Personal Finance

Pop reggae and racism: what failing on a factory floor taught me about life | Aditya Chakrabortty

Here’s how bad it was: even the jobcentre told me not to do it.

The woman on the other side of the desk looked at my résumé, paused for what felt an age and made clear the position I wanted was not a good match. It was in a factory; I was at university. It was hard, dirty work; didn’t I want something better? It would be, well, “a waste”.

This was half a lifetime ago, long before the days when the Department for Work and Pensions sanctioned you for going to a funeral, but even so I knew this wasn’t how things worked – that jobcentres were meant to put you in jobs, not warn you off them. Underneath the adviser’s generalities I thought I saw a glint of something else, something specifically wrong with that employer.

I should have heeded it, but here was a contract starting next Monday and I needed quick money to pay for my holiday in Turkey. I’d done plenty of crap jobs and I prided myself on being able to endure things. How bad could it be?

The man who gave me and the two other youngsters our brief induction explained we were on trial, showed us a staff room decorated with a few Page 3s ripped out of the Sun, gestured at some cheerfully inhospitable toilets, then led us out on the floor, which is where I spotted the big problem.

This was a door factory. One of the main jobs was to slide wooden doors through a veneering machine. No one had explained this and as anyone who has seen me knows, I’m not built for humping doors. Up until that point, I had lifted little heavier than hardbacks and records. Now here I was, facing a man with a blond ponytail who made a great show of looking me up and down before saying: “You’ll either leave here a foot taller or in a coffin.”

It went about as well as could be expected. We partnered up and each took a side of the door. I could manage about three before my side started listing badly. Blond Ponytail offered a bit of advice: “You slide it [the door] in like you slide it into a woman.” He’d obviously said it many times before but laughed delightedly at his own wit. When I still struggled to keep my end up, he swore at me at increasing volume and threatened to stick my arm in the machine. This carried on and on, and at times I almost sympathised with him.

There is nothing like failing publicly in front of a room of hostile strangers. There is no humiliation so pure as the one you can feel at the end of your teens. Whatever I was at home or with my friends, it meant nothing here. My other attributes counted for nought beside my inability to carry out the task that others seemed to do as easily as breathing.

The other men would shoot glances at the new John Merrick. Some would walk all the way over and talk with Blond Ponytail about the idiot who could of course hear every word. Over all this floated Capital Radio. At that point, I was living on a diet of techno and My Bloody Valentine; now I was stuck listening to the same summertime pop-reggae songs repeated five times a day.

This was the soundtrack – that and the roar of machines and bullying abuse. To be black here was to be jovially referred to as a “black bastard”. No one batted an eyelid, nor would they have necessarily called it racism, which would have been a big word in that time and place. It was more akin to hammering down anything or anyone that stuck out. I cannot remember ever seeing a union leaflet pinned to a noticeboard or hearing about a rep and I wonder now if the lack of workplace organisation, either by the workers or even the management, fed the naked aggression, the desire to take anyone down just because they were within kicking range.

Somehow, it got out that I was not only a student, which was bad enough, but at Oxford, which carried lots of connotations but certainly didn’t imply this Asian lad working on a factory floor. I fell into that unlikeable middle ground – not posh enough to be exotically untouchable, but not one of them. And it was true I was there for pocket money, but I was hardly just passing through. The factory was a short walk from where I’d grown up, and many of those men lived in the streets around my old house. I’d have gone to school with their kids, been minded by their wives, eaten the same food from the same shops. And at the same time, I was heading somewhere else.

What strikes me now, decades later, is how much of this I just accepted. The abuse was the job was the factory. It was all something to bear. I knew this culture and its attitudes, good and bad. I’d heard all the names and learned there was no point in arguing back. So I’d come home, jeans covered in glue, pass out and then wake up too early and sore the next morning and do it all again.

Towards the end, when both sides knew we wouldn’t have to put up with each other for much longer, I was shifted outside to the yard to sort and clear up a jumble of wood products, packaging and plastic and metal straps. Suddenly, coming out to see me was the big boss – a small, round man in striped shirt and light-grey trousers but always on the verge of boiling over. He beetled towards me.

“Put all this fucking crap in the bin.”

Someone else had already told me about the fucking crap but I thought it was meant to go in the skip right behind us not the black bin in the corner.

Me: “The bin or the skip?”

Him: “In the fucking BIN.”

Me: “You sure? Not the skip?”


By now the yard was filling up with half the floor coming out to see the show. I scooped up a bunch of metal straps, walked over to the corner and pushed them into the bottom of the bin, from where they bounced back up like a grotesque jack-in-the-box.

Big boss was beside himself with fury. “I MEANT THE FUCKING BIN.”

My attempts to argue back only served to wind him up further, as I half-knew they would. He did a lot more shouting before turning to leave, while I carried the bin over to the skip. He turned back and spat something.


By the time I started work at the door maker, it was already one of the last factories around. How it had held on for so long is a mystery but although I didn’t know it then, my summer job showed me the end of a place, a way of life, a world. Edmonton, the London suburb in which I grew up, had once been full of manufacturers, big and small, but by the time I went to university they were all popping off. This place would soon follow them and the men who worked alongside me, kings of their realm, would soon be out of a job. If I wanted to get a job sliding things through machines today, I’d probably end up glazing doughnuts at the local Krispy Kreme, because that’s what a lot of local manufacturing is now: mass-producing food. In this Brexit era of licensed nostalgia for factory towns, I can’t share the same pure romance because I come from one. At the same time, I can’t welcome what came next: the loss of livelihoods, the rise of the zero-hours job, the sharp tilt of power towards the business owners and their pet executives. For working-class areas such as Edmonton, this spelled ruin.

I have occasionally wondered what happened to the door guys. What became of Blond Ponytail and the Punjabi man who went by an English name to avoid any fuss. I hope they had at least a few years to enjoy their retirement. Not the big boss, though. He can get in the fucking bin. Or the skip, I’m not choosy.

Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist and senior economics commentator


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