Every day we hear of more redundancies as the country slides further into a pandemic-induced economic crisis. But there is another storyline playing out in warehouses and distribution centres across the UK: not of layoffs but of hiring sprees.
Last week, Tesco announced it is planning to permanently employ 16,000 workers to staff its expanded online shopping operation. Amazon is reported to have just rented a 2.3m sq ft distribution centre on the outskirts of London. Informed estimates put the likely workforce employed there at over 1,000. While employment in most of the economy is contracting, logistics is booming.
This boom has its roots in the way we shop. E-commerce rose from 19% of total retail sales pre-pandemic to 33% in May, before declining slightly to 28% in July. At the start of August, high-street footfall was still below 60% when compared to the same point in 2019. The pre-existing trend towards online sales has only been accelerated by a pandemic that has made consumers wary of personal contact. The result is a national economy in a moment of recomposition.
Today, British capitalism is more reliant on globally integrated logistics than ever before. Commodity production is planned in anticipation of patterns of demand, and located wherever labour and other inputs are cheap. The finished products are pulled through to the point of sale at a relentless pace, with the goal being to eliminate any slack in the system.
The central nodes of these chains are sprawling logistical clusters, located on the periphery of population centres and made up of giant windowless warehouses, container yards, lorry parks, seaports and airports. You can find them wherever transport links, cheap labour and access to consumers in major cities coincide: in places such as Daventry, Milton Keynes, Croydon, Tilbury, Dartford and Doncaster. The casual observer might only see these behemoths from the car window on motorway drives. But for a growing section of the working class, these post-industrial factories are their workplace.
Ever since the logistics revolution – a series of technological developments, ranging from the containerisation of shipping to the invention of the barcode, that enabled integrated global supply chains – hit its stride in the latter half of the 20th century, capitalists have had to move fast to make a profit. In this context, distribution centres no longer function as storage facilities. Instead, they’re more like sorting offices, with a huge proportion of the stock unloaded into them heading back out the door in a matter of hours. Whereas in the era of Fordist mass production a busy warehouse might have turned over its stock four times a month, modern distribution centres achieve the same feat up to 26 times in the same period.
That speed is enabled by the sweat of hundreds of thousands of warehouse operatives. In 2018 there were 488,000 workers in elementary storage occupations in the UK. That number will now be much higher, as wider and wider layers of the working class are drawn into the logistical mechanisms of contemporary capitalism.
The exact nature of distribution centre work varies from place to place, but there is a consistent general scheme. Workers circulate around the looming shelves wielding their scanning guns and loading items into trolleys, all the while trying to hustle to hit their target “pick rates”. The physically intense nature of this work leads to high rates of injury, as catalogued by investigation after investigation of high-profile companies. Workers are managed by a combination of computer technology and supervisors, many of whom use bullying and abuse (along the lines of race, gender and nationality) to maintain order. Most employees are agency workers, brought into the workplace at short notice and on precarious terms in response to the ebb and flow of demand. Only the lucky – or perhaps unlucky – ones stick around long enough to make it into direct employment. These workers are the cheap labour on which contemporary capitalism relies to produce value.
The supply chains of just-in-time capitalism are highly vulnerable. As toilet roll shortages early in the pandemic demonstrated, a lean (and therefore efficient) supply chain is one with very narrow margins in which to absorb shocks. As a result, warehouse workers have huge structural power within the economy. Widespread strikes at distribution centres could begin to choke the essential flow of commodities within a matter of hours. This is the paradox facing warehouse workers: despite being some of the most structurally powerful workers in the economy, they continue to get a raw deal.
In many of these huge logistical clusters, trade unionism is a minor force. Twenty-nine percent of warehouse workers are members of trade unions. This is slightly above the 23% average for the whole economy, but membership has done relatively little to defend wages and conditions on a sector-wide scale. This is in contrast to places such as Italy, where migrant workers in logistical clusters started organising in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, leading to strikes that have turned the sector upside down.
As the crisis continues, young workers expelled from city centre retail and service jobs are likely to end up sucked into the logistical vortex. This demographic, which was one of the central pillars of the Corbyn coalition, might well act as the spark that sets off a logistics worker movement of our own.
But even if that proves not to be the case, there remains the ineradicable fact that the economy is moving towards an increasing concentration of low-paid and heavily exploited workers at these crucial nodes of British capitalism. The course of the coming crisis has yet to be defined, but the potential for class conflict in the workplace is only increasing.
• Callum Cant is a sociologist of work and author of Riding For Deliveroo