Observation

The Soulless Emptiness of a Warehouse Order Picker

I work in a warehouse for a large supermarket. It’s 5:45am when I arrive. The lights are already on because they are always on. The dull polished concrete floor is the colour of margarine before they add colour. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey.

The warehouse is the size of ten football pitches with various office pods dotted around like moon bases. Inside there are no drinks, no cups, no photos, no music, no paper, no life. Everything is computerised and runs from terminals. It’s like they said life would be in the future. In the sci-fi films I watched as a kid, only worse. Those films were in colour. Here everything is in black and white. Or white and white.

Most people have their own key for their locker, but I don’t, so I have to get the master key each morning from the office and be subjected to the magnesium grade lighting. I don’t know how anybody can work in here. It’s bad enough on the warehouse floor with a billion rows of fluorescent strips shining down. Here it’s like working in the headlights of a car.

I put my uniform on at home. A thick woven polyester T-shirt that has the feel of sackcloth. Black work trousers four sizes too big for me. Plus a pair of steel-capped trainers which are actually very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next ten hours. In my locker, there is a headset, a permanent marker, work gloves and a box cutter – the ‘tools’ of the trade. Plus a battery pod/wireless receiver the size of a large avocado, which I plug my headset into and then attach to my belt. I switch it on and a computer-generated voice asks me, ‘Do I want an order?’

I say ‘Yes.’ We’re on.

‘Go to slot 1726. Pick Area 6,’ the voice says and I obey.

‘A slot’ is the space underneath the huge five-storey high shelving units where the individual products are located. The picking areas are the aisles between the shelves where we work. I once asked a driver of the high-reach forklifts that replenish the stock if the shelves were safe.

‘Yes. Perfectly,’ he reassured me from inside his metal cage, his eyes shining out like kiln-holes from behind a balaclava to protect him from the dry cardboard chill of the warehouse. ‘Although it depends on the driver,’ he added while grabbing a 5-tonne pallet of sugar as effortlessly as a child takes cookies from a jar.

When I get to a slot, I’m required to say a verification code printed in large letters above the product line. This is to ensure I’m at the correct slot and not about to pick up dog biscuits when I should be picking up nappies. I say the code and the voice says: ‘Take 2 (or 4, or 6, or 40…).’

I take the products and stack them neatly on the back of a CHEP Euro pallet. The one below is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are scarred with half hammered-in nails, burn marks and splinters the size of spears. Gloves are essential unless you want to go back home looking like you’ve washed your hands in a meat grinder.

The pallet sits on a scissor lift order picker.

This too is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are car crashes. Scraped, banged, bashed, dented, half rusted and coated in congealed chicken sauce, jam, fruit juice and cheap amaretto.

As you might notice, the forks at the back are sharp and when fully raised are the perfect height to skewer the lower abdomen. I regularly have a horrible vision of watching my intestines spool out onto the cold warehouse floor after someone’s driven into me fork first. We’re told never to drive backwards for this very reason. But it’s difficult not to.

The skill to order picking (if there is one) is the ability to stack 100 or more cases on a pallet without it collapsing. There are many ways to do this, but only one right way. Unfortunately, I was never taught properly, so I’ve developed my style – the Ogley Stack. Which resembles the Acropolis in Athens: Exquisitely designed, beautiful to look at but prone to collapse. The slightest bump in the warehouse floor sends my twelve case high pallet of red wine crashing to the floor.

The resulting scene is one of a massacre. Something out of a 1950s mobster movie. And if the sun is shining in through one of the high windows, it can look quite poetic. Until the bosses charge over from their office pods to calculate how much I’ve cost the company this time. It’s, therefore, no coincidence I’ve ended up on the nappie and dog food aisle – The Unbreakables.

Apart from this, the job is pretty simple. It’s also phenomenally boring, repetitive and physical. But not physical in an active manner. As in climbing a mountain or building a wall. Physical in a repetitive manner. The heart never really gets going. It simply plods along, a few beats behind the body. Not exactly exercise, more strained movement.

We’re able to have a breather and a chat of course; we’re not in prison. But not for too long. We have targets, called pickrates:

  • 300 cases an hour.
  • Or 5 a minute.
  • Or 1 every 12 seconds

Take your pick. But whichever statistic you choose, it’s hard to manage. And after twelve weeks, I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I get nervous. This is when one of our bosses (there’s about 6) tell us our first pickrates of the day (the other one is at 11:00). Something I really look forward to!

‘Morning, Phil,’ one will say, clipboard in hand. The young bosses have big quiffs, short back and sides. The older ones slightly smaller quiffs. And like rings on a tree, I can tell their age by the severity and angle of their ski-jump hairdos.

‘Morning,’ I say, my uncombed curly locks hanging out of my headset like rogue shoots escaping out of a hanging basket.

‘190 today,’ he says. There’s a pause. A  dramatic pause that doesn’t need to be there because this is a shitty warehouse. We’re not at the theatre. We’re not reciting Pinter. But I know what he’s doing. He’s waiting for me to apologise and promise to work harder.

Instead, I say: ‘That’s good. Better than yesterday.’ 

This stumps him because he doesn’t have yesterday’s figures, so he can’t verify whether or not I’m telling the truth. So he says ‘good’ or ‘OK’ and drifts off to the next picker, who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing around the place most mornings.

The only person who has the figures is the section manager who comes once a week armed with a graph to discuss my progress. It’s a total waste of time because I don’t make any progress. The graph is flat. A solid single undulating line running Eastwards across the page.

‘You need to pick it up, Phil,’ he says. ‘It’s too low. We need to sort this out.’

I note the personal pronoun ‘We’ as though he’s going to jump up and lend a hand. In the event of this ever happening, I will write a redaction and an immediate apology in this post.

‘I’m trying my best,’ I say flatly. ‘I find it hard.’

‘All the others manage.’

‘Yes, but they’re all wired on energy drinks,’ I reply.

It’s meant as a joke, but I’m half serious because it’s true. Plus, most people here are twenty years younger than me. I want to tell him this but he might advise me to find another job, and at the moment, if I can keep my head down, this is fine.

‘I better get on,’ I say. ‘Otherwise, my pickrate is going to plummet.’

There’s nothing much he can say to this, and he leaves me, screwing up his colour graph and tossing it in the bin like a teenager who’s been given a crap mark for a presentation he spent hours preparing.

I think regularly of how many people we employ in the retail industry. This bank of human bone and muscle moving boxes from one place to another. Then placed on lorries and driven to a store. Unloaded again by more muscle. Unstacked and put on shelves. The process repeated thousands and thousands of times a day. Imagine if the order pickers went on strike. Then what? Bare shelves within days, most likely. Maybe even hours.

And those films I watched as a child. The ones set in the future where the work is done by machines and mankind is left to spend his time exploring space or simply doing nothing. Reading. Thinking. I believed in those films and how good it was going to be. And yet I find myself with 300 others at five o’clock on a Sunday morning (no double-time here) hauling dog food and nappies from one part of a giant warehouse to another. Where are the machines? The robots? Surely if they can build cars and go to the outer reaches of the Solar System, they can pick up a few boxes. It’s my 86th job since leaving school. In that time I’ve done some pretty soul-crushing menial jobs – data entry, building site labourer, plongeur, dust-binman, sales agent, teacher –  to name a few. But nothing as unfulfilling as being an order picker. Maybe I’m not cut out for this work. Perhaps my body’s not connected in the way others are. My bones and ligaments and tendons and muscles work perfectly when I’m walking. I can walk for miles and miles. Endlessly traipse around a city. Hike a hill. Walk a coastline. Or swim in the freezing cold sea in the middle of winter. No problem.

But if I’ve got to bend down and lift a heavy box in a repetitive sideways movement for hours on end, I’m pretty useless.

Standard
Commentary, Film

Why Your Fairtrade Organic Latte Isn’t Going To Save the Planet

A few nights ago my wife and I settled down to watch First Reformed with Ethan Hawke. I like Ethan Hawke – he seems honest and humble and his characters are (mostly) believable.

But this is not a film review. It’s a short article written in my head during the part in the movie where the environmental campaigner (Philip Ettinger) explains to the priest (Hawke) that he wants his girlfriend to have an abortion to avoid bringing another child into this world.

It’s a well-done scene and reminded me of a discussion I had with a close friend a few years ago. He asked me one night why I had never had children — he had three. I argued various points about it never being the right time, financial worries, my rather unstable life, difficulty in taking responsibility, blah blah. Until I finally admitted that my main reason was the environmental impact of having children.

My friend looked at me rather blankly. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

I wasn’t sure how to put it any clearer, so I said it again: ‘I don’t have kids because every child is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Get this: I recently read that one extra child produces 60 tonnes of carbon per year. If you go carless for a year, you save two. I mean the figures are astonishing! People go on about going green and recycling, without ever realising that the best thing you can do, is not have children.’

After my rant, my friend looked shocked. ‘Wow, I’d never thought of it like that.’

‘Most people don’t,’ I said. Then I apologised, saying that I loved his kids and that I wasn’t having a go at him personally, his wife or his family. It was just a personal decision. ‘And anyway,’ I smiled at him. ‘You asked the question.’

We went on to talk about other things, but I always remember the conversation and found it interesting to see this idea addressed in a film. True, the guy in the movie was asking for drastic action. An abortion! But the point was the same.

I once read a book by Raj Patel called The Value of Nothing. It was a good book, except the author (a Brit like myself) seemed to think having kids was fine and wasn’t a problem. I disagreed when I read the book, and I disagree now. Surely, this IS the problem.

His argument was that we could accommodate more children on the planet if we dispensed with our rapacious lifestyles. BUT, as I told my close friend later in our conversation that night, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. And how long do we have? Western Capitalism isn’t going to disappear overnight, and as the world’s middle-class expands, the problem will only get worse.

Most parents believe their child will grow up and do something amazing: like save the planet. But in reality, he or she, whatever they do, will simply keep on polluting it. Just by living

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

Of course, even I know that in order to keep the species going, we need children. But that’s not going to stop. For starters, teenagers will still get drunk on cheap cider and have sex in the park. The species is safe, so don’t worry!

And anyway, I like children: I value their spirit and curiosity, but maybe less is better. Because here’s the truth:

We can recycle our plastic bags, drink our organic fairtrade lattes, cycle to work, or even go vegan. And perhaps in the long term this ‘ecological dressing-up’ might work. But it’s going to take a long time. Time we probably don’t have. So what are we going to do about it?

Keep tweaking at the edges: a bit of this, a bit of that? Or fundamentally reduce the number of mouths we have to feed and the number of bodies we have to keep warm?

Standard
Observation

The Corona Borealis

If you look East tonight at around 11pm (UK time) you’ll see a semicircular arc known as Corona Borealis in between the large constellations of Hercules and Boötes.

I’ve become quite an avid stargazer recently and download a chart each month that shows me all the constellations and stars. I’ve become quite addicted in fact as I never knew there was so much up there. Some I knew like the Big Dipper and Orion, but most I’d never heard of. Including this small one, Corona Borealis.

When I was young I remember reading that the light from some stars takes so long to reach Earth, that by the time our eyes register it, the stars it came from don’t even exist anymore.

That blew my mind! It meant the universe was big. Very big. And when I look up at the sky now, I never forget that fact. It’s so immense, so utterly big, that even thinking about it makes my head hurt. And as you probe deeper and deeper, reading about the stars and clusters and galaxies, you realise how amazingly small we really are. Smaller than we think.

Which brings me back to Corona Borealis. I’ve read so much about the Corona virus over these last few weeks, that when I looked at my April star chart, the first thing my eyes picked up was the word “Corona”.

Corona, Corona, Corona. Once I knew it only as a beer. Now, it’s a virus and a constellation. What next?

I was planning to write a long sweeping piece on humankind’s folly. But I just don’t have it in me at the moment. Let’s face it, a lot has already been written on the subject; it’s unlikely I can add anything more.

Maybe the only thing I can advise is to look up at the stars tonight. See if you can see Corona Borealis. I mean what else are you going to do now the pubs are all shut…

Useful Links:

Corona Borealis info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Borealis

Sky Charts: http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html

Online Sky wheel: https://in-the-sky.org/skymap2.php

Standard