This week I wore my mask every time I went into a shop or a shopping mall, which is more frequently than I had been doing. Once Boris Johnson announced that face coverings will become compulsory inside shops in England from July 24 (or possibly July 23? I’m not sure of the date) I noticed more people wearing masks on the street and inside buildings. Many people have commented, and I agree with them, that Johnson’s announcement has a bolted horses and stable doors timing issue. Surely it would have been sensible to recommend wearing face coverings in enclosed spaces from the start of the pandemic? However, I hope the latest rule will persuade more people to get used to wearing face coverings and help limit the infection rate of C-19 and other viruses in the months ahead, particularly when the weather becomes colder and people spend more time indoors.
Both of my grown-up children (aged 19 and 21, and sent home from university in March at the start of the UK C-19 lockdown) started temporary jobs in local factories this week, packing cosmetics and cheese respectively. It’s been fascinating to hear their anecdotes of shop-floor life. Basic hygiene is adhered to rigorously, but social distancing and mask-wearing isn’t, I’ve been told. They are both on zero-hours contracts so it’s been eye-opening to learn more about current working conditions and about what is expected of temporary factory workers.
In the distant past, I’ve worked in low-paid temporary jobs – although never in a factory. I did childcare, office, shop and restaurant work, door-to-door sales and telesales. All this before I went to university as a mature student and became a published writer. In recent years, I’ve become more out-of-touch and I tend now to mix with people who have well-paid, secure jobs, or retired and semi-retired people with a comfortable income. There is little poetry – that I know of – written about ‘low-skilled’ work. Can you think of any, other than in the poems of Philip Levine? Who now is writing about factory work, zero-hours contracts, working in a crowded production line in the middle of a pandemic? Which poets live in this world? Do you know any? I don’t.
I’ve thought more and more this week about how out-of-touch the current Tory government is with people on lower incomes, people who don’t share their socioeconomic background. It’s one thing to recommend working from home, avoiding public transport, limiting the number of people outside your family ‘bubble’ you interact with – another to actually legislate and provide funding that will ensure all recommendations are possible.
I too have become out-of-touch. I come from a poor background but I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when the welfare state in the UK was properly funded, so I was able to become educated, to gain skills that gave me employment, to earn enough money to be able to afford a different life to my parents. I don’t think about people who lead a different life to me, not in any meaningful way. I might choose to vote a certain way, to believe in certain social values, to sign petitions, to donate and volunteer to appropriate social enterprises. I tweet my outrage and support on occasion. But I don’t live the 7am to 3pm shift, nor the 3pm to 11pm shift, nor the 11pm to 7am. What really struck me about my children working these hours is how tired they became, how worn-out they looked, almost defeated. I had to remind myself that they’re young and healthy and they’re learning huge lessons about life doing this work. The C-19 infection rate is extremely low here in West Wiltshire and they won’t be working in these conditions for a great length of time. It’s temporary for them; they have job and study plans lined up for the autumn. They can catch up on their sleep – they adjusted to the shift work within days. But what about the people who live these jobs year after year? When do they ever catch up on sleep or anything else?
I was in danger of becoming overwhelmed with the state of the world, but (and how important that ‘but’ is) more than ever I was glad of Anthony Wilson’s blog today. “There is still so much to be grateful for”. Indeed. But perhaps I will keep my hand in with the zero-hours world a little more from now on.