang of using dishwashing machines and it's quite a trying job shoving those plastic trays in full of dirty plates, glasses and other bits and pieces. You'd arrive in a kitchen, at such companies as Granada Rental, National Freight or Unipath to be confronted by a huge pile of dirty pots and spend the entire afternoon scrubbing them. I got myself into some sort of a system doing the job and soon got it completed. One of the advantages of catering work was that you always got something to eat. Well, kitchens are full of food aren't they? This was usually at the end of the shift, once all the staff had been fed and things had been tidied up. As a result of going to work at Charles Wells brewery in Bedford I worked there permanently for about two years. I never had to go out and buy food as there was always food left over for the staff to eat. A good perk, to say the least.

From working in the staff canteen at Unipath, I also worked on the production-line for that company. When I first went to work there I was unaware that they made, amongst other things, pregnancy-testing kits. They originally had their factory on Elms Farm Industrial Estate but after a few years they built a brand new factory at Priory Business Park, which used to be my grandfather and later my uncle Michael's farm, Mill Farm, which was demolished and then built over. A bit odd going there to work, knowing that it had been so closely associated with my family. I had never had any experience of working in a factory. Why would I? Anyway, it was working on a production line packing these pregnancy testing kits. The things were made elsewhere and we had to feed them into this machine which made up the boxes (quite ingenious, this, as the thing folded the flattened packages and glued them closed after the devices were put inside.) We came in as 'temps' to sit on the production line and keep feeding the things, which were sealed in air-tight and supposedly, sterile, packages, rather in the same way a chocolate bar or other confectionary item would be packaged and sealed. Apparently this was supposed to be done automatically, but for some reason the machinery wouldn't work so they had to bring in temp staff to feed them in by hand. Then, once the devices were packaged they had to be collated and over-wrapped in cellophane and at the end of the line put into larger boxes and stacked on pallets. The machinery was constantly getting stopped for some reason, jammed up with whatever, the boxes not being glued closed properly, the cellophane wrap getting broken or one hundred and one other reasons and we spent a good deal of our time just waiting for things to be rectified. At one point they had discovered that some of the sterile wrap on the devices had developed holes, however this was happening they didn't seem to have discovered, but it was necessary to go through a whole batch of the things, probably several thousand of the things, possibly a million or so. I don't know how many of the things would be in quite a large cardboard box, and then there were quite a few pallet-loads and I'm not sure how many on each pallet. So we had to sit at a table and go through every single item in those boxes and pick out any of them which had holes in. So, you can imagine how long it took to go through every single box. A long time. I think it must have been a couple of weeks. At the time I worked at Unipath I didn't have a car, so the only way to get there from the centre of Bedford was to cadge a lift off someone who was already working there, perhaps another 'temp' or I could catch a bus. I eventually decided to walk, although it must be a 3-4 mile journey along the Embankment and along the riverside tow-path out towards the Priory Business Park where the company was situated. I actually enjoyed it and luckily the weather was pleasant and sunny, although I think on a couple of occasions it did rain. It is a rather pleasant walk and, early in the morning, just as the sun is coming up and there's a mist drifting on the water, I can think of nothing nice on a summer's day. It was certainly a good way to start off the day and a good form of exercise.

I worked for another agency which got me quite a lot of work. Only problem was they could never tell you whether you'd be used or not. They had a habit of sending people to companies well out of Bedford, such as Milton Keynes and when you got there the company would say that they didn't ned so many people to work that particular shift, so you'd be sent home. A bit mean of the agency to use people like that. You had to turn up really early in the morning, around 5.30- 5.00 a.m. (so you can imagine it could be quite an effort to get out of bed, particularly during the winter months when it was very cold and dark.) and get to their offices in Bedford High Street to just sit and wait. Then you might (or might not) be told that there was work at such-and-such a company, and if you were lucky you might be taken by mini-bus to wherever. The man who was in charge of this agency was incapable of telling you where you were being taken. I went to somewhere, and was expecting to go somewhere else and wasn't told where it was and it was a surprise to be sent to work in a warehouse packing candles. Another place was near Sandy, packing flowers for a supermarket. Actually I was developing a nasty bout of 'flu on that particular morning and we had to stand all shift putting flowers on a conveyor belt for at least ten hours. We had to stay longer to finish this particular batch and the line-leader wouldn't let us go until the job was completed. Meanwhile, I was developing quite  high temperature and was finding it quite difficult to stand upright with the conveyor belt moving past and making me feel quite giddy (as you would imagine as it was moving.) That agency were really mean. If you happened to be sent home for any reason and they had to send a bus out to collect you, they charged you something like £10 for the privilege, which was a bit mean of them I thought.

There were also a number of assignments in Milton Keynes. So, in order to reach those places we were sent, we had to go by mini-bus from Bedford, and a good 30-40 minute journey early in the morning was required in order to get to whatever factory we were working in for a 7 a.m. start. One place was called Geest, and the company made chilled foods for a variety of well-know supermarket chains. The line I was working on made lasagnes and I was really surprised how many people were needed to staff the production line. You tend to take for granted when you buy your weekly shop, whether it's clothing, food or whatever, the amount of effort that must have been made to make whatever it is, and, having stood for eight hours putting sheets of lasagne in metal trays on a production line and now know how it was made, I can sympathise with the staff having to work in such cold conditions. Generally we were treated well enough and the management were pleasant enough as well as all the staff on the different lines, but it's not actually an area of work I would want to have worked on full-time. They also had or have a factory near the A1 at Biggleswade, making similar ready meals. You had to work quite hard as these things came down the line and you had to put whatever part of the product into these aluminium foil bowls and make sure they were the correct weight and as they move past quite fast it was important to know what your were doing and been quite nimble-fingered, particularly as you had rubber gloves on and the atmosphere was extremely cold.

I did one day working in the Amazon warehouse at Ridgmont. When you get on the M1 at Junction 13 or go towards either Bedford or Ampthill coming from Milton Keynes as we do on quite a few occasions when we are driving wherever, you can't avoid this vast aircraft-hanger sized building. It takes up quite  large part of the landscape and can be seen from quite a distance and has the Amazon logo clearly emblazoned on it. One day working there was enough for me. I use this company a great deal and it's so easy to order virtually anything you could possibly imagine from their website and it can be delivered in most cases within 24-hours. But from experience you are expected to stand for most or if not, all, of the shift (I can't remember, it may have been 10 hours, but it's quite a few years ago.) I was actually packing books and other items such as CDs and DVDs. The items come down a sort of conveyor belt, along with the paperwork inside which has the address label attached and you have to decided very quickly what size packaging you will need and then you pack the items inside the cardboard packaging and you have to make sure that it is securely fastened and also that the items within the packaging will not move about inside, so you may have to use padding to prevent this. You are expected to be able to pack so many items within a set time, such as a minute and when I was there sometimes a member of staff will be standing behind you checking how fast and efficiently you are working. That in itself was enough to put me off, but it was certainly not an environment i would ever want to work in, but it was an interesting experience and now gives me some idea how they work and what goes on to get what I order processed and dispatched.
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