“I applied via an agency (who I would like to point out were very good to me) for a job in what was advertised as a plastics factory. The name of the employer was not known to me until after I accepted the job. This was understandable as otherwise I would have skipped the middleman as such, and applied directly to the company. I was to attend induction training for Sistema on the Monday and start work the following day. I was made aware that the pay would be $16 per hour without holiday pay or any other entitlements. Other colleagues employed directly by Sistema were on $14.75 per hour at the time.
On my first day I was immediately shocked that nobody was there to greet me and show me the area I would be assigned to work at. It was a very sloppy introduction. I had absolutely no clue where I was meant to be working. After asking a few employees who I should see, I found a shift supervisor who walked me to a table and told me to start putting clips on boxes before walking away. Within five minutes I felt my hands becoming sore. I looked around shocked that people were willing to do these tasks.
No seating was provided and staff are expected to stand at every single work station. The shifts were long, the vast majority worked 7am – 7pm. Within an hour I was ready to walk out but I kept reminding myself that I should stay until I had a replacement job. Auckland is a very expensive city for someone who is unemployed. After my 15-minute precise morning break, I was brought to a machine and told to put rubber seals inside the lids. It felt like I was getting paper cuts, over paper cuts over paper cuts. My fingers were in agony after ten minutes. The other staff around me had masking tape wrapped over their fingers while blood seeped out of mine.
This masking tape was not provided by the company, staff came prepared. The machine was incredibly fast at producing the lids and I was falling behind within minutes. Colleagues began to get frustrated with me because I couldn’t keep up with them, they would repeatedly tell me that I have to be faster.
Like anything in life, you must learn a technique to carry out tasks, and techniques can suit some people but not others. My fingers were quite simply too fat!
My colleagues were fearful of getting in trouble for a backlog of work. If in a normal working environment an employer expects 100% from their staff, Sistema expect 300%. I kept thinking to myself, how on earth is this operation allowed? For many staff this was their life 12 hours a day, five and six days a week. People were absolutely exhausted. They had no time for anything outside of work. How could they participate in family events? On days off it just felt like a recovery day. How inhumane to make someone stand for 12 hour shifts doing a repetitive task at an impossibly difficult pace. I went home with back pains every single day. The only sighting of a chair was at the supervisors’ desk or in the lunchroom.
I kept thinking to myself that these staff had become almost institutionalized and that their souls were possibly already destroyed. A smile was a very rare sight in the factory and the thought of laughter was unimaginable. I would try to talk to colleagues and some were genuinely afraid that they may get in trouble. The ones that did talk eventually expressed their dissatisfaction, but only after I had gained their trust. They could see the dissatisfaction in my face, they had seen me bite back at supervisors telling me to hurry up.
A few staff joked with me that a white man was a rare sight in the factory and it was true. I genuinely believe the vast majority of Kiwis would reject such exploitation. If I can take anything positive from my experience, it was simply meeting so many people from various cultures and they were lovely people who had unfortunately become trapped.
They were scared that any outburst could result in their hours being cut or worse, left without a job. Because the wages were awful, they knew it was necessary to work 60 or more hours a week. Overtime was nonexistent.
The attitude of the company was that if you’re not happy, leave. I cannot be 100% sure but someone did tell me that the nightshift also received minimum wage. I asked myself how is this even legal? After every shift I felt so miserable. I would fall asleep on the train from Penrose back to Brittomart shattered. After paying accommodation, bills and transport I was genuinely left with less disposable income than I was unemployed in Ireland living with my parents. I became increasingly disillusioned. I kept comparing my life to the one I had in Australia. How could New Zealand be so different?
Fortunately for me I escaped from my nightmare after a month. Knowing how unhappy I was, my agency moved me to Wineworks which was only a three-minute walk around the corner. Immediately I was treated with respect and dignity, training was provided and tasks were rotated amongst colleagues. Time went fast each day. I had up until then forgotten what it was like to have banter and a joke in the workplace. The management offered encouragement and thanked you at the end of a shift. I loved it and I enjoyed going to work every day..It was quite literally the opposite of what I had previously endured for less money at Sistema. My faith in New Zealand was immediately restored.
Every morning @ 6:50am I would walk past Sistema and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the staff going to work. I would walk home at 3pm daily knowing that they still had another 4 hours in hell. As I passed I noted the beautiful cars parked in the ‘management only’ carpark spots at the front of the building. All I could think of was the greed. The company boasts that they ship product all over the world. Their products are expensive and the profits must be huge. There is no reason why they cannot improve the working conditions for the staff, give them a chair, play some music, treat them with respect and make them feel valued, stop putting so much pressure on staff to work at an unsustainable level. Rotate staff to avoid repetitive strain injury. They work very hard. At least pay the daytime staff the living wage of $19.80 an hour. I’m adamant that nightshift should be on a lot more than that. I could go on and on…
Joseph Costello Membership Administrator E tu, formerly a worker at Sistema.