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.

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Audio, Observation

Always For Hire – A journey into the hidden depths of my CV

With little else to do, I started thinking about all the jobs I’d ever done. All those wasted hours moving objects from one place to another. Then moving them back again. The definition of work according to the dictionary.

I starting writing them down on a page of A4. Then I found two more sheets of paper to finish the job. The results were terrifying. They say a league table at the end of the football season doesn’t lie. Neither did my list of jobs. My CV. My resume – Call it what you want. What a mess! More like some mangled piece of computer code than an ordinary life. I mean, who wrote this stuff? Was it me?

I thought of my cousin Paul, who I grew up with in Leeds. He was older than me by four years, but we got on well. We had the same interests: football, cricket, subuteo, and Madness. And so I naturally assumed that when we grew up, we would end up doing the same things in life. More or less.

How wrong I was.

Since those Sherbet Dip and orangeade days of the early 1980s, I’ve had over 60 jobs and even more addresses. My cousin Paul on the other hand has had the same job since he was sixteen and still lives with my aunt and uncle on the same road we used to play out on as kids.

Sometimes I think he got the better deal. Because the problem is, I’ve never really liked any of my jobs. I don’t know what it is, but a wave of indifference spreads over me as soon as I enter the factory gates or walk through the office door. Causing me to hand in my resignation within a few months. Or simply wait to get fired, so at least I can say it wasn’t my fault.

The few jobs I have liked are the ones where I’ve been left — totally and utterly — to do my work without some dick breathing down my neck. Which I have to say is very rare.

There’s only been one job that has ever come close to fulfilling this criteria. Do you remember the census of 2011? Probably not. Anyway, I worked as a census collector gathering information from households that had been missed off on the original lists. The work was pretty boring, but I had no boss, just an automated system that I emailed my results to each evening. And if I didn’t get any results on any given day, it didn’t seem to matter; I got paid all the same. It was fantastic and a great shame they only do it once every ten years.

This was in stark contrast to working as an order picker at Aldi in 2018. Here I had three different bosses telling me every morning at around eight-thirty the same information over and over again. If you’ve ever watched the film Office Space with those ‘TPS report cover sheets’, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Needless to say, I didn’t last long in that job either. Three months, I think; another entry on my already bloated CV. A CV I must add that I’m actually rather proud of. It’s rich and varied. It illuminates my personality, shows off my character and my abilities as a human being, not as a machine.

Naturally, I would never consider sending it out as it stands. God, no! — I’m not stupid! If I sent this CV out, it’d look like I’m auditioning for a part in the circus. I mean, who in their right mind would hire someone who has worked as a bookseller, a barman, a driver, a chef, and a Christmas tree seller in the same year? No-one. Which is why I stopped bothering with CVs years ago – and generally find a well written, persuasive email or letter is far more effective.

It’s been a good project though, writing them all out. Seeing my entire adult life drift past my eyes as I commit one job after another to paper. It might even become the basis for a book. Now I’ve got the framework in place – the scaffolding. Now all I need to do is build the walls and hang the windows. Fill in the gaps. And believe me, there are a lot of gaps.

The Bloated Badly Coded CV of Philip Ogley, Aged 45
July—Aug 1990: John Smedley Ltd — Labourer
July—Aug 1991: John Smedley Ltd — Warehouseman
July—Aug 1992: Chesterfield Council — Dustbin man
April—Aug 1993: MAFF, Mansfield — Field researcher
April—Aug 1994: INRA, Cavaillon, France — Field researcher
April—Aug 1995: Zeneca, Bracknell — Field researcher (barley)
Sept 1996 — March 1997: Students Union, Nottingham — Cook
July 1997 — Aug 1998: Boulevard Sound, Nottingham — S/engineer
July-Aug 1998 Perth, Australia. Charity fund raiser.
Nov 1998 : Mission beach hostel, Australia — Hostel hand
Nov—Dec 1999: Hockley Organic Restaurant, Nottingham — chef
Aug 2000: Nottingham Language Centre, Nottingham  — teacher
Sept—Oct 2000: Papa Language school, Trikala, Greece — EFL
Oct 2000—June 2001: Cambridge School of English, Warsaw — EFL
July 2001: Nottingham Language Centre, Nottingham — teacher
Sept 2001—Jan 2002: Centro de Lenguas, Granada, Spain — EFL
Feb—May 2002: BRNC, Dartmouth, Devon — EFL Teacher
May—July 2002: Southgate Hotel, Exeter — Barman
Aug 2002—Aug 2003: Globe English School, Exeter — EFL Teacher
Feb—April 2004: Devon County Council, Exeter — Data Entry 
April—Sept 2004: Pavani’s Italian, Exeter — Sous chef
Sept—Nov 2004: La Vega, Venezuela — Field Researcher
Dec 2004—May 2005: Cafe Rouge, Exeter — Waiter
May-Aug 2005 Zizzis, Exeter. Drinks Man.
Aug 2005: Pizza Express, Exeter — Waiter
Aug 2006: Bristol City Council — Telephone Clerk
Sept-Oct: Ff Solicitor, Bristol. Post room clerk.
Oct—Nov 2006: Bristol Novelty, Bristol — Warehouse picker
Jan—May 2007: The Bristol Advertiser, Bristol — Editor
Aug 2007—Aug 2008: The Royal Mail, Bristol — Postman
Oct 2008—Sept 2009: The Bristol Flyer, Bristol — Barman
Jan 2010:The Golden Lion, Bristol — Barman
Feb—April 2010: The Mighty Miniature, Bristol — Bookseller
May—Sept 2010: Gibbs Catering, Bristol — Driver and chef
Nov—Dec 2010: Haines' Trees, Bristol — Christmas tree seller
August 2011 - Capita, Bristol - Census Collector
March—July 2011: Communicaid, Bristol — EFL Teacher
Sept 2011—June 2012: Linguarama, Lyon, France — EFL Teacher
July 2012—August 2012: IFIS, Bristol — EFL Teacher
Sept 2012—July 2013: Linguarama, Lyon — EFL Teacher
Sept 2013—Oct 2014: La Jouachere, Queaux, France — Caretaker
March 2015: Cetradel, Bordeaux — EFL Teacher
Jan — May 2015: Villa Tosca, Taussat, France — Pool boy
June 2015 — Sept 2015: Linguarama, Bath — EFL Teacher
Oct 2015: OTP, Marrakesh, Morocco — EFL teacher
Nov 2015 — April 2016: Chateau Dumas, France — Caretaker
April 2016 — October 2016: Holiday Rep, Souillac, Dordogne
Oct 2016 — Dec 2016: Kokopelli Camping, Italy — Nightwatchman
Jan 2017 — May 2017: Chateau Dumas (again), Caretaker
June 2017 — Sept 2017: Bicycle Courier, Copenhagen
Oct 2017 — Jan 2018: Aldi, Order Picker. Liverpool
May 2018–Sept 2018: Chateau Dumas (again) — Caretaker
Dec 2018 — May 2019: Real Food Kitchen, chef, Liverpool
June 2019 — Present: Farm Hand, Mesnil-Germain, France.

Further Listening and Reading

Listen to other podcasts here.

Listen to audio stories here

Read about my Aldi job: The Soulless Emptiness of a Warehouse Order Picker here

Or read my novel here.

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Feature, UK

Why I Can’t Talk About Money (Ever!)

(Image/Josh Appel/Unsplash)
During my early thirties, I made the stupid mistake of completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing. I thought I was doing myself a favour, instead I just got into debt.

After I’d finished, I started writing small ads for a local newspaper in Bristol while the bills mounted up. I occasionally changed jobs, but my wages couldn’t keep up with the payments, so I filed for bankruptcy. Then my father found out.

‘Why didn’t you ask?’ he inquired. ‘I could have helped.’ He wasn’t rich, but generous enough to help out when someone in the family needed it.

‘Because I can’t talk about money, Dad.’

Still can’t.

Only last week during a job interview, I couldn’t get round to talking about money. And because my prospective boss didn’t mention it either, the matter seemed closed.

When I got back home and my wife asked me about wages, I just stood there like a dummy. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘I didn’t ask. The minimum I guess.’

This wasn’t the first time. Years ago, I’d worked for a guy selling Christmas trees. And yet three weeks into the job, I still didn’t know how much I was getting paid for standing around in a freezing cold car park selling half-dead conifers.

As time passed, I became more terrified. Each morning I wanted to ask, but as soon as I saw him thumping about the yard like a bulldog with his equally terrifying son, the fear overtook me, and I got on with the job.

I mean, who does this? What loser works for three weeks without knowing how much he’s getting paid? True, my boss was a fierce bastard you wouldn’t want to be up against in a bar brawl — unless you wanted your arms and legs broken. But was I always going to be the coward hiding under the table?

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around (it’s amazing the number of trees sold on the 24th), I still hadn’t asked, and the matter was only resolved when he palmed me a nice roll of twenties. ‘Bet you thought I wasn’t going to pay you, eh?’ he ribbed me.

‘Ha! Not at all,’ I laughed it off, practically fainting from exhaustion and mental fatigue.

When I recovered and started looking for another job after New Year, I vowed never to let the same situation happen again. And yet here I was, almost ten years later, doing exactly the same thing. Attaching no more worth to myself than a man walking up the thirteen steps to the gallows. Even killers had a price on their head — I didn’t even have that.

I had to fix this situation. The thought of starting another job with this kind of uncertainty would kill me — I may as well start knotting the noose myself. Which was why I was standing outside my new employer’s office the following morning knocking on his door.

‘Come in,’ came his reply.

I waited a few seconds, then walked in. He was at his desk, looking straight at me as though he’d been waiting for me all night. I hadn’t slept a wink either due to the worry, so I told him why I was here.

My boss eyeballed me. ‘I’m sorry, didn’t I mention it? It’s the minimum hourly rate. Is that OK?’

I was about to say, ‘That’s fine.’ When a thought opened up in my mind. Was I meant to wrangle here? Was this what normal people did? Negotiate?

On the few occasions I’d bought something at a private sale, the vendors had always looked shocked when I’d paid the asking price. I once bought a van for 900 quid. It was a total wreck. I knew it, the seller knew it, everyone in the entire world knew it. But I paid the owner anyway. Four months later, I sold it for scrap.

‘Could we go for twelve?’ I asked my boss. I was sweating now, this was new territory for me.

‘I could do ten fifty,’ he proposed.

I breathed in. ‘Eleven.’

The boss paused, then shrugged, then pretended to look at some data or chart on his desk, which I saw was actually a blank sheet of paper. ‘OK. Fair enough. See you Monday.’

As I walked home, I felt elated, my pride restored. For once I wasn’t walking into a job with a rope around my neck. And even though I’d only negotiated £1 more, it felt like a million. As though all my numbers had come in at once. I’d overcome something big. Some error in my programming that I’d been carrying around with me for years, had been miraculously rectified. Just like that. Just by being bold.

I’d even enjoyed it and was secretly looking forward to the next interview. Which, if my past job record was anything to go by, wouldn’t be too far away. What would I say? Something like this perhaps:

‘Hi, thanks for inviting me in for the interview. Look, I don’t want to be rude, but before we start, can we please talk about money.’


My novel Le Glitch - a story about getting lost - is out now! Click here for details

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