For the first subject in my ongoing ‘Leeds Urban Project’ local knowledge inspired me to investigate the Ideal Standard factory in Otley. I had no idea, the day I rang the reception bell on the spur of the moment and asked to look at their chimney, what I would encounter. But, I am very pleased I did.
Armitage Shanks was absorbed by Ideal Standard in the 90’s and they continue to make sanitary fittings to date. They injection mould sanitary plastics and assemble various bathroom kits (Toilet seats etc) for us to install at home. Although Ideal Standard own many sites globally the one in Otley is due to close at some point in 2015-16 with the loss of 74 jobs. The premises is earmarked for housing development and the work is being moved to Hereford for HM Prison Services to fulfil.
Knowing that the factory was closing gave an edge to my studies and, the more I discovered, the more intrigued I became. I made several study visits to the factory wearing compulsory high visibility clothing and steel capped shoes. Being unused to factory environments almost every scene was a revelation. The factory deals with every aspect of plastic manufacture from sourcing raw materials, heating and injecting them to assembling the end product into kits.
The injection moulding machines were intimidating to be near and the 80’s linoleum was so retro. But, I was most intrigued by the noisy old heating boiler and the predominantly male Asian workforce – particularly because of their relevance to the factories closure.
While considering whether the Otley site should close efficiency was taken into account. The chimney, I was so intrigued about, vented a boiler that heated the factory using hot water. There are many large scale boilers, and their chimneys, in varied states of disrepair but this one is considered very rare because it still functioning. Replacing old coal fired heating boilers with more efficient gas or oil fired ones can cost in excess of £100,000. This was factored into calculations when considering whether to close the factory. The boiler has been heating water for 40 years and needs replacement. Additionally a skilled boiler man has to visit every day to take the ashes out and check its performance.
I was told on my second, or third, visit that a proportion of the Asian workforce have feasts right in the middle of the factory floor even though there is a canteen for them to use. Ultimately I was invited to join them. It seemed too extraordinary to miss and I accepted willingly! There was also a prayer mat available in a quiet room just off the canteen.
Early morning shift patterns meant that their main meal break was at 10am. They had precisely 30 minutes to construct a table, from plastic tubs and palettes, eat and disassemble it and return to their work stations before a claxon sounds. A member of management joined us at the table and their redundancies were discussed. All of the men at the feast, there were no Asian women at the factory, were losing their jobs. They were all extraordinarily kind and I came away with two carrier bags full of home made bhajees!