When I started working, work in a factory was a job for life. I thought I would always be there.

Photography by Leonora Saunders

Tracy

I started at Courtaulds in 1980 as a packing operative. I was sixteen. I took pride in my job, a sense of achievement really. The business at West Mill was the only hosiery business doing everything from start to finish. It came in a bobbin of yarn, and went out a packed pair of tights. When you walked around department stores and saw them on the shelf, you thought, “I packed them!” When I started working, factory work was a job for life. I thought I would always be there.

I did regular 6am till 2pm, because I loved that shift. I used to work in a room with round about sixty other ladies. It was more extended family life. We had a lady that had cancer, but we all had it for her, that’s how close we were, and we all helped and we all did things.

I joined the union in 1994. I felt I had to make a difference, I felt we had to have a say. Over the years, I personally converted the management to thinking, “This isn’t all about us, and this isn’t all about you. It’s about all of us.” I had an opportunity to progress into management but I had to make a sacrifice – either my trade union hat or the management hat. I felt I was doing more good as a trade union official.

In my early years in work, most of the management were male. I remember one day a manager really humiliated me in front of thirty-five people; he didn’t like that I was a woman, he always gave me the impression that he felt women were beneath him and that’s where they should stay. But I’m a very strong woman and if I’m right, I’ll never back down.

I think it’s important to have female managers especially in areas where it is predominantly female, such as the shop floor. If you needed time off to go for what we used to code as ‘personal reasons’ – like cancer smears, breast screenings and things like that – some of the females didn’t want to go to a male manager and tell them that, you know?

The senior management never lost out on pay, just the shop floor. At one point, the management tried to lay us off for a week without wages. People cannot afford a week off without pay. We got our legal people involved through the union and they had to pay the employees.

Respect – that is a big doer. A good manager for me is somebody that gets a hundred per cent out of the workforce, by the workforce wanting to give a hundred per cent, not being made to give a hundred per cent.

Two years ago, the management said, “We’re hitting hard times, we’re going to have to come up with something to try and keep the business afloat” and they asked us if we would go on a four-day week for six months. It was agreed: rather than close the business, we’ll take a day’s pay loss. I just wanted the business to survive.

One Wednesday at the end of May, I got twenty-two missed calls from various people from work as I was going to a hospital appointment. I rang one of my reps and she said “Tracy, unless you can get here in the next ten minutes and wave a magic wand, we’ve had it.” When I got there, the administrators had told people to get their personal belongings. The factory was closing.

This time there was no consultation, there was nothing. It was terrible. Twenty-four hours prior to its closing we’d had a meeting – we were going to have a competition to get people to design tights for Christmas…

I tried to speak to one of the directors: “Look at me and tell me you did not know this was coming” and he wouldn’t even look at me. This was the thanks that we got for thirty-five years, giving them everything we had; this is how they repaid us. It was me who had to stand up in front of two hundred people, because they wanted answers and nobody from the company would talk to them. We just got statutory redundancy pay, but it wasn’t a lot of money. It only equated to a year’s wages, that’s about it.

I don’t have children. I’ve always worked and I’ve always sort of put my working life first. When they asked us not to go into work, we didn’t go into work. When they asked us for more work, we gave them more work. We did everything for them and then they just pulled the plug.

The factory is like a ghost town now, it’s like the Mary Celeste. It’s as if everybody’s just disappeared. They say the products are still there, waiting to be packed. I’ll admit, if they rang me tomorrow and said, “Tracy, will you come back and pack tights for us?” my answer would be yes. Yes, I would. But it ain’t gonna happen.

I went to the Jobcentre. It is soul-destroying going in there, the way they talk to you and everything. They’re asking you questions that you can’t possibly answer: “What do you want to train to do? What job do you want to do?” I don’t know. I want to work in a factory, I want to do what I’ve always done.

They try to push you into working in a shop or working in a care home. A lot of my friends who are a similar age to me have said the same; we don’t feel they’re trying to get us the best jobs because we were older.

They tried to encourage me to go on work experience for eight weeks…that’s working for free, for eight weeks. I say, “So I’ve been to work for thirty-six years, and now you’re telling me I’ve got to do eight weeks for free?” My Jobseeker’s Allowance is £73 and then they want me to go and work in a conference centre as a cleaner or receptionist – or general dogsbody – for four weeks for free to get work experience. My thirty-six years stands for nothing; they don’t value anything I’ve done.

The world’s changed so much. I don’t think this online-filling-things-in is right. A few ladies came to my house because they hadn’t got their own computer. It isn’t for us, at our age, because we never had to use a computer. You’re filling a form in and then it’s ‘Click next’ – but why can’t you speak to somebody or go and fill a form in at the workplace? I don’t like having to go online, I’d rather go to a business and ask if there’s any jobs.

I went for a call centre job; I was the oldest person there. There were fifteen of us in a room going for four jobs. I was talking to them about it. They’d applied for everything; even at their age, they still couldn’t get a job. And at my age, I can’t get a job; so who are the jobs going to? At one of the job interviews, there was me and this other lady who used to work with me years ago, and she said “We haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance, cos we’re too old.”

I’ve applied to factories. Most of them you have to apply online now, they don’t even give you a chance to go in and ask for a trial. I’ll never find what I had, I know I won’t, and that really makes me sad. And to have it taken away from you – as opposed to giving it up – is soul-destroying. I can’t count the number of days that I just spent crying, but it was helping the other people and sorting things out that kept me going.

I remember back at the factory, the union set up a learning centre and we wanted to do IT, maths and English courses, but the management team put a stop to it because of the cost. That would have benefited us now, if we had taken on that learning. I do feel that businesses should encourage learning while at work, in some way, shape or form. Education isn’t just for progression, it’s a way of life.

That part of my life is sort of over now, but it’s the fear of the unknown. I’m working as a recruitment trainee officer at the minute, but that could be coming to an end, because there’s no work. But I don’t feel like I fit in like I fitted into the factory environment, because I am a people person and I like doing things in a group, not as an individual.

I’m determined to go back into a factory. I just don’t think any other job will suit me.