‘Be glad you have work’, is written on a toilet wall, and added underneath: ‘You know best, asshole.’ In the award-winning documentary The Limits of Work, journalist Saša Uhlová goes undercover to reveal what it’s like to experience working conditions in the lowest paid jobs in the Czech republic. Getting up at 5am and leaving her husband in bed, Uhlová goes on her first assignment in a Hospital laundry. She nearly blows her cover when a co-worker discovers she has what looks like a Metro pass for a whole month – an expensive item. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him that it’s really for a year. Moments like this give the film’s narrative its authentic power.
Chicken carcasses dangling from a moving conveyor greet Uhlová when she arrives at her next assignment. No eye contact from the supervisor, when Uhlová asks about what she has to do. Here pay is €3 per hour. Overtime is compulsory. From co-workers she discovers that the idea’s to pack thigh steaks to look nice – removing stray feathers or ripping out fatty bits as necessary. There’s bullying from the supervisors who scream at people when mistakes are made. After 10.5 hours at work, only as she’s leaving, Uhlová realises that she can hardly walk. Intending to work at the poultry factory for a month, she just can’t and leaves a day early. In her apartment, she hears that in the laundry – already under-staffed – six people have been let go. When she’d queried about joining a union, the laundry workers had been afraid to speak up for themselves.
Uhlová’s next five weeks as a supermarket till operator seemed ‘like a kid’s game initially’ but after six hours she has to ask permission to go to the toilet. One woman worked 13.5 hours but this was officially recorded as split shifts. Another’s working 17 hours at one stretch. One co-worker says about her nineteen-year-old son ‘I never saw him growing up’. At home, Uhlová barely sees her own four children. Her youngest is shown sobbing, because he’s missing his mum. What kind of parent and childhood do these patterns of working create? The film has final black comedic shot of a rictus smile at the till – the supermarket workers are told to smile ‘come what may’.
Lasting only twenty six days on the production line of a razor factory, she could not take any more, leaving work every day having little control over her arms and legs. In stifling conditions – the air conditioning had broken down – she discovers agency workers undertaking twelve hour shifts one after the other. When a sewer rat runs down the belt at the refuse sorting facility she’s told, ‘they’re shy and don’t bite’. The boss reassures her that no-one’s caught hepatitis for ages. Not all the items are plastic – often crawling with maggots. A non-stop, 24-hour, three-shift operation – work that’s repulsive and joyless. Uhlová arrives in the morning for work and is handed a mug of coffee with the consolation ‘as long as one has work’. She’s always working longer than expected and not knowing how long – eight, nine or even twelve hours. ‘Heroism here is not to speak out but to stick it out.’
At the end of her undercover stint, Uhlová shaves off all her hair at home. She’s earned € 554 for 1,988 hours before tax, and her outgoings were 1,117 Euros for the entire period. All establishments were in violation of the Labour code.
In the Q&A Will Stronge, co-director of independent think-tank Autonomy, describes how discipline and work ethic operate in the work place. Companies use tactics to dissuade unionisation. The film’s director Apolena Rychliková explains the necessityof going undercover as a tactic to overcome workers’ reticence to speak up. In the Czech Republic, the film and an associated article series has led to discussion about working conditions. Uhlová was denounced as a liar by the Prime minister – the owner of one of the factories…
The associated articles series (in Czech) http://a2larm.cz/
Further comment by Saša Uhlová (in English) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/19/czech-republic-transition-state-socialism-capitalism
The independent think tank Autonomy http://autonomy.work/