Warehouse Adventures For Beginners – Part 3

May 8, 2020 - By 
Sam Burns Montage Banner Image

Or, “How an Ageing Choirleader Briefly Sullied His Hands and Became a Spokesman for All The World’s Downtrodden Workers”

Day to Day

Overall, it’s actually not bad. A lot of the men comment that this is one of the best warehouse gigs in the west. Nightshift (10pm-6am) pays just over £300/week after tax, which is top whack apparently. (Yay….. 😉

Plus, there’s many fewer Orange Jackets on the night shift – the line managers. Us green jackets distrust ’em, though they’re mainly ok really. Here, as everywhere, the odd person who was clearly bullied at school & now finds themselves in a position of power is easy to spot, but happily there are few.

Most importantly, though we work hard non-stop.  There is no-one constantly pushing us to work even faster, & there’s time to do the job properly. That’s a game-changer in any crap job. Our manager paused as he passed last night, cast a critical eye & said. ‘Nice pallet that’. I swelled with pride… -”Nice? – Moana Pallet Lisa mate!”  He laughed & moved on. A good moment.

Banter is pivotal. Queuing to sign in, I turn to my team mate & ask politely, …..“And are you excited for the evening’s entertainment, Johnny?”.  Johnny looks confused for a moment, then the penny drops & he guffaws,  “Living the dream, Sam… …Living the dream….”

We get one (unpaid) 30 minute break, roughly in the middle of the 8hr shift. It’s a bit of a rush, cramming in all the necessary calories in the time.  Almost everyone smokes! AND crams at least one fag into the short break!  It’s like being in a 70’s film.

In an attempt to show that they’re being virus-responsible, management remove most of the chairs from the canteen. The remaining chairs are all 2m apart. But there’s not enough chairs for everybody, so some have to eat standing up. That’s truly a kick in the teeth to a warehouseman. Then we all cram into a crowded corridor in the desperate rush to clock back in on time, salting the wounds of those who had to eat standing.  Obviously, overrunning your break = docked pay. No snacks or medicines on shift (Paracetamol/Caffeine tablets = New Best Friend). We are allowed water in a clear plastic bottle. Yay!

Towards the end of the night shift, reality starts to bend. Pretty much all the bawdy banter dies away, though our crew fights this better than most. Rolling machinery drivers become an increasing menace. All clocks misbehave. However much you know not to look at your watch, you still can’t help it, & every time it just seems impossible. Press it again to your ear to check it’s still ticking. Each final hour a day.  But eventually, the sun doth rise & the buzzer doth sound. And the happy workers doth scamper for the escape hatch, only to be met by teams of Orange-Jackets who order us to form a queue all standing 2m apart, Getting to the back of the queue entails another half mile walk on feet howling for liberation, -Stride straight & true & hide the hobble. Freedom is at hand!

Clock out & we are once again sardined in a corridor with 200 other people as the clock-pressed day shift meets zombies craving dawn. Obviously I set off the random search button at the end of my very first night. Thankfully they didn’t want me to take off my boots, coz I’d never have got them back on again.

TBH It’s nowhere near as tough as labouring on a domestic building site.  We are treated like cattle, but when you’ve got 3 shifts working round the clock, how else are they going to do it? We have no objection to being cattle as long as the farmers behave themselves. (Having to stand up on the break is not ok. They have since taken steps to remedy it).

The management response to social distancing has been a bit slow, but is now reasonably effectual. They’ve loosened up the signing in/out times, which is an anathema to a logistics company. We no longer use the thumbprint clock in/out system. They (& the building), are completely unsuited to dealing with the crisis, but I reckon they tried their best & are now belatedly getting it right. Nature of the job is the problem.

We all come in from the outside world with all the best intentions of observing the rules. ‘2m apart’, squawk the orange jackets, every 30 secs or so. And we comply. But when 2 or 3 men are working on a pallet, each pallet is only 1.5m wide, & working habits die hard, so by the end of the shift we’re all basically shoulder to shoulder, stumbling against each other, even. Pushing through to make it stop. Orange jackets included.  Much as we’d hate to lose our jobs the place really shouldn’t be open. Yes, they sell a bit of food & medicine & a few toys, but the vast majority of products are SERIOUSLY non-essential. Staying open is pure greed from top management. When the virus properly takes hold in Bristol our 1000 strong workforce will be a ripe breeding ground. Expressing this opinion is a sackable offence of course.


I’m currently on ‘cons’, (consolidating & wrapping’). Basically, you take pallets of boxes apart & rebuild them into bigger & better pallets, then wrap it all in plastic about 50 times round. A lot of time spent bent double, but otherwise it’s ok. Next, I’ll probably be ‘picking’ (going round the warehouse building up the small pallets that then get delivered to ‘cons’). Pickers work alone, so I’ll miss the banter, but there’s lots of rats for company. IMMENSE rats. Not even joking.

The reality of nightshifts has finally hit me now, as my co-workers warned it would, & yes, I have no idea which way is up or down. I’m never really hungry, until I’m suddenly starving, & even then I don’t know if I want cereal or a roast dinner, & v. often, after 2 mouthfuls I don’t want it any more. Bizarrely, weekends are perhaps toughest of all, as I try to flip my clock to fit in with the rest of the family as much as I can, & desperately make the most of the 2 nights off. #FirstWorldProblems

But after 2 weeks of quite considerable physical pain my ageing & ill-conditioned body is finally stepping up.  I feel my whole posture changing. I stand taller & squarer (A reflex to de-compact the spine, I suspect).  I finally got a pair of size 9 boots, & bought gel insoles & extra thick socks, so hopefully next week will be a little less maiming.  And if my back was going to go, I reckon it would have gone by now!  It still hurts by the end of the shift, but in an acceptable way now.  I’m not even the oldest person there! Nearly, but not quite.

Fun fact: Among my arty peers, most people think I’m older than my actual age. In this labouring environment most people think I’m younger.  Analyse that as you will….

Since I started this ramble, my wife has started her new job too. Very different, but on reflection tougher than mine I reckon. She’s doing door to door social care. Home visits to people who can’t cope unaided, but are deemed capable of living alone with help. She’s no stranger to hard work & thankless jobs, but the weight of long days with the lonely & helpless is tangible on her.  She speaks of the smell in the houses, the invading clutter. The patient usually shivering in a dirty bed, (budget only allows for so many visits/week). Often afraid, always alone. Old photos sing youth, marriage, hope & beauty. She gives them basic kindness & they weep with gratitude.  Honestly couldn’t do it… Phew….

So she takes a spiritual bruising by day, while I take a physical one by night.  It’s all exquisitely Ying/Yang darlings….! Of course we’re slightly jealous of all those getting a massive extra holiday on 80% salary, but then they’re slightly jealous of us, coz at least we’re getting childcare help, & get to leave the house.  Such is this brave new world.

Final ironic insights.

I’d been thinking that we choirleaders are a little soft compared to most of the population. Disproportionately adored, certainly! But surprisingly, in some ways it’s prepared me well for this job.  I’ve worked closely with about 40 other ‘pallet monkeys’ over the last fortnight, aged between 18 & 60, & from zero to 30 years warehouse experience, & am astonished to find that mentally, I’m among the very toughest!  (Some start well but their moral collapses half way through. Others scowl for 5 or 6 hours, then suddenly come to life as dawn approaches. Almost none maintain solid energy & drive right through).

When we do a concert it’s fairly non-stop high-pressure professional good humour from setting up the chairs, right through the rehearsal, the concert, the after-party, until the venue is cleaned, restored & locked down. Usually about 12 hours of calm & patience under pressure.  The myriad skillset my old trade demanded is more transferable than I’d previously imagined.

We applied for these new jobs before the whole keyworker concept was announced. I now realise that we could both be keyworkers in the day time & still get childcare, thus cover bills & have a better family life. So I’ve just applied for a couple of menial jobs in the NHS (Porter &/or Cleaner). The form says that it takes at least 3 weeks to process the application, so who knows if it’ll come to anything but fingers crossed…  Apart from more family-friendly hours, it would be nice to serve my country properly in this crises, rather than stacking inflatable spas with built in multi coloured led’s.  Now there’s a sentence I couldn’t have imagined writing 3 weeks ago……. 😉

It may well be that I have to continue in the warehouse for another 6 months or more. Honestly the prospect IS terrifying, but when I talk to my co-workers, so many of them state calmly that they have ‘only’ one/two/three years left…. I am ashamed at my fear for this touristic diversion. They are so much stronger than I.

Extreme change is always, well, extreme! And always in more ways than one can ever anticipate, regardless of previous experience. Strangest of all, I suspect that the change back to ‘normality’, when it eventually does come, might be the most disorientating experience of all.

I do miss my choir a lot. (Only the singing, not as people…. #WarehouseHumour 😉

But, on some slightly weird & painful level, we’re honestly appreciating the extremity of this change, so don’t worry about us, we’re fine. And I Solemnly Promise, that when we return to rehearsals, I will bring ALL the new acerbic insults of the warehouse floor with me.

You have my word.

Keep safe,

Sam Burns

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