Inadvertently becoming a key worker: a memoire piece on working in a sorting warehouse while COVID-19 spread through the UK.
By John Ogundele
2020 has like Harry Potter been marked since birth. Harry, however, had an arc that was crowned with the realisation of his greatness. 2020 remains, it seems, cursed. In January, wildfires engulfed huge swathes of Australia, tensions between the US and Iran threatened to overwhelm the globe, and Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna lost their lives in a helicopter crash, not to mention the global pandemic.
In hindsight, 2020 started as it meant to go on, inflicting pain and fear in equal measure on our hearts. Just over four months later, May has seen Black people around the world take to the streets to demand that society recognise and be reorganised to reflect the fact that Black Lives Matter. That they have done so in the middle of a global pandemic seems only fitting given this year’s very unfortunate series of events.
It was this very pandemic, sparked by the onset of the novel coronavirus, that provided the backdrop for what may be my most surreal working experience to date. With the nation in lockdown, virtually all businesses had shut up shop. Part-time jobs became few and far between. Rent payment was the only thing I could anticipate with certainty in such unpredictable times.
It’s understandable then that I leapt at the chance of a modest income as a Sortation Associate in a package delivery warehouse. Inadvertently, I had fallen into the bracket of Essential Workers. But with a slight caveat, I would not be saving lives, but the lifestyles of mass consumption we’ve become accustomed to.
Aside from an odd corporate internship, I’ve spent much of my working life on the retail shop floor. The inside of a warehouse was nothing short of a culture shock. For one, it was a veritable babel where I picked out Spanish, Polish, and Urdu, all in one shift. More importantly, customers were nowhere to be seen. I had never considered more clearly until then the role customers played in restraining workers.
Profanity flew across the warehouse floor unhindered and Associates bore the full brunt of a dressing down by a Manager or Supervisor. A pecking order established by the orange hi-vis vests of the foot soldiers and the yellow of those who gave the orders. As foot soldiers we were replaceable. On more than one occasion I had seen someone fired on the spot. I watched from a safe distance as they handled their final few packages and surrendered their badge.
Social distancing measures implemented in response to COVID-19 served only to add another layer to the surreality. A temperature checker and a few hand sanitiser bottles to the side of the entrance together formed the first, and only, line of defence. I have distinct memories of having to step aside to ‘warm up’ for some minutes after being a few tenths below the required temperature.
Ultimately, on a warehouse floor with close to a 100 workers, social distancing was close to impossible. All workers were required to be two metres apart. Not infrequently, you would have to make Messi-like manoeuvres to keep the appropriate distance. Social Distancing Ambassadors, along with Supervisors, policed the two-metre rule much without the diplomacy and tact their title suggested.
Work itself was in equal parts monotonous and draining. In response, I found myself getting attached to seemingly trivial details. I preferred for, for example, finger scanners with one as opposed to three dots on the scanning button. Equally, I would always opt for the devices that required the leather, not cloth, straps. Among those in the know, these choices were like deciding whether milk goes before or after you pour your cereal (after unless you’re a serial killer). More puzzling still, was finding that not all tedious tasks were created equal. There was just something about stacking 32 bags in an empty aisle that was more satisfying than say loading overflow packages onto a cart.
What was incredibly difficult to ignore was how powerful profit was as the driving force of the operation. There were targets aplenty for the various stages that 90,000 packages passed through daily. ‘Staging’, in which all items for a delivery route were collected, must take place in 20 minutes per route. That meant whilst navigating the maze of the warehouse floor, you have to load carts with around 20 large packages and 15 bags filled with 15kg of smaller packages in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Rick and Morty.
This was never more evident than when I was handed a document that explained new guidelines for staging. We were asked to arrange bags and parcels in such a way as to prevent the company from ‘losing ££££s’ (verbatim quote).
As lockdown progressed and the prospect of its easing emerged, the pressure to make money intensified and safety fell by the wayside. To aid social distancing, the sections of aisles closest to conveyor belts had been emptied of bags. These sections gradually became populated with bags encroaching on the two metres between those working the aisles and the conveyor belts.
It was interesting to see that not everyone approached their work with my level of cynicism. A few took their responsibilities so seriously that you’d think they answered to the CEO himself. I was once pulled aside by a colleague who told me in no uncertain terms that my ‘strolling’ (see: my normal walking pace) was unacceptable. Others wore their ability to complete certain tasks under arduous conditions as a badge of honour. How many parcels they could sort in an hour or how quickly they could fold and load metal trolleys onto a lorry.
Considering this, I realised being apathetic towards or invested in the work of the warehouse was simply a question of mindset. I never pictured myself lacing up safety boots for the rest of my working life. Instead, I hope to slip into brogues or if I’m lucky a pair of white Air Force 1s. To me, being a Sortation Associate was a layover. Others I realised were in it for the long haul. I wondered if weekly pay had anything to do with what seemed a classic case of Stockholm syndrome. Or perhaps work, however demanding, had woven itself into the fabric of their lives, part of its gentle rhythm. Nonetheless, I dedicated myself to learning how to ‘double scan’ – a tricky but not mandatory manoeuvre that required speed and timing – with a handheld scanner and label printer.
My time in this warehouse has given me a first-hand experience of what the ‘new normal’ of work will be, at least for the foreseeable future. Of how public health and private profit will have to reach a compromise. I’ve also come to understand that no matter how ill-equipped capitalism is to handle a global pandemic, it will roll on regardless. Thus, the gap between clicking ‘confirm purchase’ online and collecting a parcel at your doorstep will continue to be bridged by the hard work of strangers we may never meet.