For the past week, I've been working nights as a Xmas casual for the Royal Mail, ensuring letters to Santa are distributed swiftly and efficiently throughout the capital.
Despite the fact I live just 10 minutes from the sorting depot I specified in the application form, the tinpot recruitment agency the soon-to-be-privatised RM hired this year have placed me in another depot altogether, 10 miles across London. That's a 10 mile bicycle ride there, and 10 miles back again. By the time I begin my shift, I'm absolutely knackered. (Particularly after last night's stinging hail, drenching rain, and uphill gale.)
Couldn't I take the tube? Well, sure - but it's expensive, even with an Oyster card. It'd be half my wages (minimum wage, £6 per hour) wiped out before I knew it. And yes, I've tried repeatedly contacting the recruitment agency. They simply will not answer calls or emails.
I thought I'd share my daily experiences with you as a series of vignettes. As a friend says, "For all the stories about how desperate unemployment can be (and is), little is written about how miserable and dispiriting this kind of poorly-paid casual work can be, and how it really is no kind of substitute for real work. I fear that this kind of thing is the future for an awful lot of people."
At 3am, I woozily ask a truculent line manager if I can have a 5 minute walk around the block, cos I'm falling asleep. Denied. "Some people have come in from Kent!!" he berates me. Yeah, but I bet they didn't cycle in, in sub-zero temperatures. For another thing, Kent's, like, about 5 miles away. I guess geography isn't the Royal Mail's strong point.
Back again from the 'Prison': cages everywhere, miserable screws, strictly regimented breaks, terrible food, and everyone's wearing orange. Tonight, I offer to help fellow mail sorters locate missing postcodes (as envelopes invariably leave them off), with the aid of my London A-Z guide. *Silence* *Shrugs all round* Me, embarrassed: "Well, just thought it might help..." *More silence* *More shrugs all round* RM: officially not giving a toss about you.
Off with Winter bug. Taking bets on which end will explode first. I lost last time, but pretty sure I'm onto a winner this time.
A crate of envelopes explodes on the sorting desk beside me, nearly taking my hand off. I've been caught sending a single 'goodnight' text at midnight. I hadn't even known it was verboten. "I expect you to keep your phone in your pocket!" the line manager with the wispy moustache and comb-over thunders. Whereas I expect you to swivel on this until your rectum caves in, my good man.
His co-manager's a howlingly offensive little witch, who looks like she used to carry out executions for the Khmer Rouge, and misses it. At 1am she waddles over and wordlessly dumps a mountain of envelopes bound for Australia or something on my desk. "Ah, no, hang on" I say, when I discover her mistake, "You've brought me the wrong pile." The human toad silently jabs her finger in the direction she wants, um, me, to take them back to, while she goes back to standing in a corner and glowering at enemies of the people.
Towards the end of the shift, we discover there's a serious backlog of payments. Far from being paid a week in arrears, we've now been told we may not get paid for anything up to 2 months after the gig finishes, in three weeks.
Hey, I'm not complaining. I'm just grateful to have some work in my forties.
The little witch has ramped up the unpleasantries, all but hurling crates directly at people then stomping off to glare at invisible spiders.
On my left sits M, 21, who wants to work with difficult kids. A former difficult kid herself, who left school at 15, she wants to study for a diploma, but was informed by the authorities that the only way she could afford to go to college was if she got pregnant. She recently turned down a job in a Montessori nursery after being offered just £4 an hour. "My cousin is a postman here" she tells me. "Says out of all the Mail depots, this is the most horribilist."
On my right is F, mid-30s, who trained to be a nurse, but is finding it impossible to get a placement in a hospital. Not like the old days, she says.
Later, I pluck an envelope addressed to 'David Cameron, 10 Downing Street', out of the sorting pile. It has no stamp on it.