Last machinist at Achilles Industries – chapter 2

by Ted Somerset

“Doing exactly the same job day after day. Soul-destroying. Alienating.” I’ve heard a fair few folks say that and seen others nodding in agreement.

Not me. I felt right at home in the backwaters of Achilles Industries. To me there’s something pleasant and comforting about the familiarity of day-to-day tasks.

Each morning I got off the bus, crossed the road behind the tired-looking lady who always gets off at the same stop, passed the Chinese takeaway with the hard pies and bright yellow chips and round the corner to the side door of Achilles Industries. Clocked in, waved to the guys over in the tool room, and headed up to the admin offices. Hung up my jacket in the cleaner’s cupboard, grabbed a rubbish bag and the feather duster, opened the door, said “Morning, Pam” and “Morning, Florence”, and headed through the office dusting desks and emptying bins.

And, of course, even when you supposedly do exactly the same thing day after day, in fact, you don’t. Some mornings there’ll be an extra big tea stain splattered on the cafeteria floor, or a particularly stubborn speck of shit in one of the toilet bowls. Or an interesting document face up on someone’s desk.

Time flew in the first few weeks of my employment because I was busy building my protective coating. It’s risky being new on an unskilled, non-union job.  If they’re not happy they can turf you out and there’s no comeback. From what I’d heard the other guys say about Mr Brixton, I knew he’d have no qualms about replacing me in a blink.

No use crying – even at the bottom of the food chain there’s always something you can do.  I aimed to build some protection by becoming seen as indispensible. From the first morning I set out to be the best cleaner in the history of Achilles. Previously unopened Jiff and Janola in the back of my cupboard flowed in a furious assault on the staff toilets. Fifty years of filth didn’t buckle right away, but the element of surprise was on my side – the old factory facilities didn’t know what hit them.  After a few days the lino in the men’s smoko room was revealed to have a green and yellow pattern hidden below its oily grey. Outside, where Mr Brixton entered late each morning, I burnished the glass foyer into a diamond brilliance.  Once or twice when I saw his LTD turn the corner I made sure to be seen kneeling down rubbing the bottom of the door glass. Occasionally I heard what might have been a short grunt of satisfaction as Mr Brixton strode past and above me.

You might think this is crawling up the boss’s arse, and to some extent it is. However, like the special offers in the supermarkets, super-cleaning efforts are “for a limited time”. If you go like hell for a while and get everything close to spotless, it’s then easier to maintain and can be done faster, creating for you free time to hide away. Also, because the employer now trusts you to do a decent job, he won’t be anxious to know where you are every minute. Or, in time, every hour.

So it was that with the toolroom toilet now in a fit state for comfortable use, I settled on its seat for a nice long look at the Herald while the zip boiled for smoko.

A headline “Decent Work” caught my eye.

“The Decent Work initiative has the potential to change the lives of millions of people around the world,” said Labour minister Ruth Dyson.

“As a first step we need to look at how we’re doing in New Zealand to ensure that we’re leading by example. And from what I’ve seen, we’re making some excellent progress. Today is a celebration of that progress.”

Apart from its beggarly wage my own work already seemed fairly decent. I read on to see what I might be missing.

The Decent Work initiative described itself as “a unique tripartite ‘lens’ for looking at New Zealand activities that influence labour market outcomes.”

This three-faceted “lens” was made possible by the combined efforts of government, Business NZ and the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions.

Decent Work New Zealand had four objectives, developed by the International Labour Organisation.

1. Promotion and realisation of standards and fundamental principles and rights at work

2. Enhancement of the coverage and effectiveness of social protection for all.

3. Creation of greater opportunities for women and men to secure decent employment and income.

4. Strengthening of tripartism and social dialogue.

These four main goals were broken down into twenty-two sub-points.

None of the goals were shared by Achilles Industries.

For example, Decent Work’s point 13 said:  “Employers and unions understand the value of constructive relationships through engagement and partnership.”

Achilles Industries has no union, but its standard contract does say: “The employment relationship between us must be based on a commitment from both sides to treat each other with trust and respect.

“This means that employees always act in the best interest of the business and that the company always treats staff fairly and reasonably.”

However,

“Unfortunately from time to time it may occur that staff do not act in accordance with this basic duty towards the company and are in effect in breach of their relationship with the company.

“In this situation the employee may be dismissed summarily, that is, without notice.”

On the other side, if unfortunately from time to time it may occur that the company does not treat staff fairly and reasonably, nothing nasty will happen to the company without notice.

The company does not sin, err or stray. Achilles does not commit Unsatisfactory Conduct, Serious Breaches of Duty, Serious Misconduct, Unsatisfactory Performance or Unauthorised Disclosure of Information (“You must not disclose directly or indirectly any information or knowledge regarding the affairs of our business; this requirement continues after you cease working for us”).

Achilles Industries sees its staff through its own unique lens.

“All work products and all inventions, improvements, discoveries, processes or systems developed by you or which you become aware of in the performance of your duties while employed by us shall be fully disclosed to and become the sole and absolute property of the company.”

Not much room there for tripartism or social dialogue.

Anyway, it was time to get along.

Through the toilet cubicle door I heard the zip wheezing towards its highest note.  With only twelve staff left, it only needed half filling for the tea. It was a recent discovery of mine that if the urn was filled right to the very top with cold water it could splutter unattended for twenty-eight minutes, ample time to complete the crossword.

In the interests of Decent Work Initiative, I resolved to steal this absolute intellectual property of the company and carry it to my grave.

Down below in the plant, the humming of lathes gave way to the thumping of twenty-four work boots heading up for smoko. I filled the teapot and set twelve cups on the formica beside it. Late summer sun from the window cast a warm glow on my work and the scene looked almost homely. It was one of those long slow days that feel like everything will be more or less the same forever. An illusion very soon to be demolished.

Read the other chapters: chapter 1; chapter 3; chapter 4; chapter 5; chapter six