I don’t know exactly when I started being exploited.
At the time, I worked in the most absurd and fucked up place in the whole universe: a large industrial factory. The owners were related to each other, a nepotistic mess. It was a father and son team. The son was a forty-year-old man who was brought up to feel entitled to everything. He sort of ran the show or aspired to. His parents had both been abusive to each other and their children. There was no such thing as boundaries or professionalism in this job. They brought all their internal drama to work, and yelled and screamed at each other in front of me. I was the only administrative staff. The rest of the workers were in the back.
The strange thing was that in this mess I was allowed to try things completely outside of my training and expertise. Things I didn’t even know I was good at, and I fell in love hard with the work, the possibilities, and the space to experience myself outside of my comfort zone.
At the time, I had an undergraduate degree in Political Science, a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies and, ironically, I was working towards a PhD in Social Justice Education. I say ironically because all my studies in oppression and oppressive practices hadn’t prepared me to deal with workplace violence or abuse: I walked right into it.
They tasked me with designing and developing a website, marketing plans and brochures, and dealing with customers, as well as purchase orders, packaging goods and arranging shipments. Most days, I had a lot of independence; I hired printing companies, and sourced out costs, and travel to the U.S. Work made me feel important and valuable. As someone who had grown up working in various not-for-profit organizations, this type of fast-paced capitalist driven enterprise was exhilarating.
I was the kid of a Jehovah’s Witness alcoholic. A yes-girl who followed Bible guidelines and was used to being in submission to God, Jesus and the elders in the congregation. I didn’t like to say no.
I am not the kind of worker who gets noticed. I do more than my share but keep my opinions to myself unless I’m asked. When I started this job, I liked the work and felt a need to please everyone, co-workers and management alike. It was fun, and everything was going well. The work challenged me, was interesting and different every day. Promotions were possible, and raises were good at the time. Not a bad situation, considering I only had a high school education and was surrounded by employees with degrees. My manager said I always seemed like I had everything under control.
It eventually went to shit.
To this day, I refuse to drive close by. I don’t know what I would do if I saw any of them again. I think I might run and hide.
Before this place I was a researcher on a large trauma study. Before that place I worked as a director of development for an arts council. Before that place I was an administrator. Despite the fancy titles, the last time I had felt this challenged or creative at work was in my early twenties when I acted for a small theatre company.
There was something about this absurd place and the projects they had me working on that got me up in the mornings. I directed high stake strategy meetings and created new marketing campaigns. I felt valuable. The work felt important. At times, even meaningful. The owners were always on the verge of bankruptcy, and some kind of emergency constantly needed my help to be resolved.
Years before this gig, after going on stress leave, I left my then-job, and tried to kill myself. That gig included a steady diet of working late on weeknights and weekends long after they stopped paying my overtime. I ended up taking Paxil and was hospitalized. The day before going on leave, my hands were shaking finishing up my last project. When I returned to work, I thought, Oh, nothing will change around here so I resigned. I promised myself that I would never stay in a job that stressed me out that way again. I was wrong.
The first time it happened, the youngest owner stormed in, shouting commands at me, asking me to take notes. Contact the printing company—upload pictures of the new product line onto the website—check out prices for the flight to New York—make sure the account is paid in full.
I sat nodding while working on the website. I thought I had a head start on the list because I already had the pictures online. I was feeling confident.
“Why aren’t you taking notes?” he asked, all red-faced. “I’m not going to repeat myself.”
Later that day he checked on the list and I had completed most of it.
“Did you check prices for the flight?”
I had forgotten.
“What’s wrong with you? We hired you because you’re supposed to be a smart person. If I ask you to do something you get yourself a notepad and make a list. At the end of the day I expect you to have it completed.” He stormed out.
No one had ever spoken to me this way. I told myself that he was right. He was paying me so I deserved it; I began working harder. Every time he shouted orders at me I would pull out a notepad and take notes as fast as I could.
Shortly after, the insults occurred almost every day. If I made a mistake he’d yell or put me down. He would call me stupid or say that something was wrong with me. He’d insinuate he would let me go because maybe I wasn’t taking the job seriously. He started dumping more work on me. No boundaries or limits existed. It seemed anything he couldn’t get done he’d drop on me. I started to defend myself. I’d say: Don’t speak to me that way. I would tell him intelligence has nothing to do with mistakes. Sometimes, he’d just storm out of the office while I was speaking. Sometimes, I was red with anger. Sometimes, I just wanted to run out myself. Once I actually did. A few hours later, I called and apologized for leaving and then was back at my desk.
My department shrunk but most of the work didn’t. There were changes in management and ownership. Morale was low. Employees quit one by one and were not replaced. I kept telling myself it wasn’t so bad. Maybe people were imagining slights and leaving for better opportunities. But because of my limited education, it would be harder for me to do the same. Part-time creative writing courses weren’t going to cut it.
I told my therapist Laura that I couldn’t
at work and that no one knew that I was
When Laura asked me if that was exhausting, I realized I was past exhaustion. I didn’t want to let management know that they were wearing me down, so I tried pretending I was fine. For a long time, I believed it. I’d survived worse than this and Ma’s drinking caused me to grow up real fast. I used to tell myself, you’re okay, you’re okay and I’d calm down. I’d have moments of rage and then start crying. I was tired. Sleep evaded me until early morning. I used to try and stay awake until exhaustion set in so I didn’t have to think. Even now, it’s hard for me to remember exact words, conversations or scenes. My mind was trying to protect me, but the body doesn’t lie.
I know exactly why I stayed. It was a job and I needed it. But more importantly, the abuse started to make me feel something. I started to believe my boss was right, that I wouldn’t be able to do anything else. This was the best opportunity I’d ever get. No one had challenged me like this. No workplace had ever allowed me to be creative like this. How could I go back to being an administrator or a researcher? The youngest owner also abused my sympathy. He told me how his whole family was struggling. He made me believe I was part of their family and that no matter what happened I would also be taken care of.
So I stayed and the abuse worsened.
I would repeat work story after story with my remaining or former colleagues, my friends, relatives, and my husband. Texts, emails, phone conversations. I wondered how things could get worse. Calm moments happened in between, moments of false security. I savored these moments. But then, good ideas I pitched were shot down. We had no real HR and I was interrogated about my sick days. I explained some of these were used for my daughter. We’d have meetings without agendas, and they’d ask questions and wonder why my co-workers or I didn’t have answers. We stopped going to the Christmas party. You can’t just be Christmas-y at Christmas we’d all agree and treat people like shit the rest of the time. There were complaints about some employees like me making toast in the lunchroom in the morning. I had been emptying the dishwasher because no one else would and popped my toast in. Coffee was fine; the toast was another matter. We’d be asked by management about who else was making toast. Friends would laugh about this when we’d mention this story. What did this toast represent? I hadn’t thought about that. Was it that we weren’t sitting at our desks like worker bees? They didn’t see the times I stayed late or worked through lunch to finish up urgent business requests. So, we started hiding the toast. One of my friends hid it up their sleeves. After a while, I just stopped making breakfast.
For the most part, I complied. Why didn’t I stand up for myself? Is there a problem with my work? Why is this an issue? No problem with your work, they’d reply. When I said I had too much work, they’d take it away temporarily, only to give it back. Every time an employee left, they’d add one of their duties to my job description but say the new responsibilities didn’t come with raises. They suggested things would change, that we weren’t lean enough. They were doing me a favor by giving me something to do. I was pricing, ordering office supplies, organizing trade shows and doing sales support. The demands piled up. Schedule your projects on your calendar. Clean up your area in the warehouse. You have to drop what you’re doing now and do this. The receptionist would mark down when people arrived at work. It felt like George Orwell’s 1984.
Workers were being degraded, manipulated and bullied. White educated employees too. What hope did I have? I was a woman and not white passing. The playground was the first place to remind me of that.
By December I’d begun to suspect maybe my position was not very secure. The abuse had gotten worse. Some days I was a star employee, and they were full of compliments. The next day I’d make a mistake, and they’d be all over me. Once I had written on a fax sheet, and one of the owners yelled at me and told me that I wasn’t professional. I’d been working with the company for a few years. I had this strange feeling like there was a reason why they refused to put me on the books.
Management would come to check if we were at our desks first thing in the morning and double-checked at the end of the day. We stopped emailing each other at work. We used to email about someone’s birthday or a lunch or tell each other what was happening since we couldn’t leave our desks unnoticed. We compared our managers and supervisors. We knew that they had to do what they were told. We were worried that management was reading our emails. So, we switched to What’s App. I shared the meme when your alarm goes off, and you have to go to work because you didn’t die. This job was worse than any other I had. Was I being dramatic?
No. I can see that now.
They were in a position of power over me, my raises, promotions, my vacation requests.
Talk of a union sprung up. No one was fighting for me, for any of us. I wasn’t sure who to trust. Employees hoped that maybe unionizing would change the company for the better. The union rep wanted us to sign a card. I was scared shitless. What could they do to us, to me? What if there were spies in the meeting? The union rep said they couldn’t fire us over this but I thought, you don’t know what they’re capable of. Not enough people joined, so the union never formed.
It turns out, there are worse things than being fired.
I asked the youngest owner if there was a way I could start receiving benefits. I thought if I lost my job at least I might have access to employment insurance.
Playing soccer, and ball hockey and baseball burned off steam, but injuries got the best of me and my body. Laura encouraged me to write but I resisted. Therapy was helping me find my voice as a writer and made me try to stand up for myself. Would anti-depressants make me feel less trapped? I needed this job. Laura wanted to know why I wanted meds. Frustrated, the words, I don’t want to feel came out of my mouth. We both sat there looking at each other. Meds wouldn’t fix this.
I heard somewhere that either you change or the situation changes. I applied to other jobs. So many jobs. I lost count. No one wanted me. I wondered if I’d waited too long. Maybe I was lucky to have this job. I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore because I wanted to be home for my stepdaughter. She depended on me. I wanted to have a day job so I could write at night or on weekends. They’d never fire me. I was trying to get pregnant. That would save me, I reasoned. I would get small raises at review time. They’d never give me what I asked for saying they didn’t have the money or the president only had so much money to spend on me. My cubby mate told me I’d changed. I was still nice but less trusting. Laura told me that I shouldn’t give my bosses the power to ruin your day. I didn’t know I had any power. I didn’t think I had anything. I was waiting for someone to Hunger Games me out of there. I was waiting for my husband to tell me to quit my job. I was waiting for an MFA acceptance—but I was rejected. I was sinking deeper into depression.
It took me six years to leave. I didn’t know that I was the only person who could save me.
The youngest owner said no. They couldn’t give me benefits, and when I pushed for a reason, he said they wouldn’t and told me my services were no longer needed and that was that.
When I was a kid, I read to escape. One of my favorites was Pippi Longstocking. Her mother had died, and her father was lost at sea, but she was okay. She was strong, wild, didn’t care what people thought. I read her adventures over and over. I wished I was her.
In December, at an unemployment office, the guy told me he felt so sorry for me. He said it must be painful to be let go right before the holidays. He looked at me with heavy eyes. I swallowed hard. Another person told me that I might still be eligible for EI and that I could file a complaint against the owners with the Ministry of Labour. I considered it. I thought about the other people that might one day work for them. I thought about the people they were abusing. But in the end I didn’t have the strength. I never wanted to see or hear anything from them again. It took me about six months to find another job.
I don’t know when I realized that I was being exploited.
I think it was when I started to write about it.
We wanted to share our stories to open up a conversation about abuse in the workplace. It can be isolating, shameful and frightening. It’s hard to reach out or recognize the signs when you’re in it. When we started to talk about our situations years ago with each other, we didn’t realize what was happening. We knew it was wrong but felt helpless and didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know we could say no. We hope that others recognize these signs of abuse and seek help and support.
Tamara Jong is a Montreal-born mixed-race writer of Chinese and European ancestry. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper, Room, and The New Quarterly’s Backstory. Her work is forthcoming in Emerge 18 and Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers. She recently graduated from The Writer’s Studio.
Leonarda Carranza’s writing has been published in Room, The New Quarterly, Briarpatch magazine and Best Canadian Essays 2017. Her essay “Tongues” is part of Room’s first women of colour edition. She is the winner of Briarpatch magazine’s seventh annual Writing in the Margins contest for her piece “The McGill Experiments” and was shortlisted for PRISM international’s short forms contest. Leonarda has a PhD in Social Justice Education from the University of Toronto.