In a previous entry I wrote about K, an industrial cleaner who was poisoned by ingesting lime. In the meantime a senior operator retired, leaving space for an assistant to step up, and a vacancy on the assistant’s team. K interviewed for the assistant’s job and (finally) got it. This left room for A, a new recruit, on the cleaning team.
A is loud, cheerful, hard-working, and has autism and ADHD. He takes to hoovering the plant and doing sandwich runs energetically. The problem, as well as the sighs and the stupid comments from some, is that his Dad works in the control room. This is a source of resentment.
The other sons-of-operators (there are three) feel they have to treat their Dads strictly as colleagues and work twice as hard to prove they’ve earned their jobs. A and his Dad aren’t bothered by these worries; A doesn’t filter out his comments to or about his Dad, and maintains a jovial and joking attitude through thick and thin.
I learn that K and A have nearly come to blows one afternoon in the cabin over an insult A threw at K: “Stupid old man” or something along those lines. K, who’d been trying to talk seriously, snaps “Don’t talk to me like that or you’re gonna get it!” “All right then!” A laughs. There are comments that A is being given special treatment because of his Dad; “I understand why it’s important for these people to have jobs – but there has to be a limit...” My colleague and apprentice, J, whose autism manifests in the opposite way to A’s, sits in a corner of the fitters’ office not making eye-contact, listening to these comments that the fitters assume just wash over him.
“The way they talk about A gets to me,” he tells me one morning “because obviously we both have the same condition, and they don’t seem to realise they’re insulting me while I’m in the room.”
A lot of the workers – including the maintenance manager, and the apprentice’s mentor – have made up their minds that J is “mental” and weak. His monotone voice, dark humour, and lack of eye-contact is interpreted as lack of enthusiasm. He comes off his motorbike, is off sick for a while and comes back with a knee-brace and a doctor’s note, but his fear of riding on ice and slow limp is considered pathetic and “put-on”. I speculate that unlike most of the other men – especially the young ones – J feels no compulsion to act tough.
L is a young man finishing his apprenticeship a year ahead of us, and is the polar opposite of J. He prides himself on his physical strength and his ability to do “the things he knows” well. He’s relentlessly critical of weakness or perceived injustice towards himself, from management or from apprentices. “Why would I work harder at this – I don’t need it to pass! Only people who want to kiss ass would do more than that.” An older fitter describes him as “always angry, furious. I’ve been trying to tell him to grab the opportunity, but you’ve got to be careful...”
L and a fitter are talking about race one day, and J sits in his corner uncomfortably.
“They were calling people ‘wogs’,” he tells me later. “I don’t like that kind of thing, it makes me feel uncomfortable, so I was just sitting trying not to get involved. And then [the fitter] asks me ‘J – do you like black people, or not?’ and I say well it’s personality that matters, not colour, that doesn’t matter to me, and he says with L ‘Why can’t you just admit it? Why can’t you just say you like black people? At least I’ve got the balls to say that I don’t!’” After the chat with J, I spend a lot of that week raging inwardly, wondering what the hell to do.
The following day I come in early to help fit a motor. I slowly and clumsily wheel a pallet truck into position, and the same fitter that was giving J grief smiles to me “Women drivers eh?”
“Are you serious?” I frown at him, he laughs.
“It’s only a joke, don’t worry about it.”
“It’s not funny though, is it?”
I feel like I’m in a Harry Enfield sketch, or an educational video about workplace “banter”. A few weeks ago he’d joked that my bag was “just big enough to fit a small iron in” and before that “would I make him lunch?” (his kitchen’s out of action.) Between these “jokes” he’s taught me basic crane maintenance, worked relentlessly on the conveyor belts and welded chute flaps back into place – he’s another very knowledgeable engineer who thinks he’s “stupid” because his literacy isn’t strong. We finish with the motor, go back to the office and for a few minutes are alone. He looks at his paper.
“D’you understand what I mean, about the sexist jokes?” I ask him gently, leaning forward and trying to make eye contact. “D’you get it?”
His rolls up his paper and looks unhappy.
“The thing is – I don’t understand why you’re pulling me up on this, when there are so many people on this plant who swear in front of women – who talk about sex. Filthy stuff – to me that’s sexist, that’s really offensive, but you don’t say anything about that.”
“I’m not bothered by that. I’m not offended by swearing or sex.”
“To me that’s what you should be offended by, not these little comments -”
I realise that I’m gripping my mug of tea hard and my hand is trembling slightly, so I put it down.
“Well, you and I have a difference of opinion on that -”
“It’s not just me – it’s most people -”
“But what I’m asking you is, can you not make the comments? Because it makes me feel like shit. I don’t like it.”
I can see L, who’s come in, in the corner smiling at his colleague, silently agreeing with him and probably wondering if he’ll say more of what he really feels.
“If I took it up with this lot every time they said something, we’d be rolling around outside every five minutes!” he laughs, slightly aiming the comment at L, away from me “You’ve got to be able to take a bit of banter.”
He doesn’t apologise of course, but he doesn’t make any more directly sexist comments. In later weeks, we get to know each other a bit better – details to follow in later columns.
• Emma Rickman is an apprentice engineer in a Sheffield Combined Heat and Power plant.