Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Clearing the decks

So here I am manning the phones for Clearing. It literally is a call centre and takes me back to the days when I worked the night shift at Transco.

It's important work, but very, very, very boring, though leavened by colleagues' humour and support. And it's nice to change an applicant's life in the course of a short phone call. When, that is, I manage to operate the fiendishly complicated telephone system. I've already lost the university a string of AAA students by cutting them off. Now they'll slum it at some Oxbridge dive and miss out on all the opportunities we afforded them. 

But stuck in this place, there's very little about which to blog, and the all the news stories, especially Snowden, Miranda and the Guardian, are so obvious that I need hardly add anything. So I thought I'd regale you with the story of those months at Transco, months which gave me enough insight to working life to know that I'd do anything to stay in academia.

Let me take you back in time to the heady days of 1996. There I was, clutching a shockingly (to me, friends and family) good English degree and no clue whatsoever about what to do next. Obviously I'd given not the slightest thought to a career, unlike friends who spent their final years securing their futures. Eventually my alma mater suggested I do an MA at their expense and I had a year to reinflate my bank account. Which lead me down to a shady agency to do a typing test. 

Before long I was the newest, keenest Data Entry clerk on Transco's night shift. A mere 14 mile bike ride took me to a bleak trading estate in the bowels of Stoke on Trent, along with several hundred denizens of the night ready to enter data like daemons between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. for the princely sum of £3.12 per hour. One on of the first nights, some kind passer-by took the time to cut my brake cables, a discovery I made on a fairly steep hill in the rain.

I'm ashamed to admit that I was now a cog in the wheel of utilities privatisation. Our job was to clean up British Gas's addresses database so that new private companies could start making fraudulent cold calls to unsuspecting victims. At least, that's how we all saw it. No doubt they thought they were 'adding value in the marketplace' or something similar. 

The routine was awful. When there was work, it consisted of checking house addresses across three databases then generating a correct one. Anything more than one letter out and we had to call a manager. Anyone who made five mistakes in a week was fired. Yet at the same time, anyone who completed fewer than 50 addresses per hour was also fired. each week the target was raised and someone else would be publicly fired pour encourager les autres. Now and then managers would take another tack and hand out bottles of Kwik-Save perry to the employee of the week, or give us chocolate bars in the hope that the sugar would make us work harder. Yes, just like feeding the animals in the zoo. The result of the contradictory demands for speed and accuracy was that we'd simply cheat. So if you're wondering why you've never had a gas bill or they won't come out to your house, I can only apologise.

We weren't allowed to speak to each other even if there wasn't any work to do, so entire shifts were passed in silent inactivity: picking up a book was a disciplinary offence, as was spending longer than 3 minutes in the lavatory. Actually, anything more proactive than light breathing appeared to be a disciplinary offence.

As well as the weekday night shift, I did a full day on Saturdays. This was relatively enjoyable because the lunch break was taken (against the rules) in the breeze-block pub across the road. It was a shell seemingly bereft of electricity, hope and cheer, yet we made it our own, necking as much beer as we possibly could in the allotted 25 minutes, while I gather that some people even went so far as to inhale illicit herbal substances in a bid to lessen the pain. 

Workplace resistance wasn't restricted to mild sensory alteration either. Obviously I never did anything naughty, but it was a general view that deleting your family's and friends' addresses would save them a lot of bother in the future. Then one electric evening all the female drones were called in for a private meeting. Half an hour later, they were back, laughing fit to burst. Apparently some employees had been snorting coke in the female lavatories, my very first encounter with the devil's powder. We men were shocked. Shocked that they could afford it and that they hadn't shared. Even more shocking was the second offence. Taking particular umbrage at one male manager's sexism and boorishness, some colleagues had taken to disposing of their sanitary wear... in his desk drawer. Pretty revolting but rather effective. 

On the whole, it was a degrading a depressing place to work, though the other workers made it bearable. Nothing demonstrated the contempt management had for us more than its end. Nobody told us the work was done. We came in one night and sat there in silence for 6 hours, which wasn't out of the ordinary. Then at 3.30 a manager stood up and shouted that we shouldn't come back the next day or indeed ever. He explained that we'd be paid for this last shift but they couldn't tell us at the start of the evening in case we sabotaged the system.  

And so ended my career in the exciting world of IT systems. I've had bad jobs since (I'll tell you tales of supply teaching another time), but Transco certainly reinforced my previously only theoretical socialism. And persuaded me to retreat to the comparative safety (then) of the education system. I may not have been a miner or sold burgers but it was enough to give me an insight into the misery and insecurity of the zero-hours, low-pay economy in which my students live as though it's normal, the poor sods. 

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