19 July 2006

Labour Ready Surprise

After The Cobra Group debacle, I had began to reside myself to the fact that if I wanted to find employment for the remaining three working days of the project, then my only option was to go back to Labour Ready. This was the only place I had discovered during my adventures in job seeking that gave any possibility of finding an immediate post.

I had not got my act together today to make the early start at Labour Ready, but had made my mind up that Thursday would definitely be the day to go back there. I hoped to find work with them in order to finish what I'd started by registering nearly three weeks ago. Since I discovered that you could be paid with a special Labour Ready cheque, if you chose not to take cash, I had my heart set on getting hold of one with my name printed on it. (If you accepted cash you were also subject to a 1GBP fee and the machine from which it was issued was also unable to pay any sums under a 1GBP - you were unnecessarily losing money). I would have been very disappointed with myself, if 'Part-time' had come to an end and I had not overcome my initial fears and worked for Labour Ready.

I was sat at my computer, having been swimming, just about to start inputting some of the data I collected yesterday (whilst working the streets) into my Prime Time spreadsheet - now well over 1800 entries. My phone began to ring. It was Alan from Labour Ready! This was so strange, was he a mind-reader? A psychic or was he my guardian angel this man? He must have known I wanted to be there, in spirit, but that I just couldn't bring myself to get up at 5:30.

He asked if I could work today at 12:00. I'd need to be at Labour Ready at 10:45 so that I could travel to the warehouse (where I'd be working), with guy who had worked there the previous week. The work would be 'data entry' and 'a bit of answering phones'; it would be for the next two days at least. I gratefully accepted, unable to fully comprehend how lucky I was. It was now 10:15 - I had half-an-hour to get ready. I put on my 'smart outfit', packed lunch and then left.

I got to Labour Ready just as Alan was about to call to ask where I was. He was brief with me and held out my 'work ticket' for me to collect. There was a small scruffy man with a small drawstring bag standing at the desk. As I arrived he started towards the door. It quickly transpired that this was Adam and we would be travelling to work together on the Rainbow 5 bus to Long Eaton. Adam explained that he had been waiting there since 10:00. He had initially 'signed-in' around 6:30, but Alan had sent him home saying that there was no work. Then when he arrived back home (in the Meadows) and got into bed, Alan had called him again to tell him to come straight back again.

Adam had been working with Labour Ready for over a year now, He referred to Alan as his 'boss'. I'd never really had the opportunity to chat to a person like Adam before. He was sweet, but had I not known it, I would certainly have given him a wide berth had we passed in the street.

His accent was rough, but didn't sound like Nottingham. It turned out that Adam (23) was from Essex. He'd moved to Nottingham three years ago, because one of his best mates had moved here. This same friend had died of a heart attack earlier in the year. Adam lived with his 'missus' who was originally from Kent and had three kids, none of which were Adam's. He was skint too; he worked at Labour Ready, collected his cash from the machine, spent it that night and came back the next day for more.

Given what Adam was wearing, tracky bottoms and a t-shirt I thought that maybe I was slightly over dressed. Adam explained however, that he would be working in the warehouse (he had a fork-lift truck licence), and I would be working in the little office that was attached. 'They' had asked for 'one boy and one girl'. I still had no idea where I was going...

'You got bus fare?' Adam asked. It was 3.10GBP to get out there and took 40 minutes. Fortunately I did. We got off the bus and popped into Lidl where Adam bought his lunch: six bottle of cola, fifteen packets of crisps and some 'savoury eggs'. Luckily I already had my lunch with me.

We were in the middle of a bleak industrial estate / retail park in Chillwell which is between Beeston and Long Eaton apparently. M & L Services (where we were heading), was in a modern corrugated iron warehouse at a dead end in the road, surrounded by other corrugated iron warehouses.

We went inside and I was introduced to the employees (much fewer than I had imagined). There was Carol and Martin, husband and wife who were the bosses, and their daughter Emma (21) who was the 'office manager'. There was Nicky (17) who worked in the office and Danny (20) who worked in the warehouse. There was a strange woman called Val, with lots of tattoos, who popped in and out with a boy Steven (17) who was Nicky's boyfriend - apparently they worked in another affiliated warehouse and had to get up at 4:30 every morning. Steven, Adam told me, earned 3.50GBP per hour because he was still under 18. We both agreed that we wouldn't get out of bed at 4:30 for 3.50GBP per hour!

There wasn't much for me to do at the warehouse to start off with, so I took the opportunity to have a snoop around. M & L Services, it appears, does many different things. It calls itself 'Stock Rectification Specialists' - probably one of the most ambiguous company descriptions I've ever heard. As far as I could work out there were various strands to the business.

The first is a contract with Argos supplying spare parts for all of the exercise bikes sold through their catalogue. In fact they operate the 'exercise bike helpline', the number for which is probably published in the back of the Argos manuals. In the two days that I worked at M & L Services, I didn't hear the special Argos phone ring once. I guess nobody was having problems with their bikes.

The next thing they do is a contract with 'The Cotswold Company' supplying tacky flat-packed furniture. Cotswold sends the orders through via a networked computer programme and M & L Services ship the goods out to the customers.

They also operate two eBay businesses. One selling the same tacky flat-packed furniture directly to eBay shoppers and the second under the username 'fitcamp123' selling tents - bargain tents.

The last thing that it appears they do, which perhaps could be loosely described as 'stock rectification', is assembling or packaging products. When I was there, they were processing (or maybe rectifying) an order of 5000 St Tropez tan mitts. The black mitts, apparently used for the application of fake tanning lotion and 'body polish', came in bin-bag-sized bags. The boxes came separately, flat-packed. M & L Services were responsible for assembling each box, inserting a mitt into it (folded in two) and then packing two-dozen into larger brown cardboard boxes. These boxes were labelled and then placed on a pallet. 100 boxes made a full pallet. Two-and-a-bit pallets would make the full order.

First of all, I was working in the office with Nicky and Emma. Nicky was responsible for delegating tasks to me. I was very surprised when I found out that she was only 17 - she seemed too mature and serious. Maybe that is what happens when you leave school at 16 and go straight into work. It's a sudden reality check; you have to grow up pretty damn quick. She began working there two weeks after finishing school. It felt as though she had been cheated out of several years of her childhood, stuck in this dull little office day-in day-out.

Nicky got me started inputting eBay tent orders to a spreadsheet. They had had a virus in the system the previous week and had lost over a week's worth of spreadsheets. I was re-inputting the data to recreate the lost files.

All the employees of M & L Services were slightly on edge that day because they were expecting important visitors. One of the big bosses from Argos was coming together with a Spanish business associate who I think was the man who shipped over the tacky furniture. One of the main reasons they called Labour Ready and employed myself and Adam, was to make it appear to the visitors that they had more 'permanent staff' and ran a busy and productive operation. There were certain rules that we had to adhere to when the visitors arrived:

Firstly, there was to be no mention of Labour Ready. As far as they were concerned we worked there industriously everyday. The second rule was that there was to be no mention of anything to do with eBay. I wasn't sure why, but it was obvious that the visitors had no idea that they operated this side of the business. Whether it was because they thought eBay looked unprofessional or whether there was something underhand going on, I could not tell.

The office was to be spotless, everyone dressed smartly, all eBay papers hidden from site and Nicky was to be on read alert to make drinks for them as soon as they arrived.

The day dragged on and there was still no sign of them. I had re-entered a lot of the lost data and inputted some of their recent Cotswold orders. As it neared the end of the day Nicky was fast running out of things for me to do. This was no good - I had to look busy and purposeful when the visitors arrived. While I was still in the room, Nicky, Emma and Carol discussed exactly which menial task they could find for me to do next. They were clutching at straws, when Carol suggested taking an existing spreadsheet, intentionally erasing the contents and getting me to re-input it just for the sake of it - I nearly choked.

This was all too ironic; all they wanted me to do was to look busy by working on a spreadsheet. If only they knew how much data entry I had building up for my own Prime Time spreadsheet. I was going to have to spend the best part of two hours doing that when I got home and here they were arguing about finding me some more pointless data to process. God! I was the queen of pointless data - I had pointless data up to my eyeballs!

Of course there was no way I could mention this. I was undercover which meant these two worlds could never collide. After a fair amount of discussion they found there was something not entirely useless for me to do - I had to update the 'B Grade' stock list. Using the warehouse staff's handwritten notes I was to input information about the defects found on certain pieces of furniture they had in store. I was told to 'work slowly' on it so it lasted until 'they' arrived. 'They' were stuck in traffic on the M1.

The visitors were so late that Adam and I were asked to work later til 18:15 instead of 17:30 as Alan had arranged. We didn't really have much to say in the matter, so it's just as well neither of us had other plans for after work.

When 'they' finally arrived it was all a bit of an anti-climax. They didn't really want drinks and they didn't spend more than a few seconds in the office where we were sat so diligently typing.

Shortly after 18:00 they left and Carol was able to sign our 'work tickets' without fear of being spotted colluding with a temping agency. We weren't sure whether it was a mistake, but she accidentally put 6.25 hours on our slips meaning that she paid us for out lunch break, which she not Labour Ready policy. An extra 2.57GBP hey! Almost enough to cover the bus fare.

I didn't get back til after 19:00 that night. After dinner I started my own data inputting on the Prime Time spreadsheet. Every entry was a struggle, but I forced myself to plough though it, going on and on forever. An hour-and-a-half into it I was exhausted. I stared at the screen and began breathing deeply and heavily and then more rapidly until I began to hyper-ventilate. What was happening to me? Was this a spreadsheet induced panic attack? I sure felt like it. I felt so trapped, my room was such a tip there was stuff all over my bed, there was nowhere to go. Eventually Jon found my and made me wash my hands and face. He cleared my bed and put me in it.