When I worked at the clothing factory in Lansdowne

On my way to work, I was listening to Aden Thomas on Heart 104.9's Breakfast show. Aden and Julian were having great fun reminiscing about the jobs they had as youngsters. The listeners who phoned in to relate their 'horror' stories had me laughing out loud at times. I liked the story of the listener who told us about her first job at the Mount Nelson washing glasses all the time. That was her only duty - washing glasses upon glasses. The listener said that when she received her one and only tip of R100 on a day, she gave up her day job immediately.

Working at Paroda Clothing factory

Of course, this conversation triggered  my memory of my stint at the clothing ( underwear) factory, Paroda, in Lansdowne when I was in first year at varsity. My mom was a machinist for years at this factory and well-liked by many of her fellow workers because she was also their shop steward. I remember begging my mom to ask the manager if I could work there at the end of the year. Finally, the manager conceded that I could be employed full-time because their factory did not take on 'casuals'.

You won't believe how excited I was. We used to travel by train from Retreat railway station to Claremont. At Claremont, we would take a taxi to the factory. We always walked briskly down the path because you couldn't be late. The clock was also set five minutes earlier, a practice which I did not quite understand and which my mom couldn't really explain to me.

Job title: Runner

I was what you called a 'runner' and was attached to a machinist. My job was to remove all the loose bits of cotton from the garment and then I think, pack the items in sets which had to be taken elsewhere. I can just remember these big bins filled with lots of material and tons of cotton threads that had to be trimmed. These bins also served another important role: they housed all the 'special drinks' the 'girls' used to smuggle in. It was close to the festive season when the factory workers were soon going to be on holiday for about three weeks.

Sewing wasn't the only activity at the end of the year in the factory

The mood was jovial most of the times and everybody was 'Unty' to everybody else. As the day progressed, the women became happier and happier, while the manager and the supervisors looked progressively more eagle-eyed and sullen. I remember my mom asking me not to talk about their happy hour to my dad because he was not to know that his darling wife and her supervisor friend, Jeanette, enjoyed their whiskey from the clothing bins! Because the factory became so hot during the summer, they would open the massive steel roller doors to allow the fresh, cool air to flow in. This opening allowed many a wily worker to run out, fill up the stocks and return without being noticed by the manager or supervisor.

That time of year it was also time for the Spring Queen competition where the workers would have their internal beauty competitions. The finalist of each factory would then compete in the big event and someone would be crowned Queen for the year. During one lunch break which was lengthened, we all watched our Spring queen entrants prancing up and down, trying to woo the crowds to vote for them. Then at the end of the year, a 'breaking up' party is hosted. This event is really the talk of the town and I remember how my friends discussed their outfits and some even had arguments because they accused one another of stealing their ideas. I also stressed about my outfit, almost driving my mom insane to buy me my 'breaking up' clothes.

Breaking a 'rule'

I adjusted pretty well to my job as a runner. However, there was one ritual that I was not going to compromise on. Every day, say 10 minutes before 'knock off ' time, I would go to the bathroom- with fellow runners in tow - to wash and make up my face and remove all the threads that clung to my clothes. This was until my mom said the manager asked her to tell me that spending 10 minutes of working time in the bathroom and having the other workers following me, were not allowed. I almost freaked! And how, I asked, was I supposed to spruce myself up before going out in public with all the muck on my clothes? I remember saying I would rather work in the time, but I was definitely not going to travel looking like a scarecrow. The compromise was that I cut down the 'wasted time' and tell my friends not to accompany me. Well, that worked for me and my friends understood that their 'varsity' friend was just going to be there for a short while anyway.

I thoroughly enjoyed my 'runner' days at Paroda and even volunteered to help with stocktaking one Saturday for a whopping R2!

Wonderful memories

When I started teaching, I often shared my factory work experience with the students, highlighting the ups and downs of those who worked so hard for so little, yet there was a deep sense of connectedness amongsts the workers. I also learnt to value my mom's work after this hands-on stint at her workplace where she spent more than 20 years.

Aah... it is really good to reminisce about the days that were...


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