28 days later – essential (worker) but alone


lunch room sign

[ a shoutout and digital applause from this space to our selfless health workers who sacrifice their time, energy and safety for all our medically compromised. We can’t thank you enough! ]

IT’S NOT REALLY 28 days yet, only the 6th day as of this writing, but going by a post-apocalyptic zombie movie of the same name, living as an OFW in New Zealand in very unique and unusual circumstances for 28 days, I thought of using the movie title as my own.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared CoVID19 Alert Level 4 last Wednesday, meaning, in summary, that all non-essential industries and professions would cease operating or working, people would practice social distancing of two meters, and as much as possible and observing only strict exceptions, every household in this country of 4.5 million would stay within their household bubble for the next 28 days or 4 weeks.

I’m not a health worker, caregiver, IT or telecoms worker or a supermarket staff, but I work in an essential industry. The most I can tell you is that I work in the food manufacturing industry, and common sense dictates that the country cannot survive long without food. Thus, I have continued work as normal and have so far done my part in this national, actually global emergency, the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, which you’ve heard enough about.

[ Just so there’s no misunderstanding, people are allowed to take short walks and even runs or use their bicycles outside their homes, under the warning that everyone must observe strict social distancing every time another human being is encountered. Hopefully no one abuses or misuses this privilege, for now, in the face of all risk, public health and welfare takes priority over everything else, including the right to move around. ]

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I’ve done the following more than once before, but not altogether in one week : I’ve worked alone in a shift (but not alone in the site), worked extra hours for someone who couldn’t come to work; and worked on a Saturday. All were due to various unrelated reasons, but really, indirectly, connected to the pandemic.

My shift partner had a family matter to attend to and so had to ask me if I could carry on alone (I could, with a little difficulty); someone who was working after my shift couldn’t come to work because his scheduled driving test was postponed (as were all driving tests in New Zealand during the lockdown); and finally, extra orders for our product meant that extra production time was needed, and so the workweek was abruptly extended to Saturday. Guess who drew the short straw? Yes boss, your loyal kabayan Noel.

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I can’t complain though. I get paid overtime, I keep working when all others in non-essential industries receive a drastically reduced wage subsidy from both their employers and government, if at all, and I’m secure in my job for the next 28 days, in fact production is at an all-time high. We can’t keep up with orders and trucks can’t pick up and deliver our product fast enough.

The changes are obvious though. Where before we were discouraged from working alone, as I said above, it’s now almost commonplace that we’ll be ask to mind the machines and factory without seeing another person almost throughout the shift. Safe enough, but when there are factory issues we can’t take the regular 15-minute breaks every two hours. But it’s a small sacrifice when the factory can’t stop; it has to run 24/7 to fill the orders and requirements of all the supermarkets throughout the Lower North Island.

I carry with myself a letter written by the Managing Director of our Company, stating that because I work in an essential industry producing a commodity essential to the daily lives of millions of New Zealanders, interfering with my work would be considered harassment. My work would be the equivalent of the work of the frontliners and special workers back home in the Philippines.

Indeed, on my way to my night shift, seeing any another vehicle bearing what I assume would be essential workers is quite rare, practically none.

The week before, every time I spoke to a colleague I was admonished by the acting site manager (our site manager was stranded in Christchurch by the lockdown) to strictly observe the required 2-meter distancing, avoid face-to-face communication and not to overfill the lunchroom (see above announcement in pic). We don’t even talk with the supervisor face-to-face anymore; he calls or talks to us through our Bluetooth earmuffs (pic below) :

bluetooth earmuffs

Ultimately, although there is another person on this shift with me, I am responsible for half of the entire factory and I stay on my half alone for most of the eight hours. I monitor the steady running of the machines, make sure they do what they’re told, and I don’t see or talk to another soul the rest of the shift. Just as well, for health and safety reasons.

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Production continues indefinitely as long as there were people available and overtime work was accepted. Unless it was for medical reasons, leave wasn’t practical — where would you go and what would you do? Everything was closed down, no public transport, and the airport was closed to all but the most essential travel.

The bottom line was quickly formed in my mind. The lockdown is a shutdown. The only solution against the virus spreading was people keeping to themselves. I and my colleagues in the essential industries are the few exceptions, needed to keep people fed and comfortable in this unprecedented time.

As a Pinoy and as a migrant, this is my chance to prove my worth. Simply and decisively,  I must do as I’m told, and do what I’ve always done: work, work and work. Work until the limit of my capacity, and perhaps beyond. In that way, I do my share as a productive member of the land of my hosts. I can do no more, and no less.

Mabuhay po tayong lahat, pangalagaan po natin ang kalusugan ng buong mag-anak!

Thanks for reading!

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