I arrived at the shift at 5pm, half an hour earlier than the job required, as I was told that if you want more work in the future you need to make a good impression. There were nine of us; two supervisors and seven labourers. I’d been told by the agency not to expect anything too thrilling. ‘Grunt work’ was how Monique had described it over the phone. I said grunt work was fine. I just need to make a little bit of money before I leave this city behind.
We were given work shirts with the company name on the back and I changed my top in the middle of the street as businesspeople walked past on their way home from work, all blazers and high heels and loud phone calls about difficult clients. I bought a bottle of water from the Seven Eleven across the road and after thirty minutes of waiting around we were taking inside for the induction. We were given gloves and a boxcutter knife, and attached safety glasses to the top of our hard hats. The building on the ground floor is functioning already; swanky offices, though the top of the building isn’t finished. Up top it’s all hanging wires and tins of paint and plaster and cuttings of wood; during the day I suppose it’s a hive of activity, but in the evening we were the only ones there.
We sat in a lunch room piled with coffee mugs and scuffed up hard hats plastered with stickers, and filled out healthy and safety forms and listened to the site manager from some other company lay down the law. No entering zones with signage warning us not to do so. Assume all wires are live. No drugs or alcohol. No touching of any tools or materials except those we are working with. No use of phones on site unless in an emergency. There were a lot of threats involved in the toolbox talk; more than one might usually anticipate.
‘If you arrive in the wrong kind of trousers you’ll be sent home’
‘If I see you touching anything you’re not meant to you’ll be sent home’
‘If you’re late to a shift you’ll be sent home’
‘If you’ve got a bad attitude you won’t get more work from us’
‘If I see you on your phones I’ll be fucking furious’
With the hour long safety briefing finished we left our bags in the lunch room on the seventh floor and headed back down to the street. There was a lorry parked outside containing several tons worth of office equipment; we were told there were three lorries to get through that evening. The boss said that usually it would take only a few hours, although it could well be longer now as five workers were absent for the shift due to a cock up at the agency.
The new furniture we were to be taking up to the top was for a company called WeWork. They buy office space and turn it into a swanky, top of the range workspace that dozens of companies hire out for a vast monthly fee. It’s strange; when I first arrived in Melbourne and took a marketing job, I was working in a WeWork office across the city. I drank the free beer they served on tap, drank the machine-made coffee, ate the fruit and snacks they served up several times a week, and said hello to the cleaning lady on an evening. Four months and several misfortunes later, and I’m lugging tables and chairs across an immaculate foyer under cover of darkness to furnish WeWork’s new location; grunt work.
We unloaded the van of the table legs first. These weren’t too bad – 17kgs a box, two hundred and fifty boxes to move. We filled up dollies with boxes and wheeled them into the goods lift and took them to the seventh and ninth floors to be distributed among the several dozen rooms. I was put in charge of numbers; with a marker pen and sticky tape I was sent around each unfinished room to mark the number of items required in each.
After the table legs came the desks tops; four desks to a box, boxes weighing 53kgs each. Cumbersome and alarmingly heavy, this made for slow work. We pulled the wobbling dollies from room to room, stacking furniture where we could and sweating in silence as we worked.
After a couple of hours we began to chat. There was a Frenchman called George, and three Brits – a Scouse, a Smoggy, and a guy from Southampton – as well as a Colombian from Bogota and a Dutchman called Niels. We’d all done over work back home; the Colombian was a glazier, the Dutchman worked as a store manager, and George was a baker. Everybody comes to Australia from all over the world, with all their knowledge and experience and hard-earned accolades, to find that nowhere will hire you, and all that’s left, if you ever want to earn enough money to leave, is grunt work.
Four hours in we got a fifteen minute break, and I bummed a smoke with George and stood up the road away from the main entrance to the building, because we weren’t allowed to smoke near the building lest some well-to-do passerby saw us and was horrified. So I stood alone on a street corner a hundred metres away, outside an Oriental restaurant with enormous live crabs in the window, crammed into small tanks.
Back at it after the break and it was the same again, rinse and repeat; lifting, rolling, carrying, skins peeling off hands with every box. By 11pm, six hours in, we were shattered. We took a lunch break and I got a coffee to perk me up; I knew full well that I wouldn’t be able to sleep when we finished at midnight, but I needed the energy. I’m glad I drank that coffee, because we worked well past when we were supposed to.
With a deficit of five people in our team, work was slow and grinding. Over the course of the shift everybody’s initially chipper attitudes started to flag, though I held back from complaining as I wanted to ensure I got more work in the future. The guy from Middlesbrough was talking under his breath at every opportunity; about the futility of the work, about the poor planning, about the incorrect information we were given when offered the job.
At 2am we were given on last task which we were not informed of: all the furniture we had brought in, the 250 boxes of table tops, the 250 boxes of chair legs, the 250 cabinets, the 250 desk chairs, would have to be unboxed and arranged in piles so the day crew could assemble them easily. We worked from room to room with our boxcutters slicing open cardboard and heaving out the contents, then arranging it in a sensible order only for the supervisor to enter the room and tell us we had to position them differently and that we had to carry them elsewhere.
At 2.45am the supervisor entered to check on me and the Middlesbrough guy, who were unpacking dozens of chair legs on the 9th floor. ‘This has taken way too fucking long. Pack all your shit up and bring it downstairs’, he snapped, lingering for a moment to glare around the room at our progress before stalking away. No words were exchanged between the labourers, just a sigh. 10 hours of work later, five men down for the job, not one word of complaint, and that’s the thanks you receive.
Back down in the foyer we packed all the empty boxes away into the lorry along with the dollies. The security guard suggested that we mop the floor as well to avoid him getting into trouble in the morning, as I suppose important business people are offended by dusty footprints. So at 3:15am I found myself mopping the foyer with the Colombian guy, as the security guard, the site manager and the supervisor – all of whom had done precisely nothing for the past ten hours – stood and watched. Fucking grunt work, man.
I got home at 4am and sat in the kitchen with the balcony doors open looking at the skyscrapers of the CBD. I couldn’t sleep until 5.
Fuck Melbourne. I’ve tried so hard to like it here but there, I finally said it. This city – and my whole time in this country, if I’m being totally honest – has been nothing but false advertisement and exploitation. Farm owners pay illegal wages as they know you have nowhere else to go and that you lack the means to report them – by the time any authority arrives to investigate, the backpackers who made the complaint have been sacked and moved on. Visa control sends you out of the country at your own expense for a new visa to be granted, regardless of the details of your case. Every job pays late, and every landlord, boss and hostel owner has been authoritarian, obnoxious, condescending or all three. I got a bollocking from my landlord last week for having two friends sleep on my bedroom floor; friends who had nowhere else to go, no money for a hostel. My landlord had seen them enter the building on the CCTV – creepy enough – and told me I owed him $100 for their stay, which would come out of my deposit.
You’re nothing more than a backpacker here, and backpacker is a dirty word. You are endlessly replaceable, and any attempt to stand up for yourself is invariably met with the response, ‘if you don’t like it, just leave. We can have another one of you backpackers in here by tomorrow’. I’m sick of hearing ‘Pommie’ used before the word ‘cunt’, or after the word ‘fucking’. It seems that many young people come here and experience all the travel agency-touted delights that the country is famed for; beachy lifestyles, sun-kissed golden locks, barbecues and road trips and joyful, bue sky days. But not me. If there is an Australian backpacker dream, it has eluded me, again and again and again.
I’m off to Tasmania in two weeks to spend my last month here picking apples on a farm with Seth. I’m not holding my breath for a redeeming Australian experience, but whatever – six more weeks here then I’m leaving this country behind and moving on with my life.