BBC Wales has recently started showing a series of programmes about Wales in the 1990’s and I wondered whether it might be of interest to relate some of my own experiences of working in Human Resources (H.R) during that period?

You might remember the Wales Development Agency and how it set out to attract Japanese investment into the Valleys during the 90’s? In fact, Max Boyce referred to it in one of his songs: “…….me Welsh-speaking Japanee”?

At the time, it was highly desirable to be able to add employment by a Japanese company to your c.v and I was lucky enough (as I thought then) to be recruited by a Japanese investor setting up a “green field” manufacturing operation in the Gwent Valleys. I was the first Brit they had employed and it turned out to be a steep learning curve and culture shock for all concerned.

I’ll skip over the initial period of working from serviced offices in Cathedral Road and the commissioning, recruitment, training and general liaison with everyone from the Secretary of State for Wales to the local milkman and just list some of the idiosyncrasies which you might find thought-provoking…….

The four Japanese who had been seconded to the U.K to set up the operation had obviously not had any briefing about British culture or working methods and were expecting an autocratic management style to work as well in Wales as it did in Japan. What they had not expected was the wit and wiliness of the Welsh workforce, coming, as they did, from a steel-working area. This caused endless frustration and annoyance to all concerned at the time, but with hindsight was akin to being part of a Laurel & Hardy film.

The Japanese M.D spoke no English (we employed a dedicated interpreter and bought English/Japanese dictionaries to point to) and was about 5’ 4” tall – with all the characteristics usually attributed to a “little man”. These are some of his best moments:

It was expected that the workforce would wear uniforms of white jacket and trousers and a navy blue baseball cap. This requirement was honoured more in the breach than in the observance and caused the M.D endless concern. However, we “early joiners” were told that safety footwear was not to be worn until the rest of the uniforms had been supplied. The baseball caps were to be made of the cheapest available material but managers should require the workforce to wear them to protect their heads.

British employees were only to use the Conference room for meetings if they used the end without windows as the part with windows was only for use by the Japanese. Similarly, visitors must be seated with their backs to the windows.

The Security Company were not allowed to have a Master key as they could not be trusted and the (British) Engineering Manager –a keyholder for day-to-day security – was not allowed on site at weekends to perform any maintenance work unless a Japanese person was also present.

Individual elements of a cleaning contract were approved by the M.D but, once consolidated into a single document were rejected as being too expensive. In a similar episode, the M.D personally negotiated rates with a distribution company. Two months later, the British Production Manager was required to find savings on these rates. The Production Manager was not allowed to put machinery in the front 15 metres of the shopfloor so that the M.D could stand at the front to see if everyone was working. On another occasion, the M.D was caught hiding in a cubicle of the Ladies toilet as he was checking that nobody was loitering after their lunch break.

The H.R function was expected to “police” all this despite having been told that employees wishing to learn to use company computer spreadsheets (as part of their job) could do so after normal working hours but without pay. The Travel policy, outlining daily subsistence allowances was to be kept secret and a training course for machine operators on a new piece of prime manufacturing equipment (which cost £80,000 including training) was vetoed as hotel costs for the two trainees was prohibitive. I was actually told “we do not provide training as we are not a charity”.

Perhaps the most notable idiosyncrasy – and the one which finally convinced me that it was time to move on – was the edict that in order to reduce the number of defects detected in parts supplied by the Japanese parent company they were no longer to be checked.

The other side of the coin, however, was the gently subversive attitude of the Welsh workforce. By and large these alien requirements (in every sense) were met with tolerance and amusement and the rather bombastic approach of the M.D seemed to invoke what can only be imagined as being similar to the “blitz spirit”. The highlight was possibly the occasion on which the M.D – who had refused to grit the car park due to the expense involved – slipped on the ice and fell heavily. This caused considerable merriment and a very un-PC voice was heard to mutter “there’s a nip in the air this morning”

It was always “good value” to listen to the Valley employees in the canteen. At the time, John West were running a television advert featuring a cartoon bear. The (deadpan) conversation went:

Employee A: Did you know that Keith thinks the John West bear is real?

Employee B: No. Where is Keith, anyway?

Employee A: Writing to Santa

Other “gems” included:

When a flock of sheep wandered onto the site: “That’s Ceri’s girlfriend looking for him”

I had to drive home. I was too drunk to walk

John has had an outside toilet built for his new house. He thought it would be nice in the summer

“XYZ Ltd” has got 140,000 employees”. Pause. “Think of the queue in the canteen”

This was more than 20 years ago, now – but I’d be prepared to bet that the BBC’s “Wales in the 90’s” series doesn’t tell this side of the story….