An aching back, cut fingers, and at least eight hours of monotonous work make up an ordinary day at the Gamma-A fish factory. The pay for a packed can is two santimes (2.8 euro cents).
The superintendent, Tamāra*, is an older, stocky woman. She shoves a pillow, pillowcase, sheet, blanket cover and grey blanket into a black plastic garbage bag. I’ve just signed for these things in the inventory register, because in the coming week I’ll be working in the Gamma-A fish processing factory and living in their dormitory. In winter it costs 25 lats per month to live there, in summer — 20. The rent will be deducted from my pay.
The dormitory is a two storey, former yacht base building, a walk of 10 minutes to the factory. The superintendent shows me around. The toilet door’s paint is peeling. There’s a puddle next to the cistern. The shower building door can’t be closed, so a chair has to be wedged in front of it. The door of the shower cubicle is broken.
The kitchen is simple. Each person has her own crockery, while there’s a small electric stove, a microwave oven for common use, as well as two refrigerators, in which each woman has her own shelf. There’s also a washing machine. A black and white cat lives in the kitchen. There’s a special soft blue abode set up for him.
My room is small and crowded, with dull yellow walls. I’ll be living here with Vita, Inita and Maiga from Vidzeme, another region of Latvia. Both Inita and Vita travel home twice a month. They can’t afford to do it more often. Inita’s glasses are broken, but she doesn’t have money for new ones. She puts on perfume every morning: ”One cant smell”.
Maiga is sleeping, as she has been washing boxes on the night shift from 11pm to 6am. Like the other workers, she works extra whenever she can. For example, Vita and Inita clean up the Bulgarian guest workers’ dormitory. Vita is on sick leave, as she has problems with her heart. While Vita is sick, Inita does her work as well. She can’t afford to be sick, as there’ll always be someone else in line wanting her job.
I see mainly women around 45 years and older in the dormitories. In the smoking room, the female workers tell me that workers as old as they are won’t even be taken on by supermarket.
The first day of work. The alarm goes off at 5.30 am. There’s another woman in front of me lining up for the toilet, as there are two toilets for 30 people. The stench of urine and cleaning products assails my nostrils. There is one shower for 38 people.
Inita and I head off for the factory. The path to the changing rooms takes us through the smoking room. I am given locker keys, galoshes, scissors and three coats by the property manager. The manager urges me not to let go of the scissors: «If you put them down, they won’t be there later. The Bulgarian ladies will take them.»
Team leader Aina teaches me how to work at the conveyer belt. She is friendly. Her dark grape shaped eyes are set off with thick, black eyelash make-up. Aina has been working at Gamma-A for 13 years now: she used to live in Kurzeme, but now rents an apartment in Rīga. She sits me down at the belt, gives me some scales and puts some smoked sprats and tin cans in front of me. «You put the little sprats in two rows, stomach-up. Don’t put the ugly ones in,» Aina shows me how. A full can of sprats has to weigh between 138 — 142 grams.
I am slow at this work. I’ve packed eight cans in approximately 20 minutes, but it turns out I’ve done it wrong: the sprats are stomach down instead of up. Aina empties out the cans I’d already filled. I start again. If I could pack the fish with both hands, it’d be faster, but I can’t seem to do it. «At first try it with one hand, then try both,» says Aina to me in a motherly fashion.
I am sitting in a draught. My oil-soaked fingers are cold. I’ve cut my fingers three times on the sides of the cans: one of the cuts is deeper, and it bleeds quite freely. I run off to put my finger under running water. Aina comes up and puts a rubber “cap’’ on my finger, which reminds me of a condom. «When it’s full of blood — I’ll give you another» she says.
At 11am, another woman takes me along to lunch. This is the first time in four hours I’ve moved from my place. «All parts of you will hurt, your shoulders will be stiff, your bottom will be numb. Initially it’s hard but you’ll get used to it.» she calms me. Even though lunch time lasts for 30 minutes, most of the women finish their meal in 10 minutes and head back to work.
Around 1pm, I can’t think of a way in which I could sit to give my back a rest. Whilst seated, I try to move around from side to side, as well as hunching over, but it doesn’t help.
My first day lasted a long eight hours. The result: 90 filled cans. I will get paid two santims (pre-tax) for each filled can. I have earned Ls 1.80 (pre-tax). The women near me have packed 12 boxes. So by working quickly, a fish packer can earn more that seven lats a day pre-tax. The women near me have packed twelve boxes. So by working quickly, a fish packer can earn more that seven lats a day pre-tax.
Back at the dormitory Vita asks me how I went. I tell her about my aching back. «You’ll get used to it. It’ll hurt at first, but you can still work.» Vita tries to perk me up. A lot of people have problems with their stomachs because the job involves sitting down.
Although I am overtired, I can’t get to sleep. My back aches. The bed sinks down to the floor, and it seems I’ve slid through it. Vita helps me push a sheet of plywood, which was lying in the corridor, under my mattress. All of my roommates have «repaired» their beds in this manner.
The second day. Today we put the big sprats into cans. A large bit of the sprat has to be cut off with the scissors, as all of the fish have to be roughly the same size. «Don’t put the smaller ones in straight, but at an angle. Don’t put the really small ones in at all.» explains Aina. I cheer up because it seems that it will be easier and quicker to pack the larger sprats, but it’s not the case — the additional sorting and cutting takes time. There are no more empty cans in the box either. The storemen haven’t brought them over, so I have to go get them myself. While the others have filled up three boxes with cans, I’ve only done one.
Aina walks around and checks the scales. It turns out that mine had been incorrectly calibrated, and therefore the packed cans have to be reweighed. Instead of the required 138 — 142 grams, they are 132 — 136 grams. The missing one or two sprats have to be added to each can. «Don’t worry, it’s not your fault.» says Aina. The scales are old and have to be continually checked.
After about three hours work the large sprats are replaced by cod roe — a large fish product. Orange-yellow in colour, with a skin, it’s similar in form to a human lung. The roe is jelly-like. About 177 — 179 grams have to be cut with scissors and placed in the can. I try to pull the first box of roe off the conveyor belt, but it’s stuck between two other boxes. Roe juice and water trickles through the holes, making the box slippery. For a while I try to pull it out, but it’s hopeless. Igors, the storeman, helps me.
The roe is a soft, sticky mass enclosed in a membrane. The frozen ones have to be cut up and placed in cans. The unfrozen, flabby roe slide out of the membrane after it’s cut, and smell like rotten eggs. In trying to cut the slippery, frozen block of roe, I cut the tip of the finger off of my glove and cut my finger a little as well. I’m not given another glove.
Two Bulgarian ladies are sitting at the conveyor belt opposite. The supervisor shouts at one of them: «Ti poņila, ti poņila?!»** The Bulgarian lady has packed the cod roe incorrectly. Wide-eyed, she stares at the supervisor, and nods her head. Many from the first group of Bulgarians have returned home, without working the three months, as the work is hard and the pay is poor.
In the smoking room, the women say that this is an unlucky year — everyone is falling over and breaking bones, as the floor has become slippery from the fat and fish remains.
At the end of the work day I scrub the table and the scales for 20 minutes until I get the caked remains of the roe off. Today I have packed five boxes and earned 3 lats.
By working one shift, you can’t even earn the minimum wage. My roommates get some extra work, cleaning the dormitories of the guest workers. They are in a multi-storey building in the factory territory. When Vita was ill, I went along and helped Inita. There are cigarette butts on the window sill on each floor in the stairwell. The windows are grimy from the smoke. The Bulgarian women are living eight to a room. They have tried to divide up their living space by hanging sheets from their beds. «The Bulgarians have brought cockroaches with them» says Inita, placing cockroach baits in the corners of the room.
Afterwards I go to the local shop with Inita. I have to buy coffee and I’d like some yoghurt as well. «See, coffee for 1.19 Ls. It’s not bad. Vita and I bought some previously.» Iveta points to the coffee with an unfamiliar brand name. She tells me to buy sugar by the kilogram as it turns out cheaper than buying half-kilogram packs.
One evening I see some women who have stayed on from the morning shift in the factory. They’d got up at 5.30am, worked for 8 hours, and then worked another four hours in the next shift until 7pm. That’s 12 hours.
The next days are no different than the first. Tension, plus neck, shoulder and back pain. Every so often the cuts that I’d got from the cans catch painfully on the fish fins or on the edges of the cans and get torn open again. You can’t put band-aids on your fingers. There’s really no point anyway, as they’d slip off because of the wet conditions.
«Try to go faster, faster, with both hands» says Aina, who is doing her rounds. I try to go faster, but cut my finger again. There’s not much blood so I don’t get a rubber “cap”. The next batch of fish is completely dry: the fish don’t bend and you can’t get the tails in.
«The fish are terrible, you can’t work fast either.» Inita tells Valentīna.
«Da, skazaļi mņe, ostavajsa halturiķ: riba jest, riba jest, a vot tut takaja herņa pojevļajetsa. Ti možes složik stoļko, skoļko možeš. No ruki ustajot i vsjo, boļše ņevazmožno,»*** concludes Valentīna.
One day I notice that the women at the conveyer eat a fish or two. You can eat as many as you want but you can’t take them out. I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat fish anyway.
Each day I wait for lunch, so that I can stretch out. Lunch consists of soup and a roll. Once they gave us beetroot soup — pink water with some little bits of beet and potato.
«The soup is unpalatable! Terrible!» one of the workers shouts at the cook. The cook snaps back: «If you want something tasty, then you have to pay for it. This is for free.»
Not many even eat the free lunch. They do take the rolls though. They wrap them in paper hand towels and take them out. «What — you’ve all overeaten? Used to the good life?» Laima, the cook mutters after the women.
«At least the soup is hot today» whispers Sanita quietly. All week it had been barely warm with a layer of fat forming on it.
«Even pigs are given better food» says Inita after lunch.
I’ve worked for a week and two days. It’s very hard to wake up, my back hurts and my right shoulder is so tight I can’t relax it. I head to administration and say that I want to resign. «I thought as much.» says the woman in the personnel section in a quiet voice without asking for any reason. I rattle off that «I’m just too slow, I can’t pack them properly and my pay is just too low».
I write out my resignation. I am free.
* All the names in the story are changed.
**«Ti poņila, ti poņila?!»* — you understand, you understand?! (in Russian)
***«Da, skazaļi mņe, ostavajsa halturiķ: riba jest, riba jest, a vot tut takaja herņa pojevļajetsa. Ti možes složik stoļko, skoļko možeš. No ruki ustajot i vsjo, boļše ņevazmožno,»** — They told me, work a bit extra: there’s fish, there’s fish, but this….appeared. You can only pack as many as you can. Your hands tire and that’s all, it’s not possible to do more.