Reader Colin Peake sent us this quirky piece about the time he worked as a “chicken picker” in France. If you ever wondered about how chickens get transported to the supermarket or want a job as a chicken picker in France yourself Colin’s tale might help you – or put you off!
Ramassage des poules – Google Translate, calls it “collecting chickens” which I can assure you does not bear any resemblance to the idyllic vision of gathering a few chickens together ready for the market of days gone-by.
For some people this is full time work, but more often than not in France it’s agency work, or friends of friends doing a favour for cash in hand. It normally starts with a phone call “are you free tonight? Yes? I’ve got a little job for you – ramassage des poules”. I wince and think “urgh not again, but then I could do with the money” and agree to meet at the specified poulialler – always in the dead of night.
A poulialler is a series of long white sheds with no windows, a set of double doors at each end, ventilation units on the roof, rectangular boxes on the walls at low level, and with a feed silo or two somewhere nearby – they can be anything up to 100 metres long.
When it’s time to get ready for the job, you dig out your oldest set of bleu’s (boiler suit), and your old working boots and meet up with six or maybe more if its a big job, half asleep men. A hand shake (no kiss on the cheek here) and there’s usually time for a quick “natter” with possibly a “fag” or two then transport arrives. A lorry with trailers loaded with metal cages and a fork lift mounted on the back. The fork lift has light green and mauve lights on the mast of the forks so as not to disturb the birds, but the driver can still see where he’s going.
Then it’s to work, the lorry driver drops the fork lift and offloads the cages, whilst you go inside the poulialler. Once your eyes become accustomed to the very dim lighting, you see what looks to be large puffball mushrooms. These are what you’ve come to collect – the order is “5 in each hand”. It’s easy to count that way, so you start to collect the chickens by the legs five in the right hand and another five in the left hand, and then stuff the birds into the cage, and return for another ten birds. The way the chickens are gathered is rather like picking flowers, bend low, hand near to the floor, gather five legs in the right hand and another five in the left hand, whilst you are doing this the fork lift is busy loading the full cages onto the trailer.
After an hour or so it’s time for a break, a can of beer and a smoke, then back to work again, until the last bird is collected. Then it’s time for breakfast laid on by the owner of the poulialler – a typical French workman’s petit dejeuner of bread, butter, ham and paté plus the inevitable can or two of beer.
For this you might get around 50€ to 100€ cash in hand, a decent breakfast, the loss of a night’s sleep, and finish up stinking to high heaven because the smell of the accumulated chicken dung clings to the clothes – I wouldn’t recommended slipping back to bed with the Other Half without a shower!
The first time I did any “chickin picking”, six of us collected 32,000 birds in 4½ hours – backbreaking work in rather insalubrious conditions.
But that my friend is how you get cheap chickens in the supermarket…