Between 2000 and 2004, I worked as a casual (and on-call) labourer in a chicken factory. In between my university classes, library research and assignment writing, I bagged whole birds, trayed up drumsticks and wings, cut the pin bones from chicken breasts, dipped and crumbed schnitzels, steamed chicken and turkey rolls, and moulded and cooked and snap-froze chicken for a range of fast-food outlets. I took early morning shifts, watching the cold sky start to sparkle with light as I drove out to the factory, and afternoon shifts, where lunch was dinner and dinner was lunch, and dog-watch shifts, where the world turns upside down and the drive home is a minefield of heavy-lidded micro-snoozes.
It was hard, cold, wet, noisy, uncomfortable, embarrassing and completely shit work but it was the only work I could find at the time. I was too old for the junior sales positions, not experienced enough for the office work and not well-known enough to feed myself on writing alone.
It was shit work but, out of that, I learned a few things which have stuck with me.
1. Be prepared (or ‘don’t go in half-cocked’).
The chicken factory was shit work. There was really no getting around that. But being prepared and having the right equipment could make it halfway bearable or, at the very least, not miserable. When you turn up for work each shift, you go first to the clothes storage and pick up white shirt, white pants, and white gumboots; you change in the casuals’ unisex changing room (awkward much), pulling on the whites over your own clothes. The whites are clean but worn and provide hardly any warmth. If you’ve forgotten long-sleeves or wooly socks, it would be a long, cold shift. You grab hairnets and packets of earplugs from deep drums outside the change rooms and you grab spares because the ones on the factory floor are usually a different brand and don’t fit as well. Once you’re washed and been through the footbath, and you’re in the noisy, wet and busy factory, you find (read: steal) a permanent worker’s white rubber apron with their name printed in black marker across the chest. If it’s still on a hook at start of shift, that’s usually the person you’re replacing and usually what you’re called for the day. What you hope is that Brenda, Steve, Ling, Lauren or Mpho is roughly the same height as you, because an apron that is too short lets all manner of fluid splash inside your boots and one that is too long can see you face down on the concrete floor. If you’d worked there for any length of time, you found the locker where the casuals hide the good aprons. Once you make it to your designated section, you ask for the left-handed scissors and knives because working for seven hours and 15 minutes with a right-handed pair leaves you bruised and howling.
2. You can truss a roasting bird without using string.
I stuffed and trayed and bagged a lot of whole birds in the four years I worked at the factory: for the supermarket shelf, for charcoal chicken shops, for restaurants. Each type used a different procedure or piece of machinery but those little crossed legs were fairly universal. In the factory, you pierce the fatty skin with a specially designed, hollow spike but it’s just as easy with a knife. You make a little slit, push through one leg and then the other through the same hole. Easy-peasy – just make sure you don’t cut too close to the edge or the skin tears and the legs escape and someone usually ends up with chicken juice on their face.
3. Don’t believe all the propaganda (just some of it)
I’m fairly certain that I signed a confidentiality agreement when I started working at the chicken factory (there were a lot of forms, okay, more than I had to sign when I started teaching at a university, which is a whole other blog-post discussion really), but I’m pretty sure McDonalds wouldn’t mind me saying that, in Australia at least, chicken nuggets are NOT made like this:
Yes, there are still preservatives and chemicals like ‘raising agents and mineral salts’ with a heap of scary numbers (as you can see on the ingredients list on the box and the company’s website) but there was no sign of that pink sludge anywhere near the chicken nuggets I made – and I saw it from live bird to labelled box.
4. There are always people worse off than you
Perhaps this is a lesson you can learn in any workplace. There is always someone who has a shitter job than you. For me, the shittest job in the chicken factory was the Evisceration Room. I looked in the door once and begged the labour office to never send me there. In fact, I developed a system of asking where the work was before letting the office know if I was available or not just to avoid it.
5. Turkey is revolting from beginning to end.
On the whole, the chicken factory wasn’t particularly smelly. On the outside it wasn’t all that pleasant but inside it smelled like wet concrete and dry cardboard and mild chlorine. The exception to this is anything to do with turkeys. Turkeys smell. They smell when they’re whole, they smell in parts, they smell when they’re wrapped in plastic, they even smell when they’re frozen and you’re boxing those suckers up. I used to eat turkey but now it makes me want to vomit.
Turkeys also stole someone’s bicycle, so they're morally suspect too.
6. Don’t piss off people who work with knives for a living
When you’ve watched someone debone a whole bird (and therefore, potentially, your hand or face) in less than a minute, you learn to keep your mouth shut no matter what dumb-arse things they say or do. Some de-boners were as lovely as pie; others were complete psychotics who developed very strange relationships with their tools. Katherine Knight is a case in point, a complete whack-job who had worked at a nearby abattoir. She stabbed her defacto husband to death not long after I started working at the factory. The police found the table set with his kid’s names on the place cards, and plates of filleted bum-cheeks. With gravy. And vegetables. Because somehow those details make this story worse.
7. Crossing the line is sometimes brave and sometimes stupid (and sometimes both).
There were quite a few lines to cross working at the chicken factory, some real and some imaginary (some both, funnily enough). Crossing a picket-line, for example, is not fun. But when you are a casual labourer this is what you are occasionally paid to do. ‘Scab’ is not a pretty word so you think long and hard about whether it’s worth what you’re being paid to undermine the permanent workers’ bargaining power.
There were also unspoken lines to cross about gender and capability and clannish territorialism. Speaking up about being allowed to work in a room full of men is brave. Physically pushing through a line of men is stupid. Taking a chair from a ‘saved’ table in the cafeteria is brave. Sitting on a chair at a ‘saved’ table when it’s been made clear you are not welcome is stupid (see point 6, above). Complaining to management about the working conditions of the group of intellectually-delayed workers in the boxing room seemed to be brave and stupid at the same time – while it soothed my own ruffled feathers it probably did nothing except add additional scrutiny to their working lives.
8. There is dignity and satisfaction to be found in any kind of work (even if it’s hard to spot at the time).
The chicken factory was largely a demoralising place to work. I felt it was beneath me. I was too smart, too educated, too everything to be working here. Why, why, why? Poor me. But standing shoulder to shoulder with so many different workers, you talk and you learn about their lives. I stood beside fully qualified doctors and engineers who had moved to Australia, simply to offer a better life to themselves and their families. Their qualifications weren't recognised here but they were happy to be there, to be working at all. Supporting your family is dignified.
Physical labour can also be incredibly satisfying. There's something about turning off your brain and letting the body take over, watching your muscle memory complete the same tasks over and over and over while you drift off. It’s satisfying to feel tired at the end of the shift. Some days the mental exhaustion of academia leaves me less satisfied than the physical tiredness of a day’s labour.
9. Stories are everywhere.
At the same time I worked at the factory, I was taking a writing class with Helen Garner, whose non-fiction works still makes my heart bleed (read Feel of Steel - do). I wrote about the factory and she pulled at the edges of my stories and pushed me to find the centre and eventually awarded me a HD. The people, the setting, the senses, the emotion, the broader themes of the factory were threaded through my stories and earned me my first ever payments for my writing. Out of that shit work, my writing voice grew.