Manual Labours at Movement Gallery, Platform 2, Foregate Street Railway Station, Worcester, 21-25 April. Includes new writing in the form of a free newspaper.



Another job interview. The same recycled material, the same territory trodden so many times before. And as if by some far-fetched parodic device, this was literally the same job I had been interviewed for three years previously, and at the same place: assistant at an industrial laundry plant. Not an especially sought-after position - quite the opposite.

As I approached the site, driven by the compulsion of the involuntary ‘jobseeker’, I recognised once again that same knotted feeling, not of expectation but of dread and resentment, and brought on by the prospect not of rejection, but of acceptance.

I lurked outside just as before, in the same suit, then went into the same unstaffed reception and dialled the same number to announce my arrival. Everything was exactly as it had been last time, except for some notices on the wall about the company’s ethical obligations, which dated from this year.

It was unclear whether my interlocutors would remember me, or whether in fact they would turn out to be the different people. As last time, the vacancy was advertised in the local paper and the application form was sent by post and filled in by hand – a ritual rare enough to pass as some sort of period reconstruction. It was likely that the job was aimed at people who, for whatever reason, did not have regular internet access. I made a mental note not to let on about my extravagant broadband lifestyle. The fact that I’d been invited back suggested there was no record of my previous failure; or maybe I’d just missed out to a more suitable candidate and was being given a second chance. How generous. 

I hadn’t recognised her name but Jane, the woman who collected me, looked distinctly familiar. She gave no indication of us having met before as we entered the main building and she explained the signing-in process, but then there was no reason why she should remember every visitor, or share that knowledge even if she did, so I supposed it was up to me to decide whether or not to own up. We began the tour of the plant and the moment had passed; already she was describing the layout and I had slipped into the performance of looking interested as the machinery scrolled past, as if I were seeing it all for the first time, nodding and asking questions.

I knew from my previous visit that the tour would be followed by a short formal interview, and pinned my hopes on the probability that the manager had changed. Given the pressurised atmosphere and conditions I figured the place must have a high staff turnover. I remembered that last time I was seen by a middle-aged Scot with tattoos and a hi-viz vest who greeted me from behind his desk and then went through the motions of telling me about the job, while clearly having no intention of hiring me.

After the tour I was shown into the office of the current manager, Ian; a middle-aged Scot with tattoos and a hi-viz vest. He greeted me from behind his desk and then went through the motions of telling me about the job, while clearly having no intention of hiring me.

All three of us sat in the same seats in the same office: Ian at his desk, me on a slightly too high chair in front of him and Jane behind me near the door. None of us acknowledged that this whole scene had been acted out before. Even with such an industrial approach to recruitment it would be surprising if nothing had stirred in Ian’s mind, perhaps emerging like a pair of logoed overalls dragged from behind an industrial washing unit, pertaining to this candidate in front of him or the application form spread on his desk. But then, like Jane, he must have seen countless unhopefuls in his time, and no doubt assessed each one instantly as a bundle of human material which either could be ironed into productive shape or should be thrown out. Maybe he was playing a clever game, waiting for me to make the first move. Maybe he detected something uncanny in our encounter but dismissed it as déjà vu; maybe he was oblivious, or simply didn’t care. In that couple of seconds, I couldn’t tell.

He asked me what I knew about the company. I should have seized this opportunity to come clean: ‘Well, Ian, I know about the same amount as I did three years ago when I last saw you...’ But as tempting as this was, I thought if there really was no mental or digital imprint of my previous application, a reminder could only damage my chances. Being all too aware of my fear of getting the job - the seasoned drudge must always be on the lookout for such traps laid by one’s own unconscious, desperate for escape - such an approach might even constitute an act of self-sabotage. What was the strategy here? I wondered whether any of the employability manuals covered this scenario.

I blurted some basic facts. After a perfunctory nod he embarked on the formality of explaining the corporate structure, and again the moment had passed.

As the process went on I sensed that I had been pretty much eliminated (again), with my bookish body stuck awkwardly inside a suit recently dry cleaned by the retail arm of this very company (I had an echoing sense of thinking, I should have dressed down). Ian’s reiterations of the demands of the role suggested that he thought I wouldn’t cope with dull repetitive physical work, even though I emphasised that I would positively embrace such work and pointed to my successful history in other such jobs. 

Still the interview ticked on towards its inevitable conclusion, the only new information being that although they have bank holidays off the manager doesn't let staff take any other leave during the weeks of bank holidays, including Christmas. I didn't recall that from last time. He explained the sound business reasons for this and I nodded in acceptance, obviously, as I did at the policy that any lateness or sickness in the first three months would result in instant dismissal. During the tour, as we had watched workers put wet garments on hangers or fold dry ones into plastic bags, tasks which would be repeated for weeks at a time, Jane had mentioned the need to meet deadlines in order to return the items promptly to their owners (hotels, airports, garages). If the workload increased, the staff had to work harder and for longer hours to keep up. Apparently all the staff were working 7-5 this week rather than the standard 8-5 hours. Everyone worked together to get the work done, she said. I got the impression that this overtime wasn't necessarily voluntary. 

Last time when it came to the ‘any questions’ stage at the end of the interview, I couldn’t be bothered asking anything because I knew it was hopeless and I just wanted to get out. I knew it was hopeless this time too, and I still wanted to get out, but nevertheless my self-sabotage radar warned me against worthless silence or belatedly mentioning my past failure. In an effort to pull the experience out of the amnesic void of the here and now, I wondered aloud how long the plant had been here. A laundry has been on the site since the 1880s, Ian told me, and it used to cover the whole area of the industrial estate. It had operated under different names and owners before its various specialist departments had been re-located and it had finally been rebuilt in its current form as part of a national chain. 

All three of us, Jane, Ian and myself, momentarily bonded over our shared fascination with this historic fact; we stepped outside of the script and the characters we inhabited. We had all been here before, certainly, but in a way which transcended our individual identities, just as the soiled uniforms delivered here and passed through the machines over and over again were elements in a larger fabric, the impervious material of time.

Appropriately enough, as he sat in his office in his hi-viz vest, denying his staff holidays and ordering them to fold clothes for the minimum wage for nearly fifty hours a week, the manager struck me as being a 21st century version of a Victorian factory boss, so absorbed in the duty of maintaining his human machinery as to be utterly unaware of his own cruelty. As he led me out of the plant, twenty minutes after I’d arrived, he told me he’d been the manager here for eight years, having worked his way up through the ranks at another branch.

Outside I noticed a gleaming black Mercedes in the otherwise desolate car park. I presumed it was his, and wondered if I remembered it from last time or if it was a newer model. I imagined all the luxury vehicles which had occupied that same spot over the years, paid for by the labour of those toiling inside: another kind of laundering, another motif in the same endless story.


Labour MP David Lammy and right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange have both expressed deep concerns that Jobcentres are failing to help people find work. Policy Exchange have produced a report called “Joined Up Welfare: The next steps for personalisation”[1], which proposes that the service provided by Jobcentres should be opened up to market competition, and that claimants should be allocated “caseholders” to “coordinate specialist support suited to that person’s unique needs.” Lammy, meanwhile, writes that Jobcentres are no longer "fit for purpose"[2]. The “one-size-fit-all national system doesn’t reflect the varying and specific needs of individuals,” he argues; “the unique nature of each case of unemployment means services must be personalised and responsive to individual needs.” He too favours “a network of regulated charities and private sector organisations” to administer this model of personalised welfare provision.
The similarity of these pronouncements, coming from supposedly different political perspectives, demonstrates how one-dimensional ‘debates’ about welfare have become (Lammy even cites the Policy Exchange report approvingly). In their enthusiasm to propose dynamic new forms of support for ‘jobseekers’, both overlook a fact which is obvious to anyone who has actually had to sign on in recent years: people don’t go to Jobcentres to look for work. Jobs, or rather fragments or episodes of work, are found elsewhere, usually online or through agencies after days or weeks or months of copying and pasting and clicking and scrolling and phoning. People go to Jobcentres to get the welfare benefits they're entitled to, and which they need to live on.
Immense ideological resources have been invested in obscuring this fact, through the invention of a range of contrived interactions, most of which are thinly disguised surveillance exercises. Once inside the Jobcentre, recipients of ‘Jobseeker’s Allowance’ are required to prove their eligibility by producing evidence of job searches (often involving the spam-filled Universal Jobmatch website), made to undergo “work-focused interviews” and attend compulsory workshops on CV-writing, motivation or self-esteem. None of these contribute anything in practical terms, but all serve to wrap the basic transaction between claimant and state authority in an imaginary relationship of rehabilitation or moral instruction, as if to administer financial support without these strings attached would be somehow flagrantly irresponsible.
So, the personalisation of welfare is already well under way. Under its oppressive regime unemployment is presented as an internal fault in the individual, either a deception - you’re not really unemployed, you’re not really looking for work - or a negative attitude or deficit in employability, rather than an external economic fact. In his article, Labour MP Lammy lists examples of reasons for becoming unemployed as “health issues”, “confidence problems” and “a lack of training and skills.” But not a lack of jobs.
This is the context in which reports of politicians and think-tanks about “specialist support” and “specific needs of individuals” must be interpreted. They are falling over each other to express their concerns that Jobcentres aren't helping people  - especially young people - not out of any bid to rebuild the true social purpose of welfare or revive the spirit of the Labour Exchange but because, having systematically stigmatised the unemployed and whipped up public resentment and ignorance through the language of ‘welfare dependence’ and ‘something for nothing’, the Labour and Conservative parties are now racing to be the first to push the detonator in front of the cameras. These statements are the latest mystifications of the reality of work and non-work, providing a convenient opening for further outsourcing to the private welfare-to-work industry with its humiliation programmes and obstacle courses of appointments and activities, where the economic causes of unemployment and necessity of benefits are forgotten amid the scramble to offer lucrative guidance to 'customers' in return for public funds.
There is another glaring gap in this official talk of personalised welfare support: while claimants have to attend Jobcentres to claim benefit, the duty of Jobcentre advisers is now to do everything in their power to stop people getting that benefit. Advisors are no longer able to offer worthwhile work opportunities, as the few such opportunities that exist rarely reach the doors of the Jobcentre and are hugely over-applied for. It is not a coincidence that the web of Jobcentre rules has expanded as the same time that the labour market has dissolved into low-paid temporary and zero-hours drudgery. The goal of ‘getting people off benefits’ has been detached from the goal of finding sustainable work and is now predominantly a matter of intimidation and statistical chicanery.
Conspicuously absent from the MP’s hand-wringing elegy and the Policy Exchange plan is any mention of benefit sanctions, an issue which to anyone in close proximity to the reality of ‘welfare reform’ looms far larger than any PR waffle on what sort of “support” should be offered. Benefit sanctions are at their highest rate since the introduction of JSA and still rising, even as the official unemployment figures fall. 874,850 sanctions were imposed (5.1% of claimants) from September 2012 to September 2013 (rising to 6% in the last 3 months)[3]; and this before the introduction in October 2013 of the ‘Claimant Commitment’ requiring 35 hours per week of job searching. Targets for sanctions achieved by Jobcentre staff are widely reported, although officially denied[4]
In July last year, eight days after his JSA was sanctioned, 59-year-old David Clapson died from complications of diabetes. Mr Clapson was found at home “a short distance from a pile of printed CVs.” He could not afford electricity and the coroner found that his stomach was empty when he died. A response to his family from a DWP official stated that “the correct procedures were followed for the administration of benefit.”[5] 
This is the kind of personalised tyranny which routinely operates in Jobcentres today: “little trip wires"[6] designed to snare claimants and exploit vulnerabilities, regardless of the consequences, and thereby to reduce the official jobless figures, if not through actual work then through workfare, sanctions, destitution and death. As long as they are processed correctly, all outcomes are statistically the same.
In perpetrating such atrocities the Jobcentre has indeed lost any social purpose it may once have had, and as such it should be abolished in its current form. This is not however the reason for the objections of the politicians and think-tanks; for all their ideas for personalised support, they will not be drawn on the details of individual cases, even though such cases are the logical conclusion of their rhetoric. The aim in re-branding Jobcentres as remedial services based on individual responsibility and employability is to eliminate all consideration of the general economic necessity of welfare, along with the structural fact of unemployment under capitalism. Just as unemployment becomes a personal rather than a social issue, deaths from sanctions or institutionalised bullying are viewed as personal tragedies for which the organisations involved cannot be held responsible, even when they have engineered them.
Jobcentres haven't 'failed' in their aim to help people find work, because that is not their real aim. Their function is to act not as a support but as a deterrent. Everything from the bureaucratic minefield of claiming to the inquisitions of advisors and the atmosphere of humiliation is designed to make you feel like a) you’ve done something wrong to get here; and b) you would rather be anywhere else. This is not an accident or a case of bad management, it’s a deliberate policy.         
These same themes are played out in party-political pseudo-debates regarding the workfare schemes ostensibly set up to help unemployed people. The Work Programme hasn't 'failed' to get people into work, because its function isn't to help people get into work. The ‘Help to Work’ scheme is not designed to help people into work. The function of these schemes is to artificially reduce the official unemployment rate, firstly by discouraging claims through stigma and fear, and then by creating pretexts for sanctions and conscripting people into workfare, erasing them from the statistics and giving corporations a supply of free labour into the bargain. On these terms, far from failing, the schemes have been extremely successful.
Of course Jobcentres will soon disappear into the morass of virtual employability hubs and remedial training providers. The relentless torrent of dole stigma emanating from both government and opposition and amplified by media have turned the Jobcentre into the post-Fordist equivalent of the asylum on the hill that prompts ordinary ‘hard-working’, Reality TV watching people to shudder as they walk past, thinking it full of Hogarthian caricatures rather than people just like themselves only even worse off.
A vision of a truly joined-up welfare state would be the complete opposite of the market- and target-driven machinery of blame proposed by the political authorities, and would aim to ease the anxiety and despair of unemployment, rather than add to it. An unemployment benefit office – freed from the misnomer ‘Jobcentre’ - would invite claimants to register, sign on without fear of sanctions or coercion, and leave, without any compulsory support or stupefying activities or jobseeker’s agreements. Better still, depersonalise the process entirely: put the whole thing online and make claiming benefit a matter of one click, whereby the money is sent straight to your account, without human contact and without conditions, until you find a job worth doing. In an era of permanent insecurity, this is the only sort of welfare system which would really help individuals and society.


According to this government, challenging a business on its use of unpaid labour is "unacceptable intimidation", but someone dying after having their benefits stopped is acceptable as long as the "correct procedures" have been followed.


As the last welfare claimant is sanctioned, the statistics show a jobless figure of zero. Unemployment has been eliminated. The word has been consigned to the virtual heritage cabinet, along with the old ‘job for life’. Meanwhile full employment, for so long an impossible dream buried in some bureaucrat’s drawer, has suddenly become a bright, market-led reality. The news channels are in full flow, business leaders and their political allies are triumphant. This is the surest sign yet of the economic resurrection, a victory for hard-working families doing the right thing and a validation of the moral toolkits of the employability coaches, a turnaround in the national mindset and a huge winning stride forward in the global race.
Viewers watch this scrolling fiction with a weary indifference as they scour the job sites, clicking from one assignment to another, searching for another few hours, bidding for scraps of work tomorrow or next week, often for no more money than so-called welfare would provide. It has long been known that a benefit claim is a conscription to Poundland. The figures have been massaged out of existence by the invisible hand and its twin pressures of stigma and fragmentary labour. The duties are the same, the rewards and prospects equally non-existent: it comes down to a choice between one arbitrary authority and another.


Psychometric Fiction

1 = Strongly Disagree
2 = Disagree
3 = In-between
4 = Agree
5 = Strongly Agree
I try to avoid work which is not essential
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐

It’s impossible to be warm towards everyone you meet
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐

I turn up for work when others wouldn’t bother
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐

It is best to do what you are paid for and nothing more
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐

I am happiest when I have nothing to do
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐

I cannot be cheerful all the time
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐

There are some days when I just can’t face going to work
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐

I sometimes find it hard to keep smiling
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐

I sometimes tell lies if I think it is necessary
1 ☐         2 ☐         3 ☐         4 ☐         5 ☐


Dear recruitment agent

Do you remember when I registered with you? That bright smiling day in your office when you admired my CV and promised that ongoing full-time warehouse work was just around the corner? As we completed the paperwork we were full of hopes about our future together. And later, after a single day's work which you assured me was only an interim measure, I even gave you my P45.

Yet now over a month has passed and still this ongoing work has not materialised. I phone and you say you'll call back soon with definite news, but I hear nothing. Then, when you finally do ring, it is to offer a one-off nightshift in a supermarket... And when I give my reasons for not accepting this you seem disappointed, as if I am the one at fault, and say that you'll "get someone else..."

How did it come to this? Was our relationship doomed from the start? Was I wrong to trust you? etc.


‘Could you point me towards the anchovies?’
‘No, I’m afraid not Madam. I’ve never worked here before and I don’t know the layout of the shop. I’ve just been left with this cage full of products and told to get on with it. In fact I don’t even work for this supermarket. I’m working for an agency which has sub-contracted me from another agency, by arrangement with the supermarket, for just one shift. This is my first day, and my only day. Yes I’m wearing black, but look more closely: this isn’t a supermarket uniform; it’s an unmarked black jumper, frayed at the cuffs. And these aren’t regulation shopfloor trousers, they’re old jeans. The agency told me to wear black so I would blend in with the proper members of staff while I’m stacking shelves. Or rather, while I appear to be stacking shelves... See these packets of organic spelt I’m holding? I have no idea where they go. I don’t even know what organic spelt is. This place, and most of the products and people in it, are totally alien to me. I’ve visited this shop as a customer about twice in five years, and I just bought a loaf of bread or a bar of chocolate and got the hell out. Until today, that is. So no, I’m sorry, I don’t know where the anchovies are. Maybe they've moved. An addition to the usual shopping list, yes? Following a TV chef recipe? Don't worry, you'll find them sooner or later. Whereabouts exactly, your guess is as good as mine. Or even better than mine. Because really we’re approaching this whole issue from the wrong angle, aren’t we? You seem at home here, you must come in regularly, twice a week at least. You’ve got a basket full of items already. You know where you’re going and what you’re buying. I’m standing here with this organic spelt, whatever that is, and I should be asking you where it goes. It must be near here somewhere. Could you direct me towards the right shelf? Just a minute out of your busy day, please, I’ve been standing here for twenty minutes. It took ten minutes to find the right place for the last thing, and then the shelf was full so I had to put it back in the cage. And that’s when I picked up this organic spelt. I want to tear it open and spray the damned stuff across the aisle. But the supervisor won’t be pleased about that. Do you understand? I’m on a twelve hour shift. I’m going out of my mind. As a fellow human, I’m begging you, please-’


Hello, welcome to the Dispatch Room, come on in, mind your step. Is this your first day? OK, let me show you what we do here, don’t worry it’s not rocket science.
See these flimsy brown cardboard envelopes, filling those four big crates with another crate’s worth in a sort of mountain on top of them? Well, each envelope has an address label, each label has a number, and these numbers must be matched with the numbers stuck on these 80 or so plastic boxes along the walls. The packages have to be thrown into the boxes - or ‘totes’, as we call them. When the boxes are filled new ones must be started. As you can see, some of the boxes are stacked up on top of each other. Oops, yes, as I say watch out as there’s not much space - we have to put these extra totes down on the floor for more envelopes, so try not to trip over them as you walk from one end of the room to the other. We grab armfuls of envelopes from the large crates (or ‘magnums’), distribute them, then come back and get more. But as quickly as we empty the magnums, they’ll fill up again. See over there, that oblong container on wheels, that’s a ‘coffin’ (no, really). We use that to collect the envelopes from the room next door, where they’re filled and labelled. Careful though, one of its wheels is knackered so it doesn’t steer very well, but the supervisor won’t accept that excuse if you accidentally ram his swivel chair while he’s sitting in it, believe me...
You’d think that by now technology would’ve enabled the invention of machines to do these endless, mindless tasks of packing, collecting and distributing, but no. We’re cheaper, obviously. Perhaps robots would also be less adept than human drones at navigating the cramped space and more prone to malfunction after repeatedly bumping into each other. Besides which, they’d be more time-consuming to re-program if sent to work in another part of the warehouse, and when they became obsolete they’d have to be scrapped, whereas us humans will disappear all by ourselves.
There are usually between three and six of us doing the ‘dispatch’ job in here, collecting hundreds of packages in the coffin and emptying the contents into magnums and totes, although this varies; at one point I counted nine of us, including one inside a magnum lifting stuff out. Plus there are the three people standing at benches along the wall. They have to empty every tote we’ve filled, weigh the envelopes and put them into mail sacks which are loaded onto these metal trolleys or ‘yorks’. When they’re full the yorks are taken outside for Royal Mail to pick up. As you can see, these contraptions take up all the space in the centre of the room, leaving us to shuffle along a narrow path with the yorks on one side and the totes on the other.  
It’s not so bad, though. The fact that this room is generally seen as the best place to work in the entire warehouse tells its own story. While we are of course closely supervised and subjected to the same regimented breaks and performance indicators as the rest of the department, due to the layout of the building we are partially shielded from the concentrated, ultra-disciplinary atmosphere of the main packing room, where people have targets of how many packages to fill per hour and are routinely told off, like naughty schoolchildren, if they pause in their tasks for even a few seconds. All the while a local radio station pumps out banal pop at a volume which is either distracting or deafening depending on whereabouts in the room you happen to be situated. The international equivalent of our UK dispatch area is also located in the main room, right next to the blaring stereo.
Here in the side-room at least a self-contained soundscape is possible: an iPod can be used at a civilised volume and conversation can be carried on alongside the work – although the fear of surveillance still lurks in the background of every fleeting interaction or non-work-directed gesture.
When people are sent here for a short time from another part of the warehouse, they usually express relief. ‘Scanning’ appears to be the worst department, where the products are entered onto the stock system or put aside for disposal. After spending half a day lifting boxes onto shelves in the vast picking area, over in another building, I can confirm that the role of ‘putting away’ is also crushingly grim and potentially injurious: the signs instructing workers to ‘lift correctly’ are there to serve the company rather than the employee, fulfiling its legal requirements while leaving the worker to manoeuvre heavy loads in confined spaces and contort his body simply to get the job done.
These departments make the packing area seem positively Utopian in comparison. As if to underline this, a few weeks earlier a supervisor used his farewell speech to admonish us in the packing room on our supposed slackness and excessive sociability, which he saw as diverting our energies away from the work we were paid to do. “When I come in here it’s like coming into someone’s living room,” he said, in a disdainful tone. Surveying the benches surrounded by packaging and boxes of products, and the glazed faces waiting for the signal to leave at the end of another day of low-paid, monotonous labour, I remarked to a co-worker that it didn’t resemble any living room I’d ever seen.
So we walk up and down all day, like clumsy, glitchy robots, throwing these envelopes into boxes, talking about anything to distract us from our tiredness and boredom, remarking occasionally on an amusing name or address, apologising as we inevitably get in each other’s way and cursing the unsticky packages which we constantly have to re-seal as, due to a combination of the speed required of the packing staff to exceed their targets, the no doubt cheap materials and being thrown multiple times from one container to another, they often gape open, exposing the products inside.  
But what are the products in these envelopes that skid under our feet and tip from overflowing racks onto our heads? What are these things that we can never shift fast enough and despite our best efforts keep materialising at an ever-increasing rate? Books, that’s what; oceans of books, slapping and sloshing all around, heaving up against the walls and streaming along the floors. Books, books, everywhere, nor any word to read – for to browse or even ponder a jacket would be to shirk one’s duties. The room resembles a post-literary labour camp, a sort of Fahrenheit Minus 451 where books are all over the place, but due to some immense but unspoken disciplinary pressure have ceased to be seen as books, and have become empty objects passed blindly from one room to another, one hand to another. Only when they reach the remote customers, those trustworthy citizens far beyond the warehouse and the industrial estate, will the objects become books again.
Admittedly I have witnessed people stealing glances at pages here and there, perusals as fleeting and furtive as our conversations, and yes - and I tell you this in confidence – I have even indulged in this practice myself. But predictably, the only volumes which tend to be openly inspected and discussed with the approval of management are those titles whose subject matter is the human figure, preferably in large, pictorial format.
Still, if one did harbour an interest in such matters, the range of literature is astonishing. In the course of a typical day one might spot several Penguin Classics, Heart of Darkness, a history of the Soviet Gulags, a self-help guide to succeeding in business, several charming children’s books and glittering celebrity autobiographies, Depression For Dummies, a spongy cookbook, a monograph on the architecture of Milton Keynes and a landmark text of Marxist theory; all of varying ages and editions, some out of print, some very much still in, all bought and waiting to be delivered to eager readers.
But this is not a secondhand bookshop, at least not in the traditionally understood sense of that phrase. It is an online retailer, with all the logistical issues that term implies. And of course this isn’t Amazon, either; it’s a much smaller, grubbier operation. Nevertheless Amazon might well be the model for its cosy public profile and not so cosy employment practices. The company sells so many items through Amazon as to be practically a subsidiary, and must soon be ripe for buying up by the virtual behemoth. This company is World Of Books, and it lives up to its name. A veritable planet of reading matter passes through the gates of this compound at the end of a grey industrial estate; and its products are sent out to the whole of the UK and Europe, to the US, China, Australia and everywhere inbetween by an ever-rotating population of local and  global workers.
The Big Bang for World Of Books was eight years ago, and it has been expanding ever since. Throughout the recession it grew at a phenomenal rate. Its sales increased from £2.2 million in 2009 to £19.3 million in 2012, when it was ranked 22 in a Sunday Times list of 100 fastest-growing companies, recording annual sales growth of 107%. During this time it has colonised neighbouring units on the industrial estate and recruited a workforce (supplemented at intervals by temporary agency staff, like air pumped into a fire by a pair of bellows) which is constantly being ordered to work faster to keep up with the increasing levels of stock and orders. Back in 2009 the company reportedly had yet to make a profit, but going by the subsequent acceleration in trade and equally impressive array of fast cars in the directors’ parking spaces, it would seem that this goal of profitability has now been more than achieved.
It would appear, then, that the founders of World Of Books have alighted upon a business model as miraculous as a plot from a Harry Potter novel. How do they manage to obtain such a range of products and sell them at such competitive prices, while remaining commercially viable?
The answer is that the company buys its stock in bulk from charities. Lorries arrive regularly at the warehouse, their canvas sides bulging with hundreds of sacks, and collections are also made from charities’ premises. Books are bought by the tonne, regardless of the contents. Once unloaded, these books-as-raw-materials are manually separated according to a computerised system which decides which titles won’t sell and which will. The excess is tipped into huge containers in the yard and periodically taken away to be pulped. The ratio of books thrown away to those sold is apparently 80%-20%.
World Of Books lists its suppliers as including The British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the RSPCA. There are signs around the place that other well-known charities are involved too. It may be that the company’s expansion has relied in part upon making deals with new charity suppliers. The company makes much of its recycling role, which it claims enables the charities to save on disposal costs. Indeed, the sign at the warehouse entrance bears the honourable motto: “recycling books on behalf of charity”. In addition the company associates itself with various charity events which no doubt generate good PR and maintain an ethical brand identity.
In reality, however, the recycling, along with the 10% of turnover given back to charities (whether this is the same as the payment-by-weight or additional to it is not clear), are not altruistic, socially responsible gestures but essential costs, necessary for the acquisition of new raw materials which can be worked up into profitable commodities. This cold hard capitalist reality is obvious in the warehouse itself which, as you will have gathered, hardly buzzes with the feeling that everyone is working together for a good cause. The charities and their projects aren’t mentioned in the supervisor’s end-of-day speeches about productivity, or used to justify the pitiful wages. There is no impression that this disciplinary regime of labour is driven by a need to maximise the contribution to any cause other than World Of Books itself.
And what stories might be told by the truckloads of books delivered to this literary abattoir? Obviously there will be several unwanted Clarksons to wade through and dispose of before reaching a Bronte or a Keyes, but the sifting process is clearly a lucrative one. The company even has a dedicated department, ‘World Of Rare Books’, which sells older, more collectible items, some over a hundred years old. But even by non-vintage standards, the quantity and quality of books they obtain in this way is startling. Some titles might even conceivably be sold, read, donated back to charities, then delivered back and sold again. School revision guides are especially popular, for instance. Customer addresses are often universities.
Many books look as if they were part of personal collections built up over years, and were not given up willingly. If a loved one died of cancer or a heart attack, what more reassuring and respectful way of disposing of their lifelong library than to donate it to the British Heart Foundation or Cancer Research? According to its website, the company also has arrangements with several hospices. Are the supporters of these charities told if their donations are destined to fund the Porsches of World Of Books directors? Some books arrive bearing charity shop price stickers which have to be cleaned off, so were presumably unsold locally, but whether all the ‘surplus’ stock has seen the inside of a charity shop is debatable. Packing staff are instructed to check books for any personal effects, such as photos, letters or bookmarks, which might be left inside. These are removed and either stuck up on the walls around the packing room or thrown away.
After decades of mass production and consumption, there is a huge reservoir of books which people don’t want to keep, or cannot take with them into the next life, and which charities cannot accommodate or sell in their high street shops. Hence this treasure trove, first stumbled upon by the founder of what would become World Of Books (so the mythic origin story goes) when he was passing a local charity shop and eyed some discarded stock. I mean, we’ve all seen some unwanted chazza gem and thought, ‘I could sell that book/record/Dinky toy on eBay’, right? A few of us might even have done so a few times, thinking there’s no harm in it. But only one man, it seems, had the vision to base an entire business plan on this thought, and the resources to implement it on an industrial scale.
Like all good entrepreneurs, he and the other World Of Books bosses are surfing the crest of a historical wave. Printed books no doubt seem like bloated relics to today’s e-book downloader, and charity shops might appear to be drowning in useless donations, but these impressions conveniently disguise the fact that if those physical books are efficiently filtered and matched with a global network of potential readers, they are still valuable. How much more money would these charities make from their donations if they set up their own organisation to perform this role, rather than outsource it to a private business, so that all the accumulated surplus revenue, not just a small percentage of it, went to the charities themselves?
Finally: for those charities campaigning on issues of health promotion and disease prevention, where, if at all, do the 200 or so World Of Books workers fit in? As suppliers to a commercial enterprise, are these charities also happy to be the conduit for low-paid, monotonous, stressful employment with no sick pay? Does this constitute a healthy workplace, or one which incubates the very problems about which these charities strive to raise awareness? After just three months I can sense the answer to this question forming in my mind and in my bones, as I drag the coffin around on its wonky wheels.
I often wonder whether any of the VIP visitors who pass through the packing room on their guided tours, scrutinising the products with barely a glance at us, are charity representatives. Or maybe they are prospective buyers, or applicants for senior jobs. It’s difficult to tell.
I think that pretty much covers everything. Now, I suppose we should-
Oh, you’re leaving already?