The TUC calculates that in excess of five million people in the UK regularly work unpaid overtime, amounting to £27.4 billion of free work every year. To put this into perspective, if a typical worker was to work all those free hours at the beginning of the year, he or she wouldn't start getting paid until February 26th.
Bumping up the average is Mrs Christina Pyle who rarely puts in less than a 90-hour week for Perkins Premium Peanut Products. We were simultaneously delighted and surprised that she found time to speak to us.
Mrs Christina Pyle: You'll have to be quick, I'm on my lunch break. At least these bastards consent to me taking five minutes to grab a sandwich occasionally - chiefly because they're alive to the possibility of malnourished employees falling into the machinery and damaging something expensive.
University of the Bleeding Obvious: Yes, we can see that they keep you busy.
Mrs Pyle: They get their money's worth - and more. It stems from a pathological need to ensure that your nose is never more than half an inch from the grindstone. It would offend their deepest principals to see anyone snatch a brief moment to mop their brow or scratch their arse. I did hear of this one bloke who once had the audacity to kneel down and tie a shoelace. You've got to admire that kind of nerve. Of course, that was before my time.
UBO: You don't seem entirely happy with the working conditions here.
Mrs Pyle: Ah, you picked up on that, did you? You're very quick. The fundamental problem here is that my job, such that it is, is crap.
Mrs Pyle: What I do for a living is ultimately pointless. You see that machine over there?
UBO: The one spitting out peanuts everywhere?
Mrs Pyle: That's the one. That machine has been on the fritz for thirty years. Seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, that mechanical maniac lobs out peanuts - about six hundredweight an hour. The bloody things end up everywhere: rolling under equipment, wedged in air conditioning vents, ricocheting off of the roof beams and shooting down your neck. We spend most of our working day dodging nutty shrapnel.
UBO: That's horrendous.
Mrs Pyle: You're being a little melodramatic, but you've got a point. It's no sodding picnic, let's put it that way. Well, anyway - that's my job.
UBO: To fix the machine?
Mrs Pyle: To pick up the peanuts.
UBO: You pick up peanuts?
Mrs Pyle: Yes, I'm a peanut picker-upper. In fact, I'm a fully qualified peanut picker-upper; they even gave me a certificate for it. The gormless meathead that I'm obliged to recognise as my superior would appear to be of the opinion that some hastily put-together, shoddily printed flap of slightly damp paper will somehow recompense me for the lack of a decent wage. He seems quite certain that a fancy font supplemented with a few badly rendered examples of clipart will somehow convince me that, after thirty years, I'm a valued member of the team. I remain unconvinced.
UBO: They could just fix the machine.
Mrs Pyle: Ah, now, see what you've done there? You have applied logic and common sense to the problem - that's where you're going wrong. The machine is broken - therefore you fix the machine. Logical, but what you are failing to take into account is that the company I work for is essentially crooked and incompetent, and the exploitation of the workforce is at the very heart of its philosophy. When the current owner happened to mention that he wanted a cowboy outfit for Christmas, someone bought him this place. It was a perfect fit.
UBO: So the obvious thing to do -
Mrs Pyle: Oh, we are all aware of the obvious course of action. Everybody who works on the factory floor is of one mind. They limp out of here at the end of the day - noses bloodied, eyes stinging, their red flesh puckered with peanut shot - and they look at each other wistfully and say, 'they need to fix that machine '. It's a very touching scene.
UBO: It sounds -
Mrs Pyle: Heartbreaking? Yes it does. You can almost hear the music swell as those painful, broken silhouettes shuffle off towards a golden sun setting on a distant horizon. It's like a fucking Disney movie.
UBO: The end of the shift must come as a great relief.
Mrs Pyle: It does - to everybody but me, because long after the final whistle goes, I'm still shackled to my dustpan and brush. I can't make my escape until every last peanut has been recovered. I remember, sometimes, that I used to have a life. I think that's what it's called: 'a life'. These ethereal, half-forgotten memories of home and family float back to me. I would spend my evenings drawing, gardening, occasionally even reading. I think it was me, though I suppose it could have been somebody else.
Mrs Pyle: But now my evenings are spent here, harvesting the detritus of another working day.
UBO: You're an artist?
Mrs Pyle: No, I'm a peanut picker-upper. We've established that. Maybe thirty years ago I entertained the notion that I could draw comic strips. Maybe I clung to that dream for many a year, working into the night, sending off samples and getting nowhere. Maybe I'd still be pursuing that childish fantasy if I had the time and the energy. Unfortunately, great big chunks of my life are no longer mine to command.
UBO: The overtime must come in handy.
Mrs Pyle: All unpaid. My only reward is the satisfaction of knowing that I play a vital role in the continuing growth of the company.
UBO: Well, it's very… er… 'obliging' of you to agree to that.
Mrs Pyle: You are very free and easy with that word 'agree'. I don't believe I was consulted. There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will - in my case he is called Mr Wingerworth. While I spend my evenings haunting the factory ramparts, said Wingerworth is up the golf club, or down the casino, or over the road at the all night executive knocking shop, congratulating himself on dispensing with the necessity of fixing an expensive piece of machinery through the simple expedient of some poor persecuted wage slave.
UBO: But what about the Working -
Mrs Pyle: The Working Time Directive? I believe I was opted out - I did not have the option not to. And while we're on the subject of my statutory rights (oh yes, I've read up on all this) I'm well aware that all these unpaid hours drag my actual hourly rate way below the minimum wage. But then, what's the point of having a disposable income when I don't have the time to dispose of it?
UBO: Haven't you complained?
Mrs Pyle: I thought I was complaining - I'm complaining to you, aren't I? You can tell I'm complaining because of the way my mouth is flapping, my fists are clenching and my face is twisting into a hateful leer.
UBO: No, we meant -
Mrs Pyle: I know, I know. You meant I should cry "to hell wi' t' looms!" throw off the shackles and stride out into the sun. And maybe I should - maybe I should raise my voice, stand my ground and stamp my feet. But I know it would be pointless. Those whose sole motive in life is to amass a grotesque fortune at the expense of others tend not to be of a sympathetic bent. They live in a world of profit margins, throughput and efficiency targets. Concepts like decent wages, statutory rights and health and safety belong in some fluffy fairytale dimension, which they seldom visit. I could file a grievance, yes. Equally, I could spend an hour bashing my cranium against the office wall, and probably reap measurably better results.
UBO: Clearly you believe that you are being treated unfairly.
Mrs Pyle: I do - I do believe that. I'm not a particularly devout person in many respects, but that particular conviction is one that I embrace with evangelical zeal. Friends and strangers alike will tell you that I do not shirk at my responsibility to vent my displeasure at every conceivable opportunity.
UBO: But -
Mrs Pyle: But I do nothing about it - that was what you were going to say, yes? For the sake of a quiet life, I just roll over and let it happen? Well, perhaps I'm not as pathetic as you think. I have my moments. Once I drew a cartoon on the canteen wall - it was Mr Wingerworth dressed as a Stormtrooper. A really vicious little caricature. Everyone loved it.
UBO: And what did Mr Wingerworth think?
Mrs Pyle: He never saw it. I got rid of it before he had the chance. No sense in rocking the boat, is there? Now, if you'll excuse me, these peanuts won't sweep up themselves.