Slowly Dying: Factory Floor Work and Acetaminophen Addiction


Every morning, I wake up at five a.m. for my eight-hour shift on a factory floor in Canada. With three hours on Metro bus and train and endless stairs, it is closer to twelve hours devoted to work. I cut satin and other fabrics for clothing. It may not sound particularly grueling, but with severe, needling back pain, it can be.

The back pain usually flares up midweek. It feels like a hot iron dousing my veins. To ease my pain, a clinic doctor prescribed Acetaminophen and Naproxen pills. I dread looking at the labels, which warn, “Taking more than the recommended dose for more than two weeks may cause liver damage.” I have been binging on these pills for four months, and the thought of long-term damage greatly concerns me.

I have tried lowering the dose. The doctor directs me to swallow two pills with the onset of pain, but I have split pills with a salad knife and taken one half. I know that this is pharmacological foolishness on my part. Whether or not the pills are halved, I am becoming addicted to pain medication. I can’t break the habit of taking the pills. In fact, I find myself tempted to swallow them for even a minor factory wound, such as a bruise on the finger from fabrics scissors. I know very well that in this instance, a clean bandage would do just fine.

The situation is made worse by this reality: because I am a refugee, I need this factory floor job more than most souls in Canada. I do not want to become a refugee who survives on public welfare funds. I dread to be seen as a burden to this wonderful country that has taken me in and sheltered me in a time of weakness. And so, there is an overwhelming urge to endure the monstrous pain and prove myself in my labor.

More practically, I have a family in Zimbabwe who desperately needs the money. My home country is so broken that people regularly wash and hang to dry old U.S. dollar paper bills to distribute out of desperation. My family members struggle to access basic resources needed to live. So, if I give in to my back pain here, my loved ones may lose their lives back there.

In Zimbabwe, opioid addiction is less common. Americans often assume, “Oh lovely, you guys have no chronic pains in your country. ”No, this is due simply to a lack of access and resources. Public clinics don’t have even basic fever-numbing drugs, and medical providers can’t treat medieval diseases like cholera. Opioid pills are either unheard of or priced out of reach.

When I look around the factory floor, I see women packing boxes of clothing with supportive bracelets strapped around their waists. Many are barely in their forties, and their backs are finished.

To some extent, I am grateful that now that I am in a Western country, I can medicate my pain. But this simply means that I join the many other refugees and workers who are slowly dying from manual labor. When I look around the factory floor, I see women packing boxes of clothing with supportive bracelets strapped around their waists. Many are barely in their forties, and their backs are finished. Like I do, they put on a cold grin.

My employer recently asked me to complete forms for workplace medical aid, which of course, elated me. Upon seeing my information, she noted, “You didn’t indicate a partner or children. You have no dependents?” I nodded, “Yes, no dependents.” She pushed: “If something happens to you, the medical scheme will still need to pay $20,000 to your survivors or to your estate.” I laughed bitterly and said, “My unrelenting back pain will gobble up this entire medical insurance. There is nothing that will survive me.”

This is also true of the satin shirts and dresses that will have gone out of fashion, making way for some other luxury item that expendable workers agonize to produce. Long after I am gone, the high-street world will find new commodities to dangle under noses—and new backs to bear the requisite labor of making them. And the production wheels will stay oiled.


About Author

Ray Mwareya is a freelance reporter working in Montreal, Canada, among its refugee community. His work appears in The Guardian, Reuters, The New York Times, and other outlets.

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