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Labouring under the supply chain : work and employment in the UK supermarket supply chain

Newsome, Kirsty and Commander, Johanna and Thompson, Paul (2013) Labouring under the supply chain : work and employment in the UK supermarket supply chain. In: British Universities Industrial Relations Association. 63rd Annual Conference 2013, 2013-06-28 - 2013-11-30. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

This paper explores the dynamics of labour process change in the UK supermarket supply chain. Reporting on the findings of a three year research project, it considers changes in the nature of work in four grocery product-lines: notably fish processing; fruit and vegetable processing; biscuits and bakery as well as distribution and warehousing. Theoretically, the paper will consider the dynamics of labour process within overall production networks, integrating labour process change within the political economy of production, exchange and distribution. As a result it wishes to make a contribution to debates which integrate labour process with wider debates on value chains. The potential hazards of the unbridled expansion of the major grocery retailers in the UK, with their monopoly access to the consumer, have moved to the centre of academic as well as public policy analysis. Dominant grocery retailers claim that the creation of a reliable and cost-efficient network of supply and distribution organisations is paramount if they are to meet their profit and expansion targets. The supply chain can be regarded as a set of spatial, physical and temporal relationships that enable the flow of goods between production, distribution and consumption. Recent debates have suggested that the restructuring of the grocery sector and the ascendency of the retailers creates a ‘new production model’ linking the manufacture and distribution of consumer goods with a corresponding revolution in logistics (Lichtenstein 2006, Bonacich and Wilson 2008). In this analysis the integration of the entire supply chain, involving both production and distribution, under the exacting tutelage of the retailers becomes a necessary component of their domination. The paper considers how supermarkets exert their power in these relationships to ensure compliance to their commercial objectives and what is the impact on work organisation and industrial relations in these supply and distribution organisations. Our study locates these developments empirically and theoretically within multiple case-studies in inter-linked organisations. Whilst our study is contained to the UK, the qualitative case-studies provide the opportunity to focus on the labour process impact of changing production networks. Empirically, the research explores changes in the nature of work in a total of 11 case study organisations. Three case-studies where undertaken in fruit and vegetable processing; fish processing and distribution and warehousing. Two case-studies were undertaken in the biscuits and bakery product line. Our research raises classic labour process/ industrial relations issues and territories such as changes in work organisation, skill utilisation, workplace attendance and employee voice. However the nature of the relationship between the dominant retailer and these supply organisations is crucial to understanding the changes in the nature of work within this supply chain. Our evidence thus indicates that low skilled, repetitive and monotonous work may be typical within the grocery supply chain, but its intensity is increasingly affected by the pressure exerted by the supermarkets. Satisfying the demands of dominant customers can be also seen in the patterns of working time, work allocation and temporary flexibility. Long hours, extended shifts and porous working days were evident in all product lines with supply organisations increasingly resourced by migrant workers. Similarly the evidence also reveals the growing use of tight performance management regimes. However our qualitative research also highlights that the process of value extraction within these inter-linked organisations remains an outcome of struggle and contestation. Where labour was able to organise collectively some of the worst excesses of the demands from the supermarkets were mediated. Theoretically the paper examines the labour process focus on immediate workplace dynamics and indicates how the nature of work within these inter-linked organisations is increasingly shaped by the requirements of the dominant customer beyond the immediate point of production. The evidence indicates that there are new lines of conflict between capitals over who captures value within the labour process of these inter-connected organisations (Harvey et al 2002). The paper will argue that an understanding of work and employment within the supermarket supply chain necessarily requires a consideration of the complex articulation of production, distribution and exchange.