Six Months on Minimum Wage

The hundred people who work at the Tutto Colore clothing factory have hardly noticed me. I could have been an actor, but here I’m invisible, like an extra. I’d like to think that I’m a spy with a good cover but the truth is that I’m a guy who works in a warehouse; and I have been for a month, for ten hours per day. In the course of these four weeks at work I have repeated a handful of phrases that seldom vary: “Yes, Sir. No, Sir. I’ll do it right now.” I’ve learned to move around the second floor, where I’m stationed, with the agility of a sailfish.

Every day I warehouse garments on metal shelves that look like the skeleton of a space shuttle. I also take inventory of T-shirts and sweatsuits on a long table like the ones in high-school cafeterias and I take orders from my boss—a neurotic man who won’t let me and my coworkers listen to music—with Benedictine humility. On the other floors in the factory, people knit their brows less. They relax, listening to rancheras, merengues, ballads. We work without a sound track. If we could mumble along to any song, whatever it would be, I’m certain of two things: 1. The men I work with would stop obsessively discussing how to keep their women happy and 2. I wouldn’t keep picking my life apart as if it were a Rubik’s cube.     

My work day begins at 6:45 a.m. That’s when the night guard, a bald guy who swallows his words, opens the door and greets me with a flat “Buenos días.” At the entrance I look for a yellow card with my name on it and I slide it into the slot of a metal clock that looks a lot like a small safe. I hate that sound in the morning, the heavy clack, like a shackle; but I love the music it makes at 5:00 p.m., when I check out, like the snap of fingers returning me to the world. Each time you stamp your timecard in a factory, it’s like putting a price on your day. Mine is worth 14,500 pesos ($7.67).

Before the clock reads 7:00 a.m, I take my uniform out of cubby number 49 and change in the farthest bathroom on the second floor, the only one with a urinal. The other bathrooms are for the women in the Inspection Department, who work on the same floor as me. These women look for possible imperfections in the clothing coming off the machines on the floor above, then they fold them and package them. The prettiest girl in the factory works there, a girl who inspects the stitching of blouses, shorts, and dresses with the focus of a banderillero, wrapped in a checkered smock. My uniform is simple: a blue cotton shirt with a thick collar that makes me feel like I’m choking the first week. I wear it with jeans that are too high-waisted, which I bought in the center of town for 15,000 pesos, and a pair of old shoes that are as comfortable as a pair of slippers. They’re the only ones in which I can survive the ten-hour workday.

One day, two months after arriving at the factory, payday was postponed and my shoes began to feel tight. I had fulfilled my obligations obediently and punctually: stamp timecard, don uniform, count, move, and stow boxes, stamp timecard again. But my paycheck was two days late and I needed a new razorblade and some cough-drops. I had only enough money for one item. I considered looking for extra work. One of my coworkers, for example, runs a hotdog stand on the weekends, and another delivers for a pharmacy. They work seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, yet they grew up in crowded barrios where their friends had new motorbikes every two months. Today their friends are dead. Is it better to be alive, marking time in a factory?

When my shoes began to feel so tight they were killing me, I asked the secretary why we hadn’t been paid.

“We don’t know when we’ll be able to pay you,” she replied, like she was offering condolences.

2.

The Tutto Colore factory is on a corner in Guayabal, the industrial zone of Medellín, off an avenue of trees blackened by bus exhaust. It is surrounded by and in the shadow of the chimneys of some powerful enterprises: Noel (a packaged-foods manufacturer), the Colombian Tobacco Company, Postobón (soft drinks) and Estra (plastic goods). Two years ago, Tutto Colore expanded from an old two-story house to a five-story brick building. The leap seems to have left it breathless. Like the first textile companies in Medellín, founded at the beginning of the twentieth century, it belongs to a single family: the five sons of the deceased owner, Ernesto Correa, who share management responsibilities. The founder and patriarch, who died of cancer, survives in faded, framed photos. The portraits hang in the entryway on each floor like the image of a patron saint. At the bottom of each is a sentence, a kind of prayer derived from business wisdom: “Labor is the only capital which doesn’t break down.”      

One day after the celebration of Labor Day, on the afternoon of May 2, the CEO of Tutto Colore, a short man who always carries a small leather bag—no one knows what’s inside—calls a meeting to explain why our paychecks are late. The timing is not ironic, it’s like a bad joke. When he appeared on the stairs, he had the look of a kid whose mother has just told him he’s adopted.

“In nearly three decades of business,” he said, “this is the worst quarter of financial results we’ve ever had.”

A girl from the production floor who has three children bit her lip. I thought she’d draw blood.

As if it were a school assignment, the man listed the reasons for the delay in paying our wages, which totaled fifty million pesos each fortnight: 1. The shortfall of funds resulting from the theft of millions by a trusted employee. 2. The breath of the Chinese dragon on our necks, in the form of cheap products imported via Panama. 3.The collapse of the dollar, which fell 500 pesos in less than six months. At this point I stopped listening to him and focused on a tic I had noticed. It was a kind of spasm, almost imperceptible, which made him shrug his right shoulder every five seconds. My coworkers were staring at the floor. The CEO continued with his bad news, vacillating between nervousness and embarrassment. He gave a fourth reason for not being able to pay our wages: our debtors. For example, a Mexican business we had invoiced for a large sum of money which remained unpaid. The man fell silent, perhaps awaiting the reaction of his employees. Only one of my coworkers spoke up:

“I don’t have enough money for the bus tomorrow. What should I do?”

In the food chain of the textile industry, Tutto Colore is just an average-sized tuna that could easily be swallowed by any whale. We employees are the phytoplankton. A few days’ delay in payment of our wages translates into the electricity being cut off for not paying the bill, or into calls to our most financially stable relatives for the funds to be able to get to work. In my case, I tell the woman from whom I’m renting my room a dumb joke to catch her off guard before I ask for an extension on paying my rent. But hard times aren’t exclusive to Tutto Colore: it’s just one example of the agony of the textile industry as the dollar falls. Twelve thousand employees in the industry have lost their jobs in the first half of 2007 and some employees have already departed, rather than wait for their pink slip. One of my coworkers told me in the hallway that he was moving to a town in the middle of the rainforests of Chocó to run a hardware store. His last day at Tutto Colore was Mother’s Day. He got a piece of cake with some rum-raisin ice cream and a few pats on the back for the fifteen years he’d spent breaking his back in this factory. Something smells bad in this city. Thousands of country folk made their way through the rainforest to found Medellín, the great city of industry. And now their descendants are returning to the humidity of the jungle.

3.

One morning, before leaving the house for the factory, I draw a new line on the pocket calendar I keep in my wallet. After bathing in freezing water, I stare at it like a soldier gazing at a photo of his fiancée beneath the roar of enemy planes. Today I crossed off Tuesday, July 3. For a week now I’ve had new responsibilities which are improving my mental health: I accompany Tutto Colore’s driver on his trips to the mom-and-pop businesses the company has commissioned to embellish the clothing with something special. Like a double clasp. I’m replacing the driver’s former assistant—who left to work for a security company where he gets twice the minimum wage for watching a parking lot. Leaving the warehouse and getting out onto the city streets has saved me from the robotic work of the past four months, in which life passed me by as I counted children’s rompers.

One afternoon I counted 1,253 items of clothing; I wrote the number down on a piece of paper so I will never forget what a person will do for money. One of my coworkers at the warehouse who used to work for Noel spent three and a half years watching millions of cookies pass by on a conveyor belt from ten at night till six in the morning. It was either that or not having food for his newborn son. Another, who was with a cosmetics company, spent three months working twelve-hour days, with only one Sunday off per month. “It wouldn’t have mattered if it had killed me, the pay was so good, it was wonderful,” he told me one afternoon in front of the cubbyholes where we kept our uniforms.

In the course of three months, he lost six kilos (thirteen pounds).    

In the past four months, I’ve lost only one and a half kilos (three pounds). 

Now I’ve become the sidekick of Don Jaime Isaza, a gray-haired hulk who drives the company truck around Medellín. We’ve already filled the tank with a 50,000 peso bill seven times, going from workshop to workshop to pick up dozens of sacks of finished clothing. Most are like mini-factories, set up in the dining rooms or living rooms of houses in slums. From the street you can recognize them by the neon lights installed on the ceiling and the relentless noise of sewing machines. My favorite is in a barrio called Manrique, in an old house guarded by a one-eyed dog.

The owner, a woman who dresses like she’s stuck in a past epoch, always gives us mulberry juice when Isaza and I finish loading the truck with sacks full of clothes. At first sight, these sacks represent more sales, the certainty that the financial difficulties of the first half of the year are behind us, or so the new CEO thinks, a tall, friendly guy who picks up every stray thread he sees on the factory floor and throws it out. For him, these sacks are like letters from afar bearing good news. For the time being, we are the mailmen.

Today, Tuesday, July 3, has been as long as an Alaskan summer day. At nine in the morning, Isaza and I drove to the Rionegro airport to drop off a shipment at the cargo loading bay. The customs officers made him sign a form declaring that there were no drugs hidden in the boxes of clothing being shipped to Spain. Before unloading them from the truck, they took a picture of him standing in front of the boxes as evidence. If the Spanish authorities discover cocaine hidden among the sweatshirts and dresses, they’ll know who to go after.

And so at ten that morning, in apocalyptic rains, we left the airport for a mom-and-pop in La Ceja, a village thirty minutes outside Medellín: we had to deliver a sewing machine. While it was being unloaded, Isaza asked me to loan him money to buy his mother fresh vegetables from the market that’s part of the same cooperative. I lent him the 3,000 pesos I had planned on buying a couple of beers with after work. Sometimes, when I leave the factory in the afternoon, I pass by an ice-cream parlor in the center of town; that’s what they call the old bars in Medellín. They’re like tea-houses for lonely Antioqueños—natives of Medellín. The girls who tend the tables are the geishas of the tropics: they let customers buy them an aguardiente, play their favorite songs on the jukebox, and patiently listen to the stories of these men whose hands are as large as Isaza’s.

On the way back to Medellín, the windows rolled down and the smell of wet grass in the air, Tutto Colore’s driver shows me something. It’s the parador Tequendama, where, when he has a little money left over after payday, he brings his girlfriend to eat trout with the view of a waterfall cascading down the mountain. Isaza suggests I should do the same, but I’ve already made my vows of poverty and chastity.

He’s fifty, with one girlfriend and two ex-wives.

I’m still single. The girl I was with never understood why I left for Medellín.

At one thirty in the afternoon we return to the factory for lunch. As always, I have to heat my food in a microwave on the fifth floor and bolt it down in fifteen minutes. That’s the standard lunch break. I have two pieces of stewed chicken, rice, fries, and half an unripe banana. After two, the warehouse manager, the guy who doesn’t appreciate music, gives us a delivery of buttons, elastic, and labels for a workshop in the San Javier barrio, in district 13*, on the north side of the city. “A few years ago we couldn’t go up there” Isaza says as he turns the key in the ignition.

On the news several years back, I remember seeing a black helicopter blow the zinc roofs off some houses in San Javier, a barrio with steep, labyrinthine streets like the one I live in now. The police and the army confronted the militia and the paramilitary at point-blank-range. In the end, a man died in the crossfire, trying to reach a phone booth to let his family know he was alive. Five years have passed since that morning when I watched the war come to one of Colombia’s cities on TV. Sitting next to Isaza, I count six young people in wheelchairs in the half-hour we spent driving through the streets of San Javier.

Our second errand that afternoon is in a slum built on top of an old dump. We’re there to collect a dozen sacks of clothing. In Moravia. Or what was left of it. The night before I arrived in Medellín a fire burned down two hundred houses in this barrio. My travels with Isaza were becoming a sort of verification of the city’s tragedies. I’ve never seen more stray dogs than I saw in Moravia. At four thirty in the afternoon we return to the factory, our throats as dry as a mangrove swamp in a drought and we quickly unload the sacks.

It’s almost five, time to go home. I feel like I have developed superpowers. I can tell what’s in the sacks without opening them. The one I have on my back right now, as I head upstairs to the second floor, is full of cotton-twill shorts—that’s why it’s so heavy. I feel like one of those jewelers who can value a diamond just by holding it in the palm of his hand, a skill I’d earn more than the minimum wage with. Reality is that I’m only half-way up the stairs and my spine feels crushed. It’s the last of the sacks we brought from Moravia. Once again, I’ve forgotten to go up to the cutting floor and borrow a belt to keep from developing scoliosis. They look like the belts weightlifters use for training. If I were to continue not wearing one, in five years time my spine would look like the letter S.

I stink after ten hours of work. I leave the sack in the Inspection Department, my shirt soaked through with sweat. The place is deserted. The women who inspect and pack the clothing all left at 3:00. Seeing their empty cubicles depresses me. There’s nothing sadder than the sight of the tools of their trade scattered about, orphaned. In one of the cubicles I spot a notebook with teddy bears on the cover, a scrunchie tossed aside, a pen whose tip has been chewed. In another there’s a label machine decorated with a decal that says “Brave Heart.”

There’s no one around. I walk over to the chair where the department manager sits, a woman who has been with the company for ages. She lives in a house by a river in Caldas, a village forty-five minutes outside Medellín, and above her kitchen table she has a poster of a man at the fork of two roads: Virtue and Ruin. On the first, there’s the image of a mattock, a woman, and smiling children next to a modest house with a garden. On the second, there’s a bottle of aguardiente, a wad of bills and a pile of coins, a gun, and a coffin. I’ve seen this poster because Isaza and I have been to collect sacks of clothes that the woman brings home to inspect on the weekends, in order to earn a few extra pesos. A few extra pesos are a few extra pesos: she earns 150 pesos for each item she folds and packs. A few months ago, that poster would have seemed ridiculously Manichaean.

Today I, too, believe there are two paths in life. Doña Luz Castro, that’s her name, chose Virtue despite the fact that her home has no garden. There’s no other explanation for the peace she exudes, every time I approach her to ask a question at work. Standing at her side, I can feel her inner peace. I know that sounds too metaphysical, but I have no better explanation and I’m not going to go looking for one. Sometimes things are just what they seem, not to sound like Cantinflas**. Isn’t the phrase “Some moments are truly momentary” attributed to him?

I wish she were here now, to dispel the fatigue of a grueling workday. Instead, my boss approaches to tell me there’s one more pickup: three sacks in the Castilla barrio, on the other side of the city. It’s 4:50 p.m. The tireless Isaza is waiting for me in the street, motor running.

4.

Five and a half months have passed since I arrived in Medellín and began working at the factory. It’s Friday afternoon and I’m sitting in the farthest bathroom on the second floor of the factory. If I listen closely I can hear everything going on in the building. I close my eyes and see the cutters on the fifth floor, the embroiderers and the printers on the fourth, the fifty sewing machines on the third, sounds that are by now as familiar to me as tapping on a keyboard. My boss must think I have chronic diarrhea. I go to the toilet a lot, but for other reasons. This is where I make notes on how hellish it is to live on minimum wage. Every time I write something in this little black book it seems like the answer is ever more remote, like a cargo ship headed for the Orient. One time I sat here, my eyes filling with tears as I read a letter that a girl from the factory floor slipped me with a package of chocolate cookies; and it was here that I escaped for air on the hardest days in my time here at the factory, this desert-crossing.

Since I began working here, biblical metaphors come to me more often than I’d like. Some mornings, when the bus dropped me fifteen minutes early on the corner of Guayabal Avenue, where Tutto Colore is, I took a short walk to a nearby church. There I experienced a kind of religious ecstasy I had never felt before. Sitting in the last pew, I asked a plaster statue to give me strength to make it till 5 p.m. and soon it was time to go stamp my card. Twice I found myself next to Doña Luz, asking for the strength to stay on the straight and narrow. After a brief prayer, I’d go buy a roll at the bakery for a hundred pesos. I ate it like the host before entering the factory and donning my uniform in that same bathroom.

Once I’ve flushed the toilet, I wash my hands and look in the mirror. My hair has grown a lot since I cut it all off before coming to Medellín. That afternoon, when I left the barber shop, a kind of parenthesis opened in my life. Now there are a few hours left before it closes: it’s my last day at the factory. The girl who gave me the letter and the cookies calls to me. The food has just arrived. My coworkers from the warehouse have bought a cake and Coca-Cola to see off a man who never once told them who he really was.

* District 13 was one of, if not the most, violent barrio in Medellin during the 90's and early 2000's.

**A comedian known in Latin America for his humorously convoluted way of talking.

From "Seis meses con el salario mínimo." Copyright Andrés Felipe Solano. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.