I’m a “Factory Girl”…again by Thea Phillips – (Hartley.)
In December, my daughter sent me via Facebook an advertisement she had noticed asking for women who had worked in garment factories in South Wales during 1970/80s to get in touch with the production company “Wall to Wall.”
At first, I thought it interesting but nothing to do with me, then I realised that I actually did work in a garment factory during the latter part of that period.
I telephoned the company, left my details and thought no more about it.
In January, I received a call from one of the researchers which resulted in a few calls back and forth between us relating to my experiences and ides for the setting and script of the future programme “Factory Girls”.
My first experience of a factory was helping in my father’s business which was the first condom factory in the UK. It was started by my grandfather in early 1900 and had provided the British troops with “French Letters” throughout two world wars. The factory had diversified as the years went by into many other birth control products and medicines, selling to chemists throughout the UK.
I have written about the factory, it’s employees, and the wider environment in the biography of my grandfather, “ The French Letter King.” which the production company were aware of.
Later on, in 1977, I joined a clothing factory in Merthyr Tydfil as a bookkeeper. The producers of “Factory Girls” were very interested in my account of working life in this particular industry. We discussed the factory lay out, the relationships between management and shop floor and, especially the pay gap between men and women and ‘skilled’ and ‘non-skilled’ workers.
I was pleased with the reaction to our conversations and felt I had helped in the background of what looks like being an extremely interesting programme. I wondered if I would be included in the making of the series itself.
Months passed, and I heard no more. Thousands of people had applied to become involved and travel back in time to become “Factory Girls” of the past.
However, last Monday I received an unexpected call. One of the programme makers wanted to come and interview me on camera and talk about my part in the production.
On Tuesday, she turned up, camera and tripod in hand ready to ask me questions about my time in the garment factory and subsequent career. I was nervous, I must admit. Sitting in front of a camera and being interviewed is not something I do very often…amend that to, not at all.
I managed to calm down and answered questions about pay and conditions at the time I was employed. We discussed the attitudes of the workers and the reactions of the owners and managers. I described how there were small conflicts when I worked there regarding bonuses and the pay differences between male and female workers. These were totally unfair, but generally accepted. I spoke about how I had gained promotion until I was not only the book keeper, but co-ordination of the whole order to dispatch process.
I had received an increase in pay which made it easier to provide for my family. I continued working there for a few more years until my bosses took on a male accountant to take over my book keeping duties. The reason for employing him was due to my workload becoming so great that some of my duties had to be allocated elsewhere. Hence, the new employee. He was a pleasant man, we got on well. Then I discovered that he was being paid more than me for doing only a fraction of what used to be my job.
Incensed, I demanded of my boss the reason for this. “ Well, he’s not just a man, but he’s got a degree,” was the answer. Talk about angry. I stormed out of the office and continued working in a state of rage. How could having a degree mean being paid more, when I had to show him the system and how to do the work? What about experience? I fumed for the whole weekend ….’male plus degree equals more money’ …how unfair, how ridiculous. Finally I realised that I couldn’t change my gender ( I didn’t want to) but I could get a degree. The following Monday I took a big decision; a life changing choice. I resigned and applied to university.
It could have all gone wrong. I had given up a well paid job, and I might not even be accepted at university. What’s more I was a single mother of three children. What had I done?
Thankfully, I was given a place to study and got a full grant for tuition and living expenses ( this was before the era of student loans). I was one of the first mature students.
Three years later, I graduated with a degree in Psychology and won student of the year award. Success! I became a psychology lecturer, and went on to gain more qualifications including a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies.
I continued my interview outlining how student life had taken my initial sense of unfairness towards women and signposted me into feminism and educational attainment for all. I devoted much of my subsequent lecturing career into helping people who the system had failed, into attaining qualifications and getting better, well paid jobs.
The interviewer was very interested in my experience, plus my last few years’ development as an author. My writing reflects my experiences, values and beliefs. My novel “ Wear Bright Colours For Me” covers several historical periods, highlighting inequalities in each one. The section covering the Second World War is even about women’s experiences in an ammunition’s factory!
I have been told that I will be in the programme in the role of advisor to the factory girls who wish to do something about the problems they are experiencing and the unfairness of the pay structure. I can hardly wait! I don’t know what will happen. I might even entice them to go on strike!
Whatever the outcome I’m sure that it will be a fantastic experience (as long as I don’t ‘freeze’ and become unable to speak.)
Off I go now, to dig out my 1980s clothes and overall ready to become a factory girl once more.