Recently, this was the term that an acquaintance that I had not seen for a while used to describe the fact that I would be beginning three new but very different jobs in the coming weeks. Yes I had planned on not working this season or rather not getting sucked down into the job hunting vortex which always involves so much more disappointment than joy. This was not to say I wasn’t looking for work, just keeping it to contained efforts that wouldn’t be time or mentally all consuming. Simply, I would just be checking a few websites that I regularly peruse when looking for work. In my once weekly visits to such websites, lo and behold I found a job to apply for which in essence was on a whim but I had this uncanny sense that the universe was speaking to me.
An aside: Before I started writing this blog post, I had to look up the adjective schizophrenic since it didn’t feel write to use such a term in a satirical manner as it pertains to a serious mental health issue. Fortunately, it can be used to describe a situation that is “of or relating to conflicting or inconsistent elements; characterized by unusual disparity”. I thought that fits rather nicely for this particular situation but also for much of my life!
The story of how I got this first seasonal job began just a few weeks ago when Mr. C5 & I had gone to the dentist and afterwards were picking up some items from our local grocery store. As we drove out of the parking lot onto main street Tatamagouche, I remember looking at the motel across the road and thinking … I could work there perhaps. A few days later, I stumbled upon a job posting for this motel, applied, got interviewed and shortly thereafter I began work as the late afternoon evening front desk clerk for the Balmoral Motel. It is a part-time seasonal gig for the most part, working anywhere from 2 to 6 evenings per week, 5 hour shifts from 4-9 p.m.. The motel has new owners as of this year, a couple with 3 children who just moved from Switzerland to the area, having run a successful B&B in their home country. They wanted someone to cover these times so that they can have time as a family and to enjoy their new home & surroundings. As you can imagine operating an accommodation establishment is a 7 days/week gig, not days off. Rather impressively I will add, between the husband & wife & myself we cover 7 languages: English, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and Italian. Pretty cool I say! Obviously wonderfully helpful for a motel and for a place where many tourists from many places come to visit.
Now for job #2. This as a part-time worker at the Cape John fish plant, also starting this end of June. Over the past decade, most of the small fish plants found in many communities along the coastline of Nova Scotia have closed and have been for sale. Several have been bought up by Chinese people as is the case where I work. A Chinese family, having both long term Canadian Chinese family members and newly arrived Chinese connections, own & run this plant as well as one other in New Brunswick. I had heard from a friend that they were desperately looking for workers, lots of them as it was lobster harvesting season. The wages were supposedly negotiable. This was not really the case but they were paying a bit more than minimum wage. I understood that I could receive a higher wage if I committed to full-time, but I knew I was not up for this considering the physical demands of such work. Alas they can’t get enough workers, not at the wages they are paying, but also simply because Canadians just won’t do this kind of work, similar to agricultural work. Not surprisingly, folks around here don’t want to do this type of work unlike in the past where this industry employed whole communities. fish plant workers. The good ol’ (protestant) work ethic has not lasted in certain sectors of society.
I had not planned on doing this work but before I knew it I had signed on. One sunny day just over a week ago, with the beautiful sunny weather we were having, I decided to take a short motorcycle ride as my MC was finally back on the road after 2 years and a major tuneup. I thought I would drive out to Cape John and pay a visit to my friend to ask her about the work. Well my sociological curiosity got the best of me and before I knew it I was saying to some admin person that I was willing to work 2 days per week, 7 hour days for the coming weeks. In hindsight I am glad I did not commit to more than this.
I didn’t have any intention of doing this work full-time and after my first 2 days, I never would. I do have the classic strong work ethic, e.g. I am punctual and so I show up to work on time and I work hard. Alas my body just can’t take the relentless physical work involved in this industry. No wonder so many engage in vices to cope, e.g. drinking or take pills to numb the pain & discomfort. In some ways, it is brutal work doing constant physical labour which is repetitive, monotonous, never ending.
I had been concerned about the standing up nature of the work. This actually ended up being manageable as there are brief lulls throughout the production process, e.g. waiting for another container of live or dead lobster as part of the production line, so I was able to do some quick standing stretching, and brief sitting down on the edge of something just for a short rest. Rather it was my hands that were feeling the ‘pain’. It was very similar to the farming/gardening, e.g. the repetitive hand weeding, which takes a toll on my hands. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that you are constantly grabbing live or dead lobster.
You are provided with various items of required clothing to wear over your own, e.g. a lab coat, a plastic apron, plastic sleeves, hair nets, thin medical type gloves and large rubber gloves. I did have some great rubber boots that we found in this spring’s garbage cleanup so my feet were happy. When handling live lobsters you need the big gloves because of the two claws they have, the crusher claw and the ripper or tearing claw, which usually do have an elastic band around them to keep them closed but the rubber bands do come off in the handling of them so one has to beware. However, to me the more painful part was that they also have hard albeit not sharp spines over different parts of their body which you just can’t help but touch when you grab them .
I actually don’t eat lobster, only having eaten it maybe 2 or 3 in my lifetime, 1st time in PEI when I was visiting a friend in 1995. Once after I had moved to NS and was at a small local fish store attached to a fish plant, I asked about why the lobsters were all bunched together, on top of each other in the holding tank. The guy said they were trying to hide, as this was part of their natural protection mechanism. From that moment onwards I was like okay I will not eat them. I’m sorry but to boil a creature alive is just sick, this being the most common way they are prepared. When we had friends visiting us at the farm many years ago now, they wanted lobster and so we picked up live lobster but we killed them by stabbing, piercing them in the brain, sort of like you would do to stun livestock before you slit their throats. I like (I hope) to think this method is more humane.
The first day I handled live lobster. I have to say I didn’t really understand why we were doing what we were doing but it had something to do with the fact that they just couldn’t process enough of them quickly enough – lack of enough workers but also lack of processing/holding facilities. Crates full of weighed lobsters would be pulled out of this huge cement salt water tank (the size of an indoor tennis court) and then we would take a larger and a smaller size lobster and place them in pvc tubbing, the width of a man’s upper arm and the length to fit the 2 lobsters. There would be several dozen tubes in 1 mesh crate. This crate then would go back into the holding tank. It seemed this process was because of the quantity of lobster where there were two layers of crates, the tubes on the bottom, the regular crates on top.
I have to say lobsters really do look like huge scorpions without the stinger. Many times, I would grab them and they would flap their tails quite roughly back and forth, I gathered another defense mechanism. Throughout this process, I was apologizing to the lobsters as I was picking them up and putting them into the tubes as they were clearly trying to defend themselves. Poor buggers.
The second day I helped with the production of dead lobster. Again for some reason I don’t know, each cooked lobster would go into a sheaf of plastic mesh and then they would be packed in trays of a certain weight for eventual final packing into boxes for shipment to guess where… China of course. At this point you obviously don’t have to worry about being pinched by the lobster, it is their spines you need to be mindful of.
I was fascinated by the whole production process, and all the specialized equipment that would have been designed at some point and then made for just a particular purpose. When I got the opportunity to occasionally watch the tv show, “How it’s made”, I was always fascinated about the factory production processes of all the goods we use and consume.
Now for the people part. Perhaps you could imagine that I don’t necessarily travel in the circles of the folks who would work in such an industry, no education required here. The nature of the work is that this is a job for folks of lower socio-economic status, and this is despite the fact that this is a lucrative industry. Of course in classic capitalism fashion, the wealth certainly doesn’t go to the workers despite their monumental labour efforts.
Many of the workers, about a dozen maybe (needing another dozen easily), were from the surrounding local communities. It turns out that many were related – not surprising I guess when you consider their backgrounds as folks who don’t have the means or interest to venture far from their birth home. Of course they are nice people. In these situations, I don’t tend to talk much as there really isn’t much to say since I have almost nothing in common with them but also since my daily conversations are not of the topics they discuss. Lots of talk about so & so doing such and such, often involving lots of alcohol all nights of the week. Lots of talk about family & health ailments. The latter is sad since they lack the means to have a healthy lifestyle despite our ‘free’ medicare. There were also lots of comments about the operation of the biz – complaints, and at times just being mean imho. My initial thought was “everyone wants to (thinks they can) be a manager”. Of course production lines can be improved, things done differently. However I have to ask do they really think they could run such a business? If so then why didn’t they gather with others to take over the plant. A rhetorical question of course.
If anything I am wanting to have chats with the chinese people, at least those whose English ability would enable some conversation. This to me would be fascinating, with folks I don’t get the opportunity to connect with normally. The friend I have there & I have already talked about having some kind of end of season gathering where authentic chinese food could be served, but also a pig roast or similar. Mr.C5 would be thrilled as he misses so much this food from Vancouver Chinatown.
When I first heard workers were sought, I did hesitate about this job because I am so against the method of culling the lobster. I just didn’t want to be part of boiling alive millions of lobster so Chinese people get to eat it, lots of it. Yes the lobsters are sent whole, boiled alive, flash frozen, only nominally being consumed by Nova Scotians, North Americans. I of course went online to do some research about these sea creatures and from what I found I thought oh boy this is not good. Check out, https://www.animalsaustralia.org/features/6-incredible-lobster-facts.php.
I know I will never do this work again – one season is enough. My primary motivation is essentially sociological, certainly not monetary. One of my heroes is Barbara Ehrenreich, who walks her talk, who has put herself in the shoes of poor workers. She wrote, Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America, a memoir of her three-month experiment surviving on minimum wage jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and walmart clerk. Last year was my first ever minimum wage retail gig. With the above two jobs, I am continuing this exploration (I am fortunate that the motel gig pays several $ above minimum – thanks to the mentality of the European owners). I of course recognize I am not part of this world thanks to luck and my privilege. However, it does me good to try to know how other’s struggle to live.
Now for job #3… well not yet a firm job yet, just an interview. It is to be a returning officer (RO) for a riding in the next provincial election. A few weeks previously, I had remembered that there was to be both a federal (and provincial – wrong on that front) election in the Fall, and of course they would be needing workers, so I submitted applications online and then just forgot about it until I received a phone call for an interview. It turns out that the riding boundaries were reviewed and redrawn, thus there is a clean slate of ROs to be hired. I felt I had a successful interview so here’s hoping I am chosen for the pool.
In all these jobs (well 2 really for now), I am thrilled about the opportunities. I love new experiences, I need new stimuli to be happy. I am good with the seasonal and part-time nature of the gigs. I’ll let you be the judge of whether this would qualify as schizophrenic employment.
And the prize… well it is to spend 3 months in central america this winter. Now all we have to do is find someone to take care of our place for this time and we are set!