The closest I’ve ever come to working in a sweatshop is when I worked for the Vancouver Sun. Okay, I never technically worked for the Vancouver Sun, I worked for one of their subcontractors. And, if we are being honest here I didn’t work for them very long, give or take two hours. But, with those caveats in mind, let me tell you about how brutal that shit was (is?)
Back in the early 2000s I was recovering from a traumatic brain injury, smoking crack recreationally (whenever I had the money), and generally going nowhere exceedingly fast. In September of 2000, I was unemployed and pretty much unemployable, but I still searched the classifieds as often as my hangovers/comedowns would allow. I lived on Fraser and Broadway (just two buildings up from the KFC) and would walk down to a job centre on Commercial. This place had the daily papers and would let you use a computer for half and hour. Whenever I went the only job advertised in the paper that required no skills and no references was one that read something like: “Start today, regular hours, benefits after three months, bonuses available…”. There was an address on Broadway you could go to and drop off your resume. It was one of those job ads that didn’t tell you what you would be doing, so you knew it was either telemarketing or a pyramid scheme.
One morning, after touching up my resume (It may as well have just read “Ready to be brutally exploited by capital”), and lacking bus fare, I walked from Commercial to Broadway and Cambie. I came to the address (it was close to the Mongolie Grill), opened the door and walked up a flight of stairs
Have you ever seen a movie that depicts stockbrokers or some other sort of uber-capitalist in a crowded room, the room is filled with smoke, and the frantic energy is felt through the screen? That is what this place was like. The place was tiny, no bigger than an average size upper-middle class kitchen. There was a bench resting against a wall when you got to the top of the stairs. From the bench you got a view of about twenty or thirty people sitting in undivided cubicles. Each person was reading from a monitor in front of them. The action never stopped. I could hear people say “good-bye” and then a second or two later they would start in on their opening spiel. A short woman with curly hair seemed to be their overseer. She walked up and down the aisles, saying nothing, just making her presence felt.
I sat there for about ten minutes, until the overseer approached me. “Are you here for the interview?” she snapped. I thought about saying no, but wasn’t quick enough to devise a reason that would explain my sitting on the bench so I said “sure am” as enthusiastically as I could muster. “Come with me,” she said and I did.
She took me into a small office located to the right of the main plantation. I don’t remember her asking me any questions in fact I think she just gave me the tax forms you fill out when you get a new job. Attached to these forms was her business card, I can’t remember her name, but I do remember she had PhD after her name. “I wonder why you would need a PhD to run this place,” I thought. “What did she study? How to walk around a tiny place and make sure people stayed on script? Did she do her dissertation on this subject? Who were the people she had to defend her dissertation to? The tenured professors of walking around making sure people stayed on script?”. Before I cold get too lost in my thoughts about the uselessness of most post-secondary education she asked me when I wanted to start. “You can start right now if you want?” she nudged. “Well sure, I guess so.
She led me back onto the floor and sat me between two other people . I could hear them chattering away, offering a month free, doubling-down if they were rejected and offering a six month subscription for twenty bucks. The curly haired overseer (PhD) handed me a scrap of paper with a four-digit number on it. “This is your employee number, enter it into the phone and then follow the script,” she instructed. After I entered said code, I held the phone in my hand and could hear it dialling, a name came onto my screen followed by a script.
“Hello Mr/Mrs___________________(use the name associated with the number), my name is _____________ and I am calling on behalf of the Vancouver Sun. I am pleased to offer you a free 30-day home delivery subscription to the Vancouver Sun. This free month includes the Saturday paper as well. After your complimentary month you will receive a reduced monthly rate of $20.00 for the next six months. Can I go ahead and sign you up?”.
“Okay”, was the response on my first call.
After confirming the address, I hung up. The Overseer (PhD) hung-up my phone and took a bell from her pocket and started ringing it. “A sale on his first call!” she hollered. And for I moment I was proud of myself, I thought maybe I had found my calling. This seemed easy enough. Didn’t take much to be successful at it, maybe I could work here part-time and go back to school, get my PhD in whatever you need to have a PhD in to be the boss at the telemarketing sweatshop. I could be somebody, sober up and start to make my way in the world. The overseer (PhD) then released my phone, told me to log in and make some more sales.
Turns out it wasn’t that easy. That first call was either a fluke or a plant, because I stayed until my first coffee break (around 11) and didn’t come close to making another sale. When coffee time arrived I walked down the stairs, deflated, took out a smoke (I had spent my last $5.25 on a pack of Dunhill), and stood on the sidewalk. As I smoked I thought about going back up there. I thought about the tight confines, I thought about how pissed-off most people are when they receive a telemarketing call, and I thought about how uncomfortable I felt reading the script. I also thought about that curly-haired overseer (PhD). I thought about how her presence there didn’t add up.
I finished my smoke, looked towards Main Street, and knew I wasn’t going back up those stairs. I started walking east.