One Hour in a Packaging Line

Recently, I had volunteered in my company for ‘Stop Hunger Now’ event. My company had tied up with ‘Stop Hunger Now’, an international NGO that gets food and life-saving aid to the world’s most vulnerable people. The goal was to pack 100,000 packets of food items for the needy. Overall, there was a need for approximately 1000 volunteers, who will be working on the packing lines. For each of the packing line, there was a need for a total of 10 volunteers per line, working for 1 hour shift each. Our company’s social impact team was planning to have 12 packing lines, and approximately 8 – 9 shifts to complete packing of 100,000 meals (Uncooked, dry food and vegetables). Each person had to volunteer to work for one hour… just one hour for this cause. Part of our cafeteria was cordoned off for this activity. I had chosen 2 PM to 3 PM timeslot. I and a few of my colleagues reached the registration desk at the appointed hour.

At the registration desk, they had a paper to fill our details. We saw a lot of smiling, excited people curiously taking a peek at the packaging lines. At the registration desk, they distributed us a cap for covering our head and then a pair of polythene glows. Just behind that table there was a partition frame that was partially covering the 12 long tables arranged in 6 rows and 2 columns with aisles in between. Each table was kind of a mini packaging line. They were playing music through a stereo system to motivate the volunteers. The whole place was buzzing with activity. A few of the people were busy replenishing the packaging lines by fetching food items from the store room. From the registration desk a volunteer led us to the packaging area assigning us to different packaging lines that needed volunteers.

At each packaging line, One person was opening and handing over the packet/ cover in which the food items will be filled, the next person was filling the packet with a cup of rice and a cup of dhal, the next person was adding a small amount of dried vegetables and the next person was putting a small sachet of minerals and vitamins mix to the packet. On either side of the table there was one person who was weighing the packets to make sure if they were within the desired weight range; if not they will add a little bit of rice to the pack to meet the weight requirement. Finally one person on either side of the table would seal the packet using an electric sealer. It was at this sealing location that I was posted for an hour. Beside the sealing location, we had to arrange the sealed food packets which then will be packed into a carton at 36 packets per carton. As I was being assigned to this work, I assumed that if I could seal one packet per minute, it will be a significant personal achievement.

Initially when I was assigned to the table, the person who was helping to seal the food packets during the previous one hour taught me how to seal the packets. After ensuring that I was doing the task correctly (by observing me for about 5 minutes) he signed off. For about the next twenty minutes, I was sealing the covers frantically like a humanoid robot. I was counting the number of packets that I was sealing and how was kind of curious to predict the number of packets that I will seal in one hour at this rate. Well in these twenty minutes, I actually did not know the contents of the very packets that I was sealing!!! At this juncture curiosity took over me and I paused for a minute to investigate the contents of the packets; that’s when I figured out that the packet contained rice, dhal, dried vegetables and a sachets. Then for the first time in that 20 minutes, I looked to my left to see what was all happening in that table. It was strange, even while doing such a small and mundane task, I got lost into my own world. And I was lost in achieving some goal (number of packets to seal) that had little importance in the larger picture. Even at this moment I did not get introduced to any of the other folks who were working at that table. I also noticed there was hardly any interaction between the other people at that table as well.

With every passing minute, I got increasingly uncomfortable due to sweat in my palms. I also kept a count of the number of packets that I sealed. I also kept thinking how life would be on an actual packaging line/ assembly line within a factory. We were working in an air-conditioned cafeteria, they were playing music to motivate us, people were doing a little bit of stand-up comedy as well and they were announcing the progress made through a loud speaker. None of this would be present in an actual factory. Also we were going to do that work for only one hour plus an added incentive that we were doing it for a good cause. In a factory, people would be doing this kind of work for hour’s together day in and day out. Surely the mental agony of being transformed into a temporary humanoid robot without much interaction with colleagues would be more than the physical pain incurred through working long hours. I wonder if Henry Ford would have thought about the negative impact on the quality of human life that his invention, the assembly line would have for ages to follow.

As my thought kept slipping into these kinds of internal deliberations, I was pulled back into the real world by the loud announcements about the progress being made against the target of packing 100,000 food packets. At the end of one hour, another volunteer took over the task from me. In that one hour, I sealed 153 packets. I had to rework on 4 of the packets because, I did not seal them completely the first time. I looked around for my team members and once they were also finished, we took a few snaps and selfies and proceeded towards the exit. As we were walking back to our work desks, I was thinking about the missed networking opportunity due to lack of interactions at our assembly line. More importantly I was feeling bad for the millions of people who work in much tougher packing/ assembly lines across the globe for years together. An hour after we got back to work, we got a mail stating that the initiative had met its target a couple of hours before schedule. I felt happy for volunteering for that initiative even if it was for only one hour.

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