For six months, reporter Saša Uhlová worked in the lowest-paid manual jobs in the Czech Republic, having a go at work in a hospital laundry room, a chicken processing plant, as a cashier in a supermarket, in a razorblade factory, and in a waste-sorting plant. All these jobs are indispensable, yet they are severely underpaid. How do people make ends meet on just a few hundred pounds a month?
Uhlová’s project, entitled The Heroes of Capitalist Labour, exposes the dark side of Czech Republic’s alleged post-communist economic success. In a country with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, wages remain low in comparison to Western neighbours. As Uhlová shows, those who earn minimum wage live on the edge or even below the poverty line and their small earnings get swallowed up by debt repayments. Published on A2larm.cz, the series of texts is also accompanied by the documentary film Limits of Work, which will premiere this October at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival.
I made a vow to myself that I would last until Friday, because that was the end of the month. On Thursday morning I realized I just could not go there anymore. I was sitting on a little chair placed in front of the HR department and felt a knot in my stomach. I was waiting for a long time, as there was a man inside; when he finally came out, he spotted me, turned around and told the woman inside: “There is a lady here, she’s probably come to ask for a job.” I rose unsteadily, walked in and set things straight: “Quite the opposite, I’m here to quit.”
The well-groomed blonde started running all around the office anxiously, muttering unhappily: “Of course, that is your right,” over and over. Then she started asking me questions. She listened to my answers with an attentiveness that made me open up and talk. Initially, my voice was weak and shaky, but as I talked I calmed down, feeling relieved that I could tell these things to someone. It seemed this was not the first time she had heard this story. Eventually we agreed that I would go to work one more day, but it won’t have to be Friday. When the realization that this night would be the end of it hit me, I let out a great sigh. After three weeks, I would finally stop working for the Vodňany chicken processing plant…
“So we had a nice talk. Would you mind doing something for me?” said the HR woman matter-of-factly. “Here is a questionnaire, could you write it all down? It would help me to try to make changes for the better. Feel free to write more, even multiple pages. The more the better!” I promised her I would.
The shift is only over when the work is done
Three weeks before this, I was leaving the same cosy office for my first shift. I had managed to land a job at the chicken processing plant. The advertisement offered thirteen and a half thousand crowns (£458) gross per month and the contract I had just signed said 65,5 crowns (£2.2) per hour. The HR manager told me that they run two shifts and the morning one starts very early: the first shift begins at midnight on Monday, on Tuesdays we start at four in the morning and the remaining days start normally – at six. Together with the contract, I signed an obligation to work overtime, which meant almost all the afternoon shifts – those ended only when the work was done.
In order to work there, I needed a health certificate from a doctor. I got it at one of the surgeries they suggested at the company. As early as the waiting room I realized something was amiss here: the loud call for “Next!” could be heard about every three minutes. When it was my turn, the doctor was on the phone and the nurse just told me to hand over my five hundred crowns (£17), which served as a fee for obtaining the certificate. Without pausing his call, the doctor gave me the signed papers and I was out of the office in twenty seconds, only hearing the nurse’s “Next!” It was only when I was checking the papers back home that I found out he also gave me my new health card. He did not take my pressure, he did not do blood tests, he didn’t even look at me properly. I could have started working even if I had an infectious disease.
I was retrieved from the HR office by the forewoman. She led me to the cloth issuing room, where she introduced me by saying “The lady is Czech”. I received two pairs of thin white trousers, two white cloaks and one green one. Rubber gloves for my hands, a net for my hair and white rubber boots for my feet: if I manage to stay for more than three months, I will get proper work boots. After I changed into the work clothes, we headed for the slicing room. As we got closer, I felt colder and colder and smelled a horrid stench that made my stomach turn. We entered a huge, badly-lit hall with no windows. My senses were shocked, paralyzed by the noise, cold, stench and masses of people. Some stood by the conveyor belts, some were running here and there. Over their heads, massive conveyors transported plucked chickens. Below, the chickens were chopped up on the belts and stuffed into metal containers.
We walked into the second hall. Three twenty-year old women stood at a conveyor belt, watching a screen fastened to it. One of the woman looked like she was in charge here – she was well-groomed, had perfect make-up, painted and carefully shaped eyebrows and long eyelashes. Among the people who moved around the slicing room and mostly looked utterly exhausted, she stood out like a sore thumb. They told me she was Pamela and she would tell me what my job is. She gave me a single glance, turned around and burst out laughing. Did not even say hello. When I asked her what I was supposed to do, she pretended I was not there.
You’re doing it wrong!
I had to beg the other two girls to give me something to do. They were both Romanian. One of them, Lorena, eventually managed to explain some things, despite speaking very limited Czech, unlike the other Romanian, Oana. It was only later, when I was stuffing chicken thighs into little plastic packages, when Pamela spoke to me – and I realized she was Czech after all. As she went by, she shouted “You’re doing it wrong!” Turns out the thighs have to be arranged in a way that doesn’t not show any holes, gristle or sinews.
Our conveyor belted produced packages complete with protective wrapping in amounts according to demand. Shopping chains order precise amounts of what they want and those amounts are then supplied. So for example Tesco wanted chicken legs, Lidl received chicken necks, the chops went to another company… That meant my work kept changing according to what the current demands were and Pamela being incommunicative and unable to explain what exactly she wants made it much worse. She sent me to get chicken thighs sliced in half, but she did not tell me where, so I blindly wandered the halls trying to ask for directions, knowing all too well that I would get a right verbal thrashing for being late.
After two hours of work, there was a fifteen-minute break. Oana took me out for a cigarette. When I came back, Pamela threw a pair of cloth gloves in my direction. When I put them underneath the rubber ones, my hands were not freezing quite so much anymore. I was still cold, though, despite them having told me I needed to bring warm underwear and me having done so. It was not enough. Even worse, all the running meant my rubber-clad feet started sweating, the sweat turning into biting cold whenever I had to stand in place for a while. The temperature at the workplace was nine degrees centigrade. My tasks kept changing: I plucked the remaining feathers and tore out the fatter pieces of meat by hand. At quarter to two, there was another break and then it was non-stop work until seven in the evening. The four of us at our conveyor belt were among the last to finsih.
I did not know how long the afternoon shift would take so I felt relieved when I walked home after eleven hours of work. It was only when I was leaving when I realized I was almost unable to walk. On the way home, I found a chocolate bar in my bag. As it slowly melted in my mouth, I realized how hungry I was. And thirsty. I was without food or drink for six hours – it is forbidden to take food or water into the slicing room and I was not allowed to leave it. There is only one rather disgusting toilet and it has only got hot water.
Ilona, Rosa and breast steaks
The next day, Pamela took me aside and told me I was not – under any circumstances – to give our containers to anyone. We put said containers on the conveyor belt after filling them with smaller plastic bowls with meat, and then they were carried into the machine that wraps them. There were two Ukrainian women working next to us and they looked like they needed containers as much as we did, but I wanted to please Pamela in a foolish hope she would start acting more normal towards me – so I defended our containers against them and did not give the women a single one. Pamela was watching the whole thing from her place on the line and nodding happily.
Only later, when I already knew that those women were called Ilona and Rosa, I understood they worked with us and prepared the meat for our conveyor belt. They were even smaller than me and could not reach the hanging conveyor that dispensed the containers. And because there was so little space between the assembly lines, it was basically impossible for them to move to a place where they could work. In retrospect I felt really ashamed for ignoring them – and to this day I do not understand why was I forbidden from giving them something they needed for their work and could not obtain on their own. After that, I started giving them containers in secret, keeping an eye out for whether Pamela was watching.
Ilona and Rosa were supposed to put the chicken breast steaks into trays. But they used trays that were five millimeters off the prescribed height. Pamela was furious and shouted at them, telling them they ruined it. And they just gestured, asking where they were supposed to put the meat. She did not answer, just stormed off angrily and started doing it herself. They just stood there haplessly, waiting for someone to tell them what they have to do. So I went to Pamela and begged her to tell them – she angrily muttered from behind clenched teeth they were supposed to use type 65. I ran to the storage room, got the proper trays and brought them to Ilona and Rosa. Gratefully, they took them and started loading the chops into them.
Oana, Pamela and Lorena had no idea what Ilona and Rosa’s names were. They called them “missis”. But those two were the ones I liked the most. One was dark and the other fair, they stood there stuffing meat into plastic packages and smiling, never angry, never complaining even when they had to bear the brunt of everyone’s anger. This week, they worked every day from four AM to four PM. We worked together on chicken legs and the meat ran out. I took a look at the clock, it was two minutes to four, so I told them to go home. But they said they will get more legs for me and in a moment they were pack with a container full of meat. Two grannies after twelve hours of work had just brought me, a young, strong woman, a heavy load, while slipping in uncomfortable rubber boots and managing to stay cheery throughout all of it. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, because I was exhausted. And with pity as well, because they were leaving already.
Fines, lack of space and no respect for work
Most of the workers in the slicing room were older women, but there were younger ones too, as well as some men, usually from abroad. There were very few older men, though. All the temp agency workers were foreigners and they constituted roughly half the workforce. Ukrainians, Romanians, Romanian Roma, people from various parts of Asia. Some of them have obviously worked here for a long time, they knew a bit of Czech, but most did not understand the language at all.
When I once propped myself against the work table for a couple of seconds, Oana warned me that there was a fine for that. There were no chairs so even if there was a moment when one was waiting for something, one could not even sit down. Oana went on, naming other misdeeds that could be fined: keeping the net in one’s hair when you go outside, earrings or a bit of clothing poking out from behind the protective wear… I heard a lot more about the fines during my stay there but I never actually saw one administered.
When there were more of us at the conveyor belt, I often received a job to do but not the place in which I could do it. I had to lean towards a tiny mobile table or the containers and had to move whenever someone was passing through. The hall was chock-full of assembly lines and conveyor belts and everyone suffered from the lack of room to work in.
The disrespect everyone felt for the work fascinated me. It was not just that I was often issued a task that turned out to be completely pointless, but my colleagues and superiors kept doing work they would eventually themselves undo. Everyone was in a rush to fill the plastic packets and then, when they emerged from the wrapping machine, it often turned out we had made too many and had to spend more time breaking them up.
We emptied containers full of breast chops onto the conveyors and pieces of meat ended up falling on the filthy floor. We had to put them back on the conveyor. We filled the packages as fast as we could and there had to be a heap of meat on the conveyor at all times – until it was said that that was enough. After that, we had to pile the meat back onto the conveyors and break open the surplus packages. And that went on and on over and over.
Oana was an employee of the chicken processing company and Pamela’s right hand. She had a pretty good grasp of Czech since she has worked here for a year and a half. Near the end of the week, I overheard her arguing with the forewoman. It turned out Oana needed to go back to Romania and did not know when she would return. Pamela’s behaviour towards Oana was sometimes outright despicable. If something went wrong, she shouted and, for example, threw a whole faulty container that came out of the wrapping machine at her feet. But most of the time they talked in a friendly way and it seemed she honestly liked her. When she found out Oana was leaving, she was devastated. In the evening, when everyone was leaving and the hall gradually emptied, Pamela stood at the work table and was finishing some order or another. I went to her and asked if I could help her. It was obvious she felt sad. She refused and told me in a completely normal way to go home. She wanted to be with Oana, whom she saw for the last time that evening. Oana understood this and when I was leaving, they stood there, side by side, still working.
The next day Oana did not show up and Pamela seemed in a pensive mood. When I asked why she worked here, she told me she had trained to be a cook/waiter, but she did not like doing that job. She likes this one, though. She has been here for four years, that means since she was seventeen. “During that time, a crazy amount of people have worked here – so many I cannot remember them all, they all keep coming and going, new people keep showing up,” she said in a resigned way. That was the first time I felt pity for her.
Similarly to the other young women at the plant, she become the boss of her assembly line quickly. The superiors apparently promote younger women because “they know how to use computers” since there is a computer with a couple of functions at the assembly line, it checks the number and weight of outgoing packages. Originally I thought the problem was Pamela herself – now I realized it was her being young when she came into an environment where such behaviour was the standard.
Night was approaching and as always, with it came anxiety. And even the fairly nice people started treating others roughly, they were angry, short-tempered. Then someone said something like “only four more orders!” and everyone relaxed a bit and smiles started to show on their faces.
Temps dead on their feet
One evening during a break, I saw the wages some of the temp agency workers handed out, a man gave money to others who stood there in a short queue. But I did not see him giving out payslips.
The number of people working did not decrease over the day, there were a lot of them and they often had no idea what to do, they received contradictory orders, they kept clustering into small groups, they could not fit in the space allotted to them and with the passing hours kept getting more and more tired. And there was more and more shouting.
Lorena, who I liked working with because she was nice, worked twelve-hour shifts except for Mondays when it was thirteen and Fridays when it was fourteen and she was visibly exhausted by eleven PM. So was I – but I know I would be leaving in a moment. The thirteen-hour shifts were also announced on a message board: from Sunday midnight to Monday 1 PM. Lorena said she earned eighty crowns (£2.7) per hour, and it used to be seventy (£2.4).
I got to know my neighbours from the boarding house too, they were a married couple from Romania. They complained about the Czech Republic being full of gangsters. They came because at home they could not earn enough to support their children, so their children stayed in Romania with their grandmother and they sent them money. They have not seen their children in more than a year. At the chicken processing plant, someone called Sergei promised them seventeen thousand net a month. They had been working there for a short while, did not even have a contract yet. 63-hours working weeks were hard for them. In addition, they suffered from health problems, they went to the doctor and had to pay four thousand (£136) since they did not have health insurance. They thought of getting a different job, but they like the accommodation, since it was much worse at other places they worked at before. I had to smile at the praise they heaped at the boarding house – everyone else kept loudly complaining about the mould and cockroaches.
The answers other people who worked for the temp agency gave me differed. But they all said they worked either twelve-hour shifts every day or the way Lorena did. As for the reward, they claimed either seventy or eighty crowns per hour. I realized this did not just depend on the agency but also on how long they have worked here.
Just looking at the temps shuffling around dead on their feet I knew they were working over the limits allowed by the law. Apart from not having the same workplace conditions and wages as the company’s employees, they did not even have the same conditions between different agencies. According to the Czech Labour Code, those are supposed to be provided by not only the employer, but also the user, in this case Vodňany Chicken – part of the Agrofert conglomerate, the biggest food processing group in the Czech Republic and business venture of Andrej Babiš, until recently the country’s finance minister.
The user is not legally obliged to publicly disclose the contracts it has. The only subject capable of intervention here is the Labour Inspectorate. It usually hits bigger companies together with the Foreign Police and the result of these audits is that the workers without a permit to work in the Czech Republic are deported.
There’s something wrong with every job
Working from midnight to 8:45 in the morning was horrible. I did not manage to catch any sleep before my shift and I had to go in there with my stomach aching, I thought I would not even reach the place. To this day I have no idea whether I was sick or so afraid of what awaited me there. Crisis struck at about five in the morning when I would have given absolutely anything to be able to sit down for a minute or two. The next day, my shift started at four AM so I got up at three. I lived near the workplace, but one has to be at work before the shift starts, in order to get dressed and prepared.
At the start of the week, I was sent to the conveyor belt next to my usual one, where they worked exclusively on chicken legs. I worked next to a nice older lady, Vlaďka. We got introduced when she told me off for leaving a plastic bag on the ground when I was exhausted after eleven hours of work. I apologized and kept an eye out for bags since; the next day she greeted me with a smile and we got along nicely. She has been working for the chicken processing plant for nine years. During that time, she was ill twice, although not she was now planning to take sick leave on account of an inflamed hip – she could hardly stand and visibly suffered whenever she had to move. She should also have underwent surgery of her carpal tunnel, but kept putting it off. Everyone who has worked here for a longer time has carpal tunnel problems. Vlaďka said that people who work with computers get them too, though, and they also suffer back pains. “There’s something wrong with every job,” she explained resignedly. When I thought of my job, sitting behind a computer in a well-heated room, being able to have a break and a coffee whenever I want, I was about to reply that people behind computers really do not work at all.
I felt good working at that conveyor belt, because Vlaďka explained everything, it was just some lady on the other side of the belt that yelled at me for mistaking a chicken leg for a chicken quarter. Then she shouted at me again, for taking a leg that was a bit nearer her side of the belt than mine. But she was on the other side and there was Vlaďka standing next to me, as opposed to someone I would be afraid of.
The beautiful thing about the morning shift is that it has a clearly defined end. When the hour comes and shifts change, you just go home. One looks at the clocks and knows it will be over in two hours. Even the tempo is slower, but at the same time it feels there is less waiting and less pointless work. So I don’t get that sweaty and I do not end up freezing in my wet clothes.
The beautiful chicken wing day
Then they moved me to chicken wings. I walked to a tiny conveyor belt that only had three people working it. I had been there before, when I was preparing wings for Pamela. This belt was supervised by a stout blonde woman who did not ask my name. I knew her because a couple days ago she laughed at me for loading the chicken wings too slowly. I saw another woman there, so I stood next to her, to get as far from the forewoman as possible. She told me: “I Romanian, I know no Czech”. Later I found out her name was Nikoletta and she was 38. She was a temp agency worker who did twelve-hour shifts, Monday to Friday, the whole month.
She showed me how to do it. The boss kept snorting in disagreement. As time went on, I got better at the job, the boss kept checking my filled packages and rolling her eyes but she did not say anything. Nikoletta said “Good!” That was the first time anyone here praised me for something. But then the boss showed up. “How come you are not moving the damaged wings off of the belt?” she so loudly I jumped in place. So I started picking them up and throwing them into a box. Before, I only threw them out when they happened to get to me: I did not know it was my job to sort them. Then both Nikoletta and the boss left, pushing a cart with filled containers. “Keep watch!” the boss shouted. I thought it meant I was supposed to watch out for more damaged wings. Less than a minute later, they came back and the container the wings were falling into was overflowing. I could not see that container from where I worked. Still, the boss told me off for not having changed it. They were only gone for a few seconds, so she had to know that container was full. She did it on purpose.
On another chicken wing day, the boss came to me and told me I filled the packages too slowly. I tried to raise the pace, but in stress I managed to drop a packet. After about an hour, an inexplicable change occurred: the boss explained to me, in a completely normal voice, I was to come to work ten minutes earlier so I could help with preparing the containers. She did not yell at me again. That was a beautiful day.
That whole week, when I worked the morning shifts, I kept bumping into Lorena. Her twelve-hour shifts were just starting when I was leaving for home. She looked incredibly tired.
It isn’t any better elsewhere
After more than two weeks, there was a workplace safety training session and I managed to come an hour early. I was talking to Karel, who had helped me in the past with the heavy carts when the rubber boots I received instead of proper working footwear slipped on the ground. He was always helpful and always smiling. He has been working here for nine months, although he was a slater by trade and spent most of his life working as one. He worked in a company in Strakonice for many years, but then the company’s owner died and Karel decided he would start a business of his own. He didn’t cope, failed to pay leases and stopped paying for social and health insurance because his friends told him he did not have to. He failed to file the proper paperwork. He fell into debt, his house was repossessed and he was supposed to move in a month. Psychologically, he was at rock bottom, but he kept repeating how glad he was that the chicken processing company paid for his health and social insurance. And that it was all his fault. He could not find any other job, because he needed immediate employment. It was not much better anywhere else anyway.
The workplace security people told us that thanks to the unions, we were receiving an extra bonus to our pay because of the noise in the workplace, even though it does not overstep the limits defined by law. But when I asked my colleagues before whether they were trade union members, they usually had no idea if there even were unions here.
Another round of humiliation
The last Monday on the job I spent ten and half hours at work. I was still doing the wings, but the woman I got used to – and she to me – was not there anymore. In her place there was a young woman whom I met last week when she tore a package out of my hands and finished it for me because I was doing it too slowly. Another round of humiliation started: I was being told off for things nobody explained to me. Until twelve, there was also Thea, a Romanian who could not hide her disappointment over me being Czech but patiently explained things to me. Then she left and I was left alone with the boss. Exactly what I was afraid of.
The boss left me alone most of the time. This was the first occasion of me not being able to do a clearly stated task. The wings kept coming, damaged, torn by the machine that cut them off the chickens that were moving above us. I had to sort them and put the undamaged ones into packets because the ones I failed to catch and put into their place would just end up in the box at the end of the conveyor belt. That box needs to be changed regularly. My box overflowed, I could not do the sorting in time, had to look for new boxes, line them with plastic. The worked moved slowly because one human being cannot possibly do all of that.
The boss either yelled at me or was away. Once she left for two whole hours. When she shouted something at me after that, I wanted to leave. Just throw off the rags I was wearing and go, but I did not find the courage. I wanted to pee, but I could not stop the conveyor belt because there were people on the other side of the assembly line and I would have had to stop it for them as well. Besides, no one told me how to stop the thing anyway.
Everything was wrong. She came and took a yellow wing off the belt. “Take those out as well,” she bellowed. In a moment, she was shouting at me again – that I was an idiot because I did not change the boxes, despite her only rolling her eyes in response to my question whether I was supposed to do it. I realized I was not. I bleated that she was the idiot because she could not explain anything. Later on, I was pulling the boxes with defective wings away and asked whether I should take hers as well. She did not answer, so I did not. Then she followed me with an angry expression and I asked why she refused to talk to me. “I don’t have the time!” she barked. “Because you don’t work fast enough!”
I would be angry as well if I had to handle this chaos with the help of someone who has been working there for two weeks. But because she acted so horribly, leaving me to work alone for hours, humiliating me, I could not feel pity for her. That was the night between Wednesday and Thursday and I realized I could not go on and need to visit HR and tell them I am leaving.
People used to help each other out
The last day, I started talking to a woman who had worked there since she was young. “I have no idea how I made it when I was working three shifts and had little kids but back then there were good relations here,” she recalled. “When you needed to exchange your shift with someone, people helped each other out. I remember when, thirty years ago, the first Vietnamese workers arrived and I was showing them the ropes, it went perfectly. I taught three Vietnamese women and showed them everything.” According to her, there used to be enough time to spare on the new people, not like today, when “someone arrives but no one tells them anything, just yells at them”.
On Friday, I went to HR again to sign some papers. On the way out of the chicken processing plant, I met two women who worked in the slicing room. I had never talked to them before. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful spring day. Outside, they look nothing like at work when stuck in those protective clothes. They were smiling. They asked how come I was going in the wrong direction.
“You aren’t going to work today?”
“No, I just left.”
“Do you have another job? Didn’t like it here?”
“I’ve got something and no, I did not like it…”
“One’s got to be tough to work here. No one lasts for long.”
“And you do?”
“We have to.”