Working in Talleys – Opening Mussels

This is my 6th job (in 8 months) and possibly my last job, as I think it would be very difficult to find a job with only one month left to work.

So after completing the supposedly dream job in a cherry packhouse, I escaped the Central Otago area and found myself in Motueka, the northern part of South Island. The initial plan here was to work for Blueberries (cause I really like to eat them) but sadly, it wasn’t the peak season and they were not hiring. Well, the backup plan was to work for Talleys, which is known to hire a lot of people for the unattractive job of being a 1/2 shell mussel opener.

Accommodation Woes in Motueka

Before reaching Motueka, I had reserved accommodation for me and my friend but 6 days before I arrived, the landlord told me that she has given up my space to someone else (who reached earlier) and there was only one bed space left. Being somewhat disappointed, we had the come what may feeling and didn’t bother looking for accommodation until our final day when we scrambled and asked the world for help. Sometimes, the best help you can get will be from your friends rather than all the information online. Anyway, I ended up staying in Lily’s accommodation (the one on top of Riwaka Hill) and she was very nice to take me and my friend in (even though she had no beds available) and both of us stayed in her campervan which was surprisingly comfortable.

Anyway TLDR is that accommodation is pretty hard to find in Motueka and that your best bet is to ask friends for recommendation. We tried to look for another accommodation to move to after arriving but there wasn’t anything suitable as I was honest about my short duration. Oh wells.

Walking in for the Job

As advised by a friend who had worked in Talleys before, she told us to just walk-in. While we were driving to Talleys, we saw a huge banner which says that they are hiring. We visited on a Friday afternoon and I guess we were really super duper lucky, we filled up the forms, did an induction test (after reading their guide book) and were offered a job immediately. The whole process, which took place at the guard house, took less than one hour and they even photocopied our passports and allowed us to use their printer to print out our visa details. We had the choice of choosing between morning (6am – 2pm) or night (3pm – 11pm) shift. We chose morning shift initially but we changed it to night shift as advised by other house mates who said that the supervisor in night shift was a lot better.

Our first day

As Talleys was a big company, everything was done pretty orderly. After settling the paperwork (tons of paper we had to read and fill up), we were asked to go to the laundry area to get our boots and uniform. We had to wear white jumpsuits everyday, together with a hairnet, 2 pairs of glove (cotton inner) and rubber outer for the hand holding the mussels and disposable rubber for the hand holding the knife. On top of it, they provide super industrial standard plasters which we use to prevent blisters. After getting dressed up, we had a 1-hour sit down induction where they ran through the health and safety rules. Following which, we were given a hands-on training for the real mussels opening. It was rather fun initially when I was finally given the knife to open the mussels.

Our job was to open the mussels, such that the meat is left hanging on one shell, while we get rid of the other shell. If you do it at the correct angle and strength, you will be able to minimise the damage to the mussel meat. Should the shell be damaged, you will have to get rid of both shells and just deposit the meat into the counter.

Also, you will be assigned a position to stand, which will be rotated on a daily basis. They have a certain algorithm (or perhaps just ranking) to position people and the position is very important in your efficiency. Some positions are worse off than others and the ones at the end of the belt is pretty much the worse; as you won’t get much options of mussels selection. You might end up with the really shitty mussels with broken shells – and end up spending more time per mussel.

Woes of the job

This is a contract/piece-rate job which means that you can have the chance to earn more than minimum wage ($17.70/hour) as I am writing this in Feb 2020. We get paid $0.0177 per mussel open which means that we need to achieve the target of opening 1,000 mussels per hour. Apart from the number on the counter that you see, you will be deducted a percentage for ‘rejects/cut’ which is determined on a shift-level. Assuming that everyone does a shitty job, your final mussel count will be reduced. Even if you do an awesome job but everyone else does a shitty job, your final count will suck too. So, I guess the full-timers will kind of hate us for screwing their numbers up. Oh wells.

Okay, so to open 1,000 mussels per hour, you will need to 16.67 mussels per minute which means 1 mussel should take you 3.6 seconds. For me, I take about 6 to 8 seconds per mussel when I’m concentrating but then again, I only worked 2 weeks.

Anyway, in all my 10 work days, my fastest record was 3,723 (excluding rejects) but on that day, I had a very good position and I found the momentum to open the mussels but the aftermath was bad. My fingers, hands and arms ached so badly the next day and.. I decided to stop chiong-ing in the days ahead. I realised that it wasn’t worth it if I end up injuring myself. Oh wells, some people said that if you master the technique, it wouldn’t hurt so much but I guess I didn’t get to work long enough to figure this out.

Also, you are not allowed to put on earphones/headphones for the job. The only way to listen to music/radio is when you purchase the expensive ear muffs which cost between $60-150? Well, there’s a catch to it but you’ll have to figure it out yourself. It’s pretty much a noisy job as the machine is very loud.

Let me spell out the job clearly so you know what you’re in for.

You stand at the same spot for 7 hours 20 mins per day (2 x 20 mins break in between) and you don’t get to move your feet much. Technically, you are allowed to walk to the toilet, take short breaks to walk around to regain your sanity and go get a drink of water if you’re feeling dehydrated. But apart from that, you will have to stand at the same spot, shoulders, arms, hands in the same position and.. open mussels for 440 minutes.

The mussels that are on the belt comes to you at 90% cooked. This means that their temperature can be hot to warm (depending on your position) and it smells like.. seafood. If you hate the smell of seafood, you should not consider this job at all. We can smell the stench everyday when we walk into the gates. It was bearable for me at the start as I love to eat seafood but.. wait till you smell the batches of mussels that are rotten or perhaps have a lot of other creatures stuck onto them. The smell is a different level that I can’t even seem to find the words to describe it.

My friend uses peppermint oil to smear all over her nose before the start of each shift. She says it helps to block the seafood smell and well, she managed to work 3 weeks; 1 more than me so perhaps it’s worth a try.

The good stuff

It is not a weather dependent job which means that you get to have at least 40 to 48 hours of work per week. There may be rare days where you get asked to go home early but it is definitely not the norm.

The 2 x 20 mins daily breaks are paid breaks.

If you’re up to it, you can volunteer to do cleaning after your shift ends and you may end up with a 12-hour or more shift. This could up your pay by heaps and you might be able to draw a $1,000 after tax weekly income.

High chance of getting a work visa (up to 3 years) if you can meet their expectations of 8,000 mussels per day? Then again, even if you can hit a 5-6k, you may be considered as well if you have the right attitude because they believe that you will improve over time. My landlord who used to work for 9 years has a record of 13-14k mussels but I can’t recall the exact number for sure.

This job, even though it’s painful on the hands, is less boring than cherry packhouse. I find myself having to use my brain more as I need to think of how to position the mussels and knife in order to achieve maximum efficiency. Then again, over time, these thoughts could have become habit and.. my brain becomes useless again.

Coffee, Tea, Milk & Sugar is provided. On some days, I see people using the milk for their cereals. There’s also a canteen which sells food if you get lazy and decide not to prepare your own food. There aren’t much choices but at least, there’s still something.

You can have a hot shower before going home (towels provided) but the water pressure is kind of crappy when everyone bathes at the same time. It was good for us to bathe before we go home as my hair could dry on the way home and we can cozy up to nua, have supper and then sleep. I kind of preferred night shift too as the kitchen is emptier in the afternoons and nights. I don’t have to fight with anyone for the toilets too.

As it was a big company, we get the benefits of public holiday pay (even if you’re not working) and we have attendance bonus and meal allowances too. I haven’t quite figure out what are the conditions for meal allowances but I had 1 occurrence during my 10 days. The attendance bonus is given provided you do not take any urgent leave or not show up for work on a weekly basis and it is computed at $0.001 per mussel open. I was given $13.92 for this so if you do the math.. you’ll end up my pathetic number of mussels opened for 10 days. They do not compute holiday pay on a weekly basis and you will only be given that 8% when you resign. This means that.. extra bonus when you leave. yay!

Parting thoughts

I came to Motueka with the intention of visiting Abel Tasman and the beach with the Windows 10 wallpaper. The plan was to work for blueberries (which was not hiring) and we ended up in Talleys because we wanted to earn the free 2 days money for Public Holiday. I could have worked for 3-4 more days but I found transport to leave and explore the west coast before heading back to Christchurch for my next adventure. Although I didn’t enjoy the job (like I don’t foresee I can stay beyond 4 weeks), I’m still happy to experience the factory setting and challenge my endurance level in this job. To be honest, I didn’t put in a lot of effort for this job as I knew I was leaving early but I would try my best to maintain high quality work level whenever possible. I really respect the people that apply work visa for mussels opening. At the end of the day it could be just a job to them but it is definitely hard work, compared to other jobs.

Apart from Motueka, you can also look out for mussels related jobs in other cities like Blenheim (Havelock), Christchurch and South Auckland too.

Best of Luck!

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