“Kel, it’s your poster-boy Mohammed.”
This is Neil, the human resources manager – a competent smartass.
“Jesus,” I said.
“No, Mohammed,” replied Neil dryly.
“How did you get a job in HR with your complete lack of interest in people?” I asked.
He ignored the question. “What do you want to do?”
I looked at the time, 8:50 a.m. “I’ll meet you down there. Let Tori know I’m coming.”
“I’m going to have to notify WorkSafe – plant overturning.”
This is Tori, the newly-minted safety adviser still finding her voice – a Cook Islander who looked out of place in the freezer. I looked at the forklift truck. It was cantered over on two wheels.
“But it’s not completely overturned,” Neil argued. “It’s still leaning on the racking.” Fog came out of his mouth.
“I think you’re being pedantic,” said Tori. The last word came out as pedentuk.
Good girl, I thought. My phone rang. I declined the call and switched it to silent.
“Where’s Mo?” I asked.
“Gone to his car,” said Neil. “Glenn is in the warming room with the first aider. Broken nose.”
“Okay,” I said. “Neil, I need you to interview them. Separately of course. Then stand them both down to give us some time to think. Dick’s on holiday right?”
“Yep,” said Neil. “He’s due back in time for the EBA meeting next week.”
“This is all I need.” I looked at my phone – three missed calls from reception. “Shit, I gotta go up and kick off the Safety Awareness Day.”
I looked again at the scene. The forklift truck was leaning on the 6-high racking and blocking the main aisle.
“Tori, can we move the fork so I can at least get some product out for the eleven a.m. run?”
“Sorry Kel, can’t touch it until WorkSafe gets here.”
“Jesus,” I said.
Neil looked at me.
“Don’t say it.”
I went up to the conference room for the Safety Awareness Day. The guest speaker wasn’t there. Employees were mingling at the catering table. I realised I still had my hi-viz parka, beanie and gloves on. When I took the beanie of, my hair frizzed up with the static.
“Kellie, I’ve been calling you. They’re carrying him up now.”
This is Lorna, the receptionist – what Barbie would look like at fifty, if divorced from Ken.
“Carrying?” I asked, as I shrugged out of my parka. “Carrying who?”
“Steven? The work-injury guest speaker? He went to the wrong entrance.”
I darted over to the window and saw two warehouse employees carrying Steven in his wheel chair up the side stairs.
“Oh for God’s sake,” I said under my breath.
“Do you want me to loan you a hairbrush, sweetheart?” asked Lorna.
Around lunchtime my phone rang.
“Kel, I’d like to come over and see you.”
This is Dick, the union organiser – crusty, wise, solid. As the cattle farmers say he was ‘carrying some condition’.
“I thought you were on annual leave?” I said.
“Good help is hard to find,” he replied.
He was in my office within the hour.
“You’re not setting a very good example.” I joked. “Work-life balance?”
“My shop steward has a broken nose.”
“Neil’s still doing the investigation,” I said. “Looks like Glenn and Mo had a swing at each other after Mo stacked his fork. Right now I can’t see either of them keeping their jobs.”
“Mo’s the Pakistani CPA with the moustache, right?” asked Dick.
“Yeah. I swear those fork drivers hold the place to ransom some days,” I said.
“Well,” said Dick, “every industry has their Pavarottis.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, there’s no opera without the fat man. Without your fork drivers your ice cream melts.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“The airlines have the baggage handlers. Hotels have the housekeepers. Wharfies, garbos, crane drivers, you get the picture.”
“This game used to be easier,” confided Dick. “But now there’re hardly any Pavarotti jobs left. Even IT can be done by someone else.”
“I’ll call you when the investigation is done.”
“I appreciate it Kel,” said Dick as he shook my hand. “Try and look at the bigger picture.”
“You’re not going to believe this,” said Tori on the phone. The last word came out like thus.
“Don’t try me today Tori,” I said.
“The WorkSafe inspector slipped over on the ice. Might be a broken elbow. An ambulance is on the way.”
At this point I was very close to throwing my phone deep into the plasterboard wall.
“This is too stupid to be a conspiracy,” I said.
“Are you okay, Kel?” asked Tori.
“Every time I look around I’m undermined by stupidity,” I said. “Every. Effing. Time.”
“One day you might look back on this and laugh,” offered Tori.
The next day my phone rang just after 10.30 a.m.
“Alright Neil, what’s the story?” I said.
“Short version?” he asked.
“Why don’t we start there?”
“You sitting down? Well, after the accident Glenn told Mo it was because he drives like a suicide bomber. Mo’s told him to f-off. Glenn’s had a swing at him and clipped him on the side of the head. Mo’s whacked Glenn in the nose – says it was self-defence. Mo also says he only crashed because of ice on the floor. Says he’s reported the ice three times to the OHS rep who did nothing about it. He has the Take-5 booklet to prove it.”
“Who’s the OHS rep for that area?”
“Great. Alright, I’ll call Dick.”
“The bottom line Dick is they’re both going,” I said. “We just can’t have violence in the workplace – gotta draw the line. And Glenn didn’t address an issue that resulted in a notifiable incident – on Safety Awareness day for God’s sake.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Dick.
“I know. Look, I feel sorry for Mo. I know he’s just bought a house.”
“Alright. Can you sweeten it?”
“Two weeks’ in lieu of notice,” I offered.
“He needs a job Kel,” said Dick.
“Four weeks. And I can throw in a positive statement of service.”
“No offence but that’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”
“What about I talk to our temp agency? See if they can get him onto their books.”
“I’ll put it to him,” said Dick, non-committal.
In the early afternoon, Dick called back.
“Look I tried my best. But Mo’s set on going for unfair dismissal.”
“That’s nuts,” I said. “It’ll be a couple of months before he sees any money. And then probably only six weeks’ pay.”
“I know. But some lawyer from Morris-Cockburn has got in his ear and told him he has a great case.”
“And you wonder why my boss prefers casuals,” I said.
“Mo wants his job back,” said Dick flatly.
“You’d have to wonder about any lawyer who thought there was a case here. Let alone any money to be had. Don’t they know only 3% of unfair dismissals get reinstated? And almost never after physical violence.”
“Well it might not just be unfair dismissal,” said Dick. “Try adverse action.”
“What adverse action is there?”
“Mo says he reported the ice three times and the company did nothing about it.”
“He reported it to Glenn!” I said, “your shop steward!” I was a little agitato.
“I’m not saying I’ve got the best helpers,” conceded Dick. “But this is out of my hands. They’ll argue you denied his workplace right to be heard on a safety issue.”
“That’s such bullshit!”
“And then there’s the racial vilification.”
“What racial vilification? Mo’s our poster-boy for diversity for God’s sake!” At this point I was standing and gesturing to the Diversity @ Work poster on my office wall, featuring Mohammed and a number of other diverse employees. “He’s literally on the goddam poster!”
“You know what his nickname is?” asked Dick.
“Do you know why?”
“I assumed it was his Tom Selleck moustache?” I said.
“No, apparently it’s because he’s brown and you’ll find him in the freezer.”
The next morning my phone rang.
“Mohammed has had a coming to Jesus,” said Neil smugly.
“How so?” I asked.
“His wife has talked some sense into him. He wants to know if the deal is still on.”
“If he sends me a signed deed I’ll pay the four weeks’ and give him a referral to the temp agency.”
“Done,” said Neil.
A few weeks later Neil and I were going through some resumes for forklift truck drivers – Mohammed and Glenn’s replacements.
“So this one’s a no,” I said. I placed the resume on the sizeable ‘no’ pile.
“What about this one?” I asked. “Cold storage experience.”
Neil looked over the resume. “Nah,” he said, “he’s been casual for the last four years. If he was any good they would have put him on the books.”