Let me take you back to 2008. I’d just resigned from a rather horrendous role as Head of Digital at a Sydney agency.
Taking the role had been a big step for me and I quickly realised I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
For starters, the agency had previously focused on Direct Mail and was firmly entrenched it that mind set. Getting them to think Digital was a struggle (the Creative Director famously refused to design websites in anything other than InDesign).
But I’ll freely admit that my hatred of the role wasn’t entirely the agency’s fault. A lot of my issues were 100% self created.
This was a seriously grown up job. I was on the board, I had performance based financial incentives. My salary had moved up to a fabulous figure but in in exchange, I had to give a big fat commitment.
First, I was in charge of a large team and it was up to me to do the hiring and firing (lots of firing). The buck stopped with me and that meant long hours, lots of stress and the occasional quiet sob in the loos.
I had to make tough decisions and be firm and this meant some of my colleagues didn’t like me very much. It’s hard to be someone’s chum when you’re making them work ‘til midnight on a pitch.
I stuck the job out for several months but finally admitted defeat.
(The agency has gone on to employ a smashing lead Digital guy and is now going great guns by the way.)
So what next for me?
One day as I was supping a coffee, I spotted an ad in the paper. It was calling for workers for a short-term role at a large online flower retailer.
And for some crazy reason I applied. And then I got the job.
I turned up a few days before Valentine’s Day at a large factory in Sydney’s western suburbs. The staff manager greeted me but seemed a little bemused about why I’d applied.
I looked around and saw why: mine was the only white face.
The rest of the workers were a mix of races, Chinese, Indian, Nigerian. Later, as we chatted, it was clear that most had a fairly poor grasp of English and that the majority were recent immigrants to Australia (more recent than me that is, I arrived around 14 years ago).
The staff manager immediately offered me an increased salary (From $10 to $12) and put me in charge of the table. Not that that meant a huge deal.
Then, the real work began
The roses, imported from South America, were dragged on huge trolleys from the freezer and dumped at the end of the long table. We workers were separated into different tasks.
First the roses were examined for damaged petals and leaves. These were stripped off the rose and discarded. Next the stems were trimmed to a strict 50cm.
My job was to strip any leaves and thorns from the stalk, leaving only an aesthetically pleasing few sprigs at the top of the stem near the bloom. Next to me an Iranian lady, called Aziza, poked the end of the rose into a tiny sachet of preservative solution.
Further down others sorted the roses into clumps of 12 or 24, while others plopped them in the boxes.
On another table, the regular workers had the more prestige jobs of adding chocolates, placing tissue paper and tying bows.
How I wished I worked on that table.
For one, they had seats. We didn’t. Try standing up for 10 hours straight and see how much agony it causes in your back and legs.
Oh and there was blood
We were given flimsy plastic gloves to wear, which were quickly lacerated by the rose thorns and filled with blood. On day two I brought some thicker gloves from home, but they made me too clumsy eventually and I had to give in to the pain. (We were scolded firmly if we damaged a rose, and told that each one wasted cost the business $1. I bet they’d have loved to dock our wages.)
We were allowed a strict five minute loo break every two hours and a 30min break for lunch. There was nowhere to go on this bland industrial estate, so most of us just slumped on the floor outside and ate food from home. I shared my pathetic sandwiches with some truly awesome dishes from my ethnically eclectic chums.
Bizarrely on day two the Managing Director called me to his office – he’d checked out my CV and told me the company was in fact looking for a Digital Marketing Director, would I be interested? I said I’d think about it.
(Erm, F**K NO! I’d seen how they treated their lowliest employees and didn’t want to work for a company like that.)
By day three I was a wreck. Tired and miserable. My fingers were a bloody mess, my back ached, my brain was numb from days of monotony. And all for a pathetic $120 a day (before tax).
And the moral of the story is
I have never been so relieved to leave a job. It took me a week to recover.
And if you’re thinking; “What a pathetic cow!”
I couldn’t agree with you more.
You see that was four days of my life. For the regular women workers (they were predominantly female) that was their everyday life. They woke up at five each morning to drive from the far western suburbs to the factory. After a gruelling 10-hour work day, they returned home to cook and clean for their families and look after children. They did this day in day out (most worked 6 days a week) all for a pittance.
And, without exception, every single one of them was grateful for the job.
I asked the Managing Director why they didn’t employ any Aussies on the rose tables;
“We’ve tried” he replied, “but they don’t stick it out. Too much like hard work.”
And he was right. It was too much like hard work.
The whole experience was a giant slap in the face for me. And it was a slap I really needed.
I realised that no matter how hard my digital day job might feel it was nothing compared to what most people have to do each day. This factory after all was in Australia – where there are fairly good working conditions, don’t get me started on the sweat shops of Pakistan or China.
A few weeks later I took a contract role at Singleton Ogilvy and Mather as a Senior Producer. Back in my day, the agency was notorious for it’s hard-core working conditions, long hours and thankless bosses (apparently it’s much better now).
But to me it was heaven
I had a chair, I could go to the loo whenever I wanted and, no matter how fast I typed, my fingers didn’t bleed.
I remember the other producers and creatives remarking on how jolly I was all the time (believe me, ‘jolly’ is not a word that’s usually used about me at work). And I was.
I was incredibly happy and I enjoyed working there enormously.
I took one more senior role after that as Digital Director at a medium sized agency. Then, thankfully, became pregnant and gave it all up to start my copywriting business.
Now whenever I feel that I’m working too hard, or I get wound up by difficult clients – I remember the rose factory and tell myself to shut the f**k up.
I know I’m incredibly lucky to do what I do and I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
So when you get your delivery of roses today, try to appreciate them just that little bit more .
Think of the poor sods in South America who picked them and the poor sods in Sydney who packed them.
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