BLUE-COLLAR EMPLOYMENT

Readers of the below Open Plan Offices item may say that’s all very well but what about say factory-workers when it comes to working conditions. That’s a tougher call but if I owned a factory-based business I couldn’t help myself and would try and come up with ideas to enhance the working environment, and I know what I’m talking about.

I say that as I estimate I’ve owned over 1000 industrial buildings since I bought my first in Lower Hutt back in 1962. Over the subsequent years I’ve owned industrial buildings across New Zealand but by far the most in Sydney.

Back in the 1970s I was a regular visitor to Sydney, partly because of my deep involvement in professional boxing there but also as my company was big in the Sydney industrial building market.

Our industrial building manager there, Andy, would call and tell me about his latest find and I’d come over, not to check it out as that was unnecessary, Andy knowing his job.  Rather, and especially if it was a manufacturing plant, because I wanted to see the operation.

Remember this was the 1970s before the 1980s revolution which ended protectionism in favour of world-trade and introduced the market-economy. Thus back then local manufacturing was huge with little imported competition.

The factory managers would be delighted when we expressed interest in seeing their operations for as they always said, nobody else was interested. Such activities then were treated with snobbish disdain.

We often witnessed some positively Hogarthian scenes, of workers, usually migrants, stripped to the waist in broiling heat working with furnaces, of mindlessly tedious repetitive work and lacking today’s equipment, of physically demanding toil.

Back then the factories’ offices mostly comprised simply partitioning off a front segment of the factory floor and were to say the least, fairly grim.

Here was our opportunity as we began what we jokingly called our chandelier policy. The factory would be steam-cleaned, its girders painted, the concrete floor sanded until it looked brand new inside and out.

The key was the offices. It was revolutionary at the time but we built prime office tower quality premises. Whether an owner or a manager, whoever would make the decision to lease it from us would be the person sitting in those offices, thus they were quickly snapped up.

But what of the workers’ conditions? Writer Alan Duff once told me of an experience which said it all. He’d arranged to have a day’s fishing with a mate who owned a factory business employing about 40 workers. Alan was to meet him there at 8am the next morning after he’d opened the factory. In fact Alan arrived 15 minutes early. There he found the factory doors open and about 20 workers standing outside in the cold. “What’s up?”, he asked. To his astonishment they said “It’s not 8 o’clock yet”. Plainly there was no company spirit of common purpose with that lot, doubtless a reflection of their grim conditions.

Our staff occasionally work on their own volition if under temporary pressure, into the night and sometimes even weekends. It goes with the territory of excellent conditions and salary.

These days most industrial buildings are warehouses but there’s still plenty of factories such as joiners, panel-beaters and manufacturers. If I owned such a business I’d have the thinking cap on imagining ways of enhancing their conditions and working life. Mind you, that may be supreme optimism. I say that as in my teens I worked in numerous factories and hated every second. Three incidents stand out.

Once when about 17 I was employed in the Petone Coca-Cola factory. I sat in a comfortable seat alongside a chap in his early 20s, he sprawled in an armchair as before us on a moving chain passed the freshly washed bottles. Lit up brightly from behind our job was to pick out any bottle still dirty. It was mind-numbingly tedious but my abiding memory is my co-worker telling me that he felt he had the best job in the world, just sitting there all day.

Three decades later I had an identical experience in Sydney. In the CBD are four lovely Victorian buildings, all listed, known in architectural circles as the Town Hall set. They comprise the Town Hall, the cathedral, the huge Queen Victoria centre of several levels of shops over the subterranean railway station, and the fourth, a beautiful but then appallingly run down, abandoned six level building. It came on the market and to the dismay of my Sydney staff I said let’s buy it and restore it for fun. And so we did, producing a magnificent end result. It was formally opened by Mike Moore 18 months later at a large celebrity-laced function. In fact it won the builder, the annual NSW Building Industry’s award and the architect the best restoration award from the NSW Architect’s Association. They went further and commissioned an architectural historian to produce a splendid hard cover book on its history which at least gave me a half page acknowledgement. But here’s the point. As the work neared completion I suggested to some of our chaps we have a look. So we did and took the lift to the top. In the lift, sprawled on an armchair was a fellow in his early 20s employed solely to push the lift buttons. This was a consequence of the notoriously corrupt Australian building unions who argued plasterers were there to plaster, painters to paint etc and they should not be expected to have to push a lift button.

And lo and behold it was dejavu to my Coca-Cola experience all those years ago as this fellow told me he had the best job in the world, sprawled in an armchair and periodically pushing a button.

So do factory workers want interesting work? Well not according to the late Sir John Todd, the son of the founder of our largest car assembler Todd Motors, back when most cars were assembled in New Zealand.

Once at a dinner party at John’s home I mentioned to him that I’d had a stint in my teens in their huge Petone factory and (I was the cars back window inserter) spoke of its mind-numbing tedium.

John said that after university he as the heir to the business started in the offices there. On inspection of the factory he was shocked at the grinding boredom of the work. So he put his mind to it and came up with an answer, this being duly presented to the assembled hundreds of workers one afternoon.

The essence of it was to make their work more stimulating. While this would cause a hiccup in the assembly line flow while everyone mastered new skills, henceforth they would all do a different job, changing each week.

The result was outrage; the union came in and threatened a strike if the workers were going to have to think, thinking they argued, not being part of their duties, so John gave up and left them to their treasured mindlessness.

So for all of my optimism I doubt much has changed and the so-called working classes doing dull unchallenging work probably like their jobs for that reason.

 

 

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