In Ireland it is common for people to go abroad towards the end of college to somewhere warm and work for the summer. J1 visas are easy to get and it’s a great experience. You get a job for the summer, go drinking and do a bit of travelling. I was no different and this summer I sent 3 months in America with a group of my Irish friends. There were seven of us in a 2 bed apartment house, which was a smaller group than most Irish; it was more common to have 10-15 people in a house. It was a fantastic experience and I don’t regret it a bit, but this post is not about my J1, but rather one part of it, my job.
I was lucky enough to quickly get a job in a bike rental shop (I won’t give specific details). We were working ten hours a day for $10.55 an hour. We were on our feet the entire day and would come home exhausted every night. The managers treated staff horrendously, when we first started we would be run into the ground and constantly criticised. Hardly a day went past without the managers threatening to fire people. The turnover was enormous with roughly half the new hires being gone after a month from either burnout or being fired over something petty. One guy handed out leaflets to set up a union and was fired that week. Although the supervisors and managers were American, the firm operated a discriminatory “Irish-only” hiring policy and only hired others when there were no more Irish to hire. This ethnic divide was common in America as a restaurant where some of my friends worked had only Irish waiters, Mexican kitchen staff and Black guys transferring the food between the two. Work also had a gender divide with only men dealing with bikes and only women dealing with the paperwork.
The company was unbelievably bureaucratic. The hardest job for the new comers was learning all the petty rules. Staff could not touch the helmets of returning customers; the customers themselves had to put these into a bucket. If we so much as a laid a finger on them, no matter how quiet or devoid of customers the shop may be or how helpful we were being, the manager would literally roar at us. All customers would be strongly encouraged to tie their bags to the rack at the back of the bicycle. Most customers didn’t want to do this and there was little difference, but unless we did the managers would criticise us in front of the customers. Another rule was that the girls at the desk would give information to customers. One day I made the innocent mistake of answering a customer’s question and gave them directions, which caused the boss to swoop down and not only publically criticise me but also threaten to fire me (most new staff got threatened with dismissal on average once a day for the first two weeks).
What was striking about this massively profitable business was how incompetent it could be. I clearly remember how on my first day I was put washing the van, which was fine, until I was told that we had to dry it with newspaper, compete negating any effect washing had. It was at that moment that I wondered that perhaps everything I had been told about the efficiency of the private sector wasn’t true. The treatment of staff was terrible and bad for business. The boss himself would personally criticise you for the pettiest of things which only made you feel bad and work worse. Every day people would dread working in the main location and miserable workers do a miserable job. Treatment was so bad that huge numbers simply quit, a problem that management only made worse by firing people for petty reasons or being incredibly inflexible with schedules (long term staff were forced to quit because they couldn’t time off for weddings and a driving test).
The private sector is often held up as a model of innovation, but I was surprised how rigid this business was. We were explicitly told on our first day that the business didn’t want new ideas or innovation but simply to do the job exactly the way they wanted it. All sales staff has an exact script they had to learn off and were forbidden to deviate from. We were trained to be cogs in a machine with our every movement exactly planned. I saw many good workers fired because although they did their job well, they didn’t do it the boss’ way. Asking for time off was like asking for the shirt off the managers’ back, you had your hours and you had to work them. If you missed a day due to sickness you had to make it up the next week.
While we were at work, the business owned us. They told us what to do, how to do it and when to do it. They told us what time to arrive in the morning and what time to leave. They decided when we could have a break and it was when it suited them not us (if it was busy you wouldn’t get your break until you were starving and exhausted). They told us what days we would work and changed the schedule every week making it impossible to plan your free time. If that didn’t suit you, well tough. Get out and compete with the other scores of Irish wandering the streets looking for work. Probably the biggest grievance we had was about overtime. The problem was we had absolutely no say in the matter. We weren’t asked whether we wanted to work more than 10 hours a day, instead we stayed until we were told we could go home. It was common for staff to do 12 hour days. We got time and half but no one thought it was worth it and we tried to escape as soon as we could at the end of the day.
National security and fear of the government spying on individuals is a big concern in America at the moment, but we had to deal with the bigger worry that the boss was always watching us on camera. We never had any rest for even when the boss was not around or at a different location (the company was very large and had several locations around the city), we would still have to watch out for the cameras. People spoke of them as though they were the all-seeing eye of Sauron. Don’t let the camera see you pause, catch your breath or in any way look like you are not busting yourself (even if there are no customers). Just how petty this surveillance was, was revealed to me when one day the boss pulled me over and showed a video of that morning when we were opening shop. On the video I could be seen placing the sign outside the shop. The boss informed me in a grave tone that I had done it wrong and never to do it again. Let me be clear, I had not stolen anything, damaged anything or in any way harmed anything. I had merely misplaced the sign by a few inches.
There is a strange belief among most ordinary people that the public sector is a place of idleness and sloth while the private sector is full of hard work and efficiency. Anyone who has worked in the private sector knows how false this. By our nature, mornings would be busy (as customers rented bikes) and evenings would be busy (as customers retuned bikes). However this meant that there was little to do in the afternoon. We would be literally left standing around in a vague attempt to look busy. Most days there would be whole hours when five workers would do the job of one, because there was nothing else to do. This inefficiency was unavoidable as this extra staff had to be kept on during quiet times in order to ensure they were there for the busy times.
The company was in effect an assembly line and the customers were herded like cattle through. Once they signed up our job was to give the bike and get them out as fast as possible. We would regularly have managers shouting in our ear to hurry up and were expected to sprint to customers. Under this pressure we were fast to the point of being rude, a point we acknowledged but couldn’t help. We had to get rid of the customers as fast as possible and a customer asking a question was one who was slowing you down. As a result most questions were answered with “It’s meant to be that way” or some other reassurance to get them out the door. We could see the annoyance on the face of many customers who resented being rushed so much on their holiday and occasionally one would explode into a rant.
One of the striking things about the job was the horrendous abuse of power. I remember on my first day talking to a friendly guy from Cavan, but instead of working in the shop like the rest of us as he was promised, the boss sent him to clean his house for two days. He didn’t even have the decency to fire the guy, but instead never called him back. I was shocked one day when I was told to clean the boss’ Prius and hover it out. In a handy bit of nepotism one of the boss’ relatives was also a manager.
Most of my friends were shocked at my job and thankful they weren’t working there, though we all had tiring minimum wage jobs. One of my friends rented a bike from us once and was shocked at the sheer exhaustion and misery he saw in the face of the staff. He was also horrified at the practice of the managers to take the days tips and spend it all on beer which was for everyone who closed up. This was only a handful compared to the number of people who worked there (I for one never worked the last shift) and if you didn’t want to drink, well tough. My friends were all shocked at this practice, but after working there so long, it seemed normal and unobjectionable.
There were other bike rental companies in the city, but that didn’t mean there was competition. Ours was by far the largest and two others were owned by our boss. A third was jointly owned between our boss and a fourth bike company, out of an industry that had about five or six companies. Did someone say oligopoly?
During my three months working at the job, I was completely sober every single day. That I needed to say that should give you an idea how bad things were. From the beginning, coming in after a night of drinking was laughed off and hangovers were shrugged at. From there is only got worse. What was worst was that the managers were some of the worst and everyone followed their example. There was one manager who was drunk all the time, which more or less gave permission to everyone who worked under him to come in drunk or even start drinking. Smoking weed before work or while on your break was very common among the American staff; while drinking on the job was the choice of the Irish (we don’t always give ourselves the best name). It was common for people to take toilet breaks to vomit after a night out. Several managers were known to use cocaine and this encouraged some of the Irish to pick up the habit. Working for a boss on cocaine is the hardest job in the world as nothing is done fast enough for him. Most of the staff wore sunglasses all day, not so much for the sun, but so people couldn’t tell how sober they were by looking at their eyes.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression; I loved the experience and would do it again. I made a lot of friends and work had a great community spirit. The work was hard and we all hated the boss, but no one was going to listen to us moan, so we had to get on with it. The first month was admittedly awful, but the striking thing about humans is our ability to adapt. After a month I got used to the job, learned how to avoid the petty rules that annoyed the boss. Most importantly I got moved to a different location where we had a supervisor who looked out for us and didn’t bother with nonsense rules.