(The image is a screen shot from Mary Poppins of Bert the chimney sweep.)
Mary Poppins said ‘In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the job and SNAP! the job’s a game.’ I agree, but it can be hard to find the fun in a job that you’re really bad at.
I feel sorry for people who are bad at their jobs. Waiters who get orders wrong, accountants who can’t count, receptionists who lose bits of paper. I have totally been there.
A lot of the time, I’ve been able to tell myself that it doesn’t really matter, that it’s just a temporary, menial job and not a reflection of my true value. But in the moment, when it takes me 15 minutes to slice prosciutto in a deli, or when I give someone the wrong cat to take home at a cattery, or when I try to charge someone $17.60 for two bananas and a bread roll in a supermarket, or when I simply can’t clean hotel rooms in under 28 minutes per room, I find it hard to keep perspective. In those moments my own incompetence is demoralising and depending on the reaction of other people, hurtful. When someone rolls their eyes at me, makes a horse-snorty noise or starts tapping on a counter my embarrassment is made even worse when I know they’re right. I am bad at my job.
I was bad at being a bacon factory worker. As I’ve already discussed I found many of the factory processes incomprehensible and I was often confused about what I was supposed to be doing. This could be very frustrating for my co-workers.
An example from my diary:
Day 11: Monday 11 December
Not a good one.
Pam: “Oi! You don’t just let meat fall off the belt!”
Me: Apologise as humbly as possible and try to remember her seniority and respect her experience.
Quite hellish actually.
Not everyone at the Pig was like that. For example, Bruce used to be a beekeper until the drought of ’93 killed all his bees, and he came to work at the bacon factory. He said he didn’t mind the work, and said at least the job was stress free. I decided that Bruce was very zen (even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant). I saw Bruce as a role model for calm acceptance of factory life.
One day I was working with Bruce and Pam on a slicer. I tried to help Pam push a trolley to the chiller. It was a disaster and she screamed at me. The next time we filled up a trolley the same thing happened. Meanwhile, Bruce’s eyes were twinkling above his beard net. I think he was mildly amused. When I returned to the slicer, in the laconic understatement of the early noughties he said, ‘Is Pam a bit angry with you?’ Later, I asked if he would swap jobs with me, so I wouldn’t have to work with Pam, and he agreed. He was a nice man.
Pam often raged at me about bacon related issues. I could not understand why she cared so much. It was only picking up bacon and putting it back down again, after all. I hated being bad at it, but I also couldn’t understand how she could care enough to scream about it.
I’m not condoning workplace bullying but I now have a different perspective on the situation. Pam worked in the bacon room year in year out. She was a good bacon factory worker, she took pride in her work. Every summer students like me came along, and for two months earned more than she did on casual rates. We were crap at the job and she had to pick up the slack. I’m sure we also acted like the work was unimportant and beneath us.
At the time, I thought Bruce was a paragon of virtue and Pam was hysterical, but now I see they had different strategies to deal with the drudgery of the work. Bruce stayed calm and meditated (for all I know he was actually planning a homicidal rampage, but I imagined he was thinking of a flowing river). Pam took pride in her work and became a bit obsessive about it.
Now that I’ve found work to do that I’m not completely terrible at, I’m a lot more like Pam than Bruce. When I returned to work after having my first child someone said to me, ‘Does your job seem a lot less important now?’ The answer was no. When I was on maternity leave I didn’t think much about the office but once I was back, I cared.
I care about the things that I spend my time on, not just the fun bits. My life is not just larks on holidays with my friends and family, or my hobbies or my writing. My life is also the Annual Report Disclosure Index, the washing, and creating a family medical appointments spreadsheet. Sometimes at work I’m given a task that at first seem unspeakably dull but once I start work on it I find I’m fascinated and develop strongly held opinions.
Of course, I try to keep a better sense of proportion than Pam did, and not to shout, but nothing I spend my time on is likely to be completely stress-free, and that’s not a bad thing. For me, the stress is the element of fun. SNAP! The job’s a game.
Next time at the Pig: Socialism and the revolution
Diary 30 November 2000
Today while working quite efficiently in my own quiet way on the Tiromat Brian told me that my bacon flipping technique went against company training. “What is the point,” he said to me “Of training you if you only do it your own way?” I actually found my way easier but I can see I am now marked out as a dangerous dissident.
I remember this day very clearly. The big boss Brian came over to me while I was working on the Tiromat and showed me how to load the bacon in the ‘correct way’. This was unusual as the bosses didn’t usually put gloves on and pick up bacon. I tried Brian’s correct way, decided it wasn’t as good as my way. Brian was incandescent and I couldn’t understand why. (In retrospect, Brian was just trying to prevent me getting RSI.)
I didn’t realise the impact of this incident on my reputation in the bacon room until weeks later.
It was through my nearly friend Damian that I gained some insight into what was going on. Damian and I had been to school together and we had lots of mutual friends. He’d been working in the bacon room for two years, so he was very experienced and knowledgeable. He was very nice to me. At lunch times and smoko we gossiped about school people and Damian spoke a lot about which of my friends he’d had a crush on (almost all of them!) He told me details of his breakups and who he found attractive. This kind of chat helped pass the time and I was grateful for it.
One day after I’d been at the factory for about a week, Damian and I found ourselves working on the Multivac together. The Multivac was one of the few genuinely fast-paced packing machines in the bacon room. I wasn’t usually allowed on the Multivac because I was too slow, but on this day Damian and I were covering the lunch shift. We were working at the packing end of the machine, boxing up the packets.
I found the Multivac intense and needed all my concentration but Damian kept up a steady interrogation. He asked me how many boyfriends I’d had, and then how many guys I’d kissed, and then how many people I’d slept with. I told him I didn’t want to say. I tried to change the topic back to which of my friends he thought were hot (I knew it was almost all of them!) But he was having none of it.
I didn’t want to answer Damian’s questions because I hadn’t had any boyfriends and I was ashamed. I thought there was something wrong with me. When people made jokes about sex I laughed but I feared that someone would call me out and say ‘Why are you laughing? You don’t really understand’.
Damian would not stop asking me questions, and it was definitely affecting my work performance on the Multivac so eventually I said, ‘If you don’t shut-up, I’m going to report you for sexual harassment’. At that moment Damian started swearing and rapidly pulling packets out of the Multivac. The machine had backed up because I hadn’t been clearing the packets fast enough.
Damian spent the rest of the lunch shift in a stormy silence, trying to fix the Multivac. After that, he stopped speaking to me. A week later he broke his silence when I asked him what was wrong. In a furious voice he told me he was not happy about being threatened with a report of sexual harassment. He was looking after his reputation by not speaking to me. He told me that he had been so nice to me, sticking up for me when other people in the bacon room were ‘saying things about me’. He wanted to tell me what they were saying but I told him not to. I was terrified of knowing. I assumed it was something like,’Penny’s an ugly, stuck up bitch who is bad at bacon’.
I hadn’t really been planning to report Damian for sexual harassment, I just wanted him to shut-up. If I was going to report someone for harassment at the Pig, there were more worthy candidates.
Women outnumbered men in the bacon room by about three to one. Rather than giving women more control it seemed to elevate the status of the few men who were working there. Some of them were very nice. Some of them were very gropey. Unfortunately, there was an overlap between those two groups.
Kev was a jolly fatherly figure who had worked in the bacon room for twenty years and knew everything. He called me Pen, and I didn’t mind. He never yelled at me. He explained bacon carefully and didn’t get cross when I made mistakes. Unfortunately, most of the time when he was speaking to me he stood behind me with his hands on my waist.
When Kev touched me I had a strong instinct to kick. But I didn’t. I also never said anything to him, or complained to anyone else.
Why? Because I knew I was unpopular and that my co-workers had been ‘saying things’ about me. Kev, on the other hand, was well-liked and respected. I saw him do the same thing to other women in the bacon room and no-one else complained. I didn’t want to be the one to make a fuss and I feared what the reaction would be. I imagined people saying, ‘He was just trying to be nice, nobody wants to touch you’. I imagined them saying worse things.
So I just put up with it and fumed to myself. Kev wasn’t the only one, and some of the men were worse. One example from my diary: ‘Camran touched me inappropriately. If he tries that again I will say something to him.’ I was always planning to say something. Next time, and definitely to someone unpopular like Camran, not to Kev.
In my last week at the Pig Damian started talking to me again. I don’t know why he thawed, but I’d started poking my tongue out at him every time he gave me an icy stare and I think that helped.
We worked together on a slicing machine and had a good chance to talk. After chatting for awhile about one of Damian’s messy breakups he confessed he’d been planning to ask me out that fateful day on the Multivac when it all went terribly wrong. That’s why he was so very offended when I said I’d report him for sexual harassment, it had felt like a particularly harsh a rejection. Apparently he’d nearly broken his hand when he tried to fix the Multivac, because I’d been working too slow, which is why he’d started swearing.
I was immensely flattered and felt terrible for the misunderstanding. I apologised for any offence caused. I apologised for being crap on the Multivac. He forgave me, bless his heart. (Of course, Damian did sexually harass me. Continuing to ask personal questions after someone has asked you to stop is pretty clear cut. Also, I didn’t make him put his hand inside the working machine to pull out the backed up packets. That was his own stupid decision.)
During this open and frank conversation, which was held in between feeding huge slabs of bacon into the slicer, I was finally brave enough to ask Damian what he’d meant when he said ‘people are saying things about you’. It turned out that my co-workers had been shocked and outraged after I told the big boss Brian I didn’t care for his bacon flipping technique. It had nothing to do with me being ugly, only a little bit about me being stuck-up, and they weren’t even saying I was bad at bacon!
Years later I told a manager in a workplace that I’d prefer if he didn’t refer to us as ‘girls’. He never did it again, and it seemed so simple, but it actually isn’t. Even tackling a slightly sexist comment in a very supportive public service work environment was difficult for me. I don’t know what would have happened had I complained at the Pig, but I am virtually certain it would have been very unpleasant for me. We’ll never know what people would have said.
Next time at the Pig: Professionalism and why I was always getting shouted at
Today was induction day at the bacon factory…I still feel I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do. Quite nervous.
I pulled into the bacon factory car park on my first day filled dread and sick with nerves and anticipation, but that was pretty normal for me.
The first thing I heard when I opened my car door was the squealing of pigs. Pigs who knew they were going to die. I didn’t pause to examine the horror of this because I was running late for my first shift in the bacon room and was panicking like I was the one about to be killed and chopped into little pieces.
I changed in the ladies locker truck, washed my hands, put on a hairnet then walked into the bacon room. It was a vast shed housing complicated interconnected silver machines and conveyor belts. The workers looked like identical oompaloompas in white coats and overalls, green boots and blue hairnets. Silver ventilation tubes crossed the high ceiling and the lights were fluorescent. The room felt like a fridge and smelled damp and meaty. In short, it was exactly like a factory on the news except there was no visiting politician in an orange safety vest wandering around patronising people.
I wished I had a job doing filing in an office. But I was wearing gumboots for a reason, and that reason was splatter.
The first task I was assigned to was picking up bacon and putting it back down again on Slicer 2.
I’d always assumed that factory work would be extremely fast paced and busy, that the work would be monotonous but require manual skill and dexterity. I had neither of those attributes so was quite worried. In fact, the pace on Slicer 2 was manageable and I spent a lot of time staring at the conveyor belt, waiting for more bacon to appear.
Unfortunately, the relatively gentle pace did not mean I was competent.
I learn well by reading a textbook and then doing practise questions with answers in the back of the book. For hands-on activities like assembling a tent or making an icing piping bag I need to practise myself and have a manual or YouTube instructional video to refer to. I do not learn well just by observing other people complete the task. I need specific and comprehensive directions. In every practical job I’ve ever had the people training me have found me frustratingly slow on the uptake.
Picking up bacon and putting it back down again may sound easy but there were numerous things I needed to learn, many of which I didn’t.
How and when to clean bacon
I easily mastered the first part. Bacon is easily cleaned. If a piece of bacon is dropped on the floor, all you need do is dunk it in some special soapy water. It will emerge from this baptism cleansed and safe to eat. However, I never really mastered when we should do this. Sometimes we dip-cleaned all the bacon that fell on the floor, sometimes we chucked it in the scraps bin. Why? Dunno.
There are many different baconish things
The name ‘the bacon room’ suggests a monotony of product but in fact, we worked with many types of bacon and baconesque food items. Some of them were recycled bacon born of former bacon rashers that were squashed and remodeled into kind-of bacon shapes. I quickly realised that the quality of the bacon is inversely proportional to how fancy its name is.
What can be wrong with bacon
As we weighed the bacon we had to keep an eye out for substandard bits and discard them. Some bacon had weird line marks. I was told these marks were made when the meat was injected with a salt solution. Another problem to watch for was dark patches in the meat; these were bruises. Horrifyingly, one day when we found lots of meat with dark patches my co-worker remarked, ‘The boys have been mucking around on the kill-line again’. I have no idea if this was true.
Don’t worry though bacon eaters, you shouldn’t see these substandard bacon rashers as they were pulped, remolded into the shape of a dick and balls and marketed as Country Style Ranch Rashers or something.
How to whisper the packing machines
The plastic in the packing machines often got tangled up, or the machines didn’t seal packets properly. Most of my co-workers were able to tinker with the machines and get them working again. I never understood what they were doing. On a few occasions I tried to learn how to replace a roll of packing but I never mastered it, primarily because I was too slow and someone would always take over because I was wasting time.
Never stand around doing nothing
I was told not to let the bosses see me doing nothing. When in doubt, make a box, I was told. So when my assigned machine was on the fritz and I was sensibly staying out of the way while someone else fixed it, I made huge piles of boxes with nothing to put in them so that no-one would feel bad about paying me $11 an hour to be idle.
Safe meat storage
The bacon factory took food safety very seriously. As was pointed out at my induction, a food poisoning scandal could shut down the factory and ruin the town, people’s lives and possibly a galaxy far away. But even so, on the factory floor the rules seemed nebulous to me, although that could be because I am a slow learner. I did write in my diary that the week before the safety inspection we suddenly started ‘practising’ following a set of rules I had never heard of before that involved constantly taking trolleys back to the chiller and wrapping everything in lots of plastic. I longed for a piece of paper with some Standard Operating Procedures. I’m sure they existed.
What to do next
To my last day in the bacon room I spent some portion of the day hovering uncertainly, hoping someone would kindly tell me what to do. Each day I was assigned to a different machine, with a different team of people, working on a different product. This provided much needed novelty value but it also meant that I never really understood what was going on.
In short, the bacon room was not a good environment for me to showcase my skills or implement my preferred learning style. In the two months I worked there I did not reach a level of competence I was satisfied with.
However, not knowing what to do with the bacon (although I worked out pretty quickly that picking it up and putting it back down again was almost always involved) was the least of my problems. What was my real issue? Hint: They’ve got two legs and you go to jail if you eat one.
Next time at the Pig: Sexual harassment
Diary 10 November 2000
Rainy Day. Went to uni to get HPL exam. Crap mark. Apparently my essay suffered because I don’t understand deconstruction.
I started work at the bacon factory at the end of my first year at uni. The year hadn’t gone super well possibly because I had made a ridiculous course choice.
I was pleasantly shocked by my VCE results at the end of Year 12 and, realising I could do any course I wanted, I changed my preferences to a course I had never wanted to do. That’s how I ended up doing a law degree with no intention of ever being a lawyer.
I grew up in the country and moved to Melbourne for university, as did almost all of my friends. First-year law at Melbourne University was dominated by private school students who all seemed to know each other. They were friendly enough, but I felt out of place and insecure. Sometimes, they were patronising. One guy asked me where I went to school. When I told him he said, ‘You’ve done well to get here’. That condescending remark filled me with politely suppressed rage.
In retrospect I felt separate from my classmates primarily because I was a judgmental snob too. I believed that I was accepted into the course on merit, as opposed to the spoon-fed elite private school kids. (In reality I was actually as privileged as they were, it just wasn’t as obvious.) My secret sense of superiority was very fragile and was not enough to provide useful confidence, particularly since it became obvious that some of my fellow law students simply were a lot smarter than me. There was one girl in my first year History and Philosophy of Law class who was dazzlingly intelligent. No-one else in the class could keep up with her arguments, except our lecturer who would take notes.
Even so, I got the work done. I learned how to use the law library, I completed chemistry pracs, handed in essays and passed exams but I was not shining. I went from being a great school student to being a mediocre university one.
And I wasn’t compensated with an exciting social life either.
I took a long time to make good friends in Melbourne. Everyone told me to ‘join a club’ at uni but I had no hobbies and I was too scared to join a club that was openly about drinking. I thought long and longingly back to Year 12 when I’d worked together in a team of students united in our goal to get good marks and go to university. Now I was at university, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have that feeling again.
Meanwhile, my school friends who had moved to Melbourne were successfully getting a life and making new friends. I felt left out and like I wasn’t coping as well as everyone else. So in some ways I was happy to escape Melbourne after my first-year exams were over, to return home for some soothingly mindless factory work. But would I fit in any better at the Pig? Spoiler: No.
Next time at the Pig: How to clean bacon (it’s easy!) and other things I didn’t learn
In the summer after my first year at university I worked in a bacon factory in my home town. In the section called the Bacon Room. I saw a lot of bacon. Let me give you some advice about eating bacon. Don’t.
It was quite common for uni students from my home town to come back from Melbourne over the summer holidays to work in the bacon factory. It was a good way to earn money but also save money by staying with your parents and eating all their food. Despite these practical advantages I wasn’t very keen. I applied for the job out of guilt and desperation. I’d had no luck getting a job in Melbourne and I had to have a job over the uni summer holidays. Not so much for financial reasons, but for pride. All my friends had summer jobs, it would have been totally weird to spend three months doing nothing.
My application was successful (possibly due to nepotism as I had two uncles who worked there) and sick with anticipation and nerves, I started working in the bacon factory at the end of November 2000. It was a hard job. Getting up at 4.30 every morning. Performing mind-numbingly tedious work for ten hours a day. Dealing with people who seemed to hate me and shouted a lot.
At the end of my factory stint my sister convinced me to enter Raw Comedy with a stand-up routine about the bacon factory. I got through to the National Final. Suddenly, it was all worth it. That was the true value of working in a bacon factory! To mock!
Years later, reading through my bacon factory diary (presumably on a train) it struck me that there was a an actual story arc to my time there. Characters were introduced, tensions built and then resolved. It was almost as if there was a point to it. That hardly ever happens in real life, and has certainly never happened in any other diary I’ve kept. Usually my diaries are like: meet someone, crush, crush, crush, rejected, pine, pine, pine, pine. And then I never mention them again.
Excited by the real life narrative neatness I thought I’d found in my bacon factory diary I tried to milk the experience in a different medium and wrote a manuscript of a novel based on my time in the factory. It didn’t work. It turns out that real life is too messy and apparently I’m an unengaging character who seems a bit immature.
I can’t quite give up on it though, and recently it’s been on my mind again. The themes I was trying to explore in my novel have played out in the recent democratic shenanigans across the world. Work, class, gender, racism, sexism and sexual harassment. The bacon factory had it all!
We’re coming up to the 16 year anniversary of my time as a factory worker, which is very exciting as 16 is a square square number. So, I aim to write once a week, exploring my experiences 16 years ago when I picked up bacon and put it back down again for two months.
Names will be changed. Pigs were definitely harmed. You are very welcome.