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'At the end of the day they want the stuff out of the door and they don't care how we do it' : understanding the nature of work in grocery distribution and warehousing

Newsome, Kirsty and Thompson, Paul and Commander, Johanna (2009) 'At the end of the day they want the stuff out of the door and they don't care how we do it' : understanding the nature of work in grocery distribution and warehousing. In: International Labour Process Conference 2009, 2009-04-06 - 2009-04-08. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

This paper explores the dynamics of organisational restructuring and the changing nature of work in distribution centres that supply the UK major multiples. Retail supply chains, involving the large supermarkets, are a central feature of the contemporary service economy. The consequences of the market domination of the major retailers have featured prominently in public policy debate. For supermarkets to meet their profit and expansion targets, a reliable and cost-efficient network of supply organisations and an efficient distribution network that ensure the product reaches the stores is essential. Grocery distribution and warehousing provides the vital link between food manufacturing and customer satisfaction and consumption within the stores. There is some research which explores the implications of these inter-firm relationships for work organisation within the sector. Referring to the instigation of ‘lean logistics’, Wright and Lund’s (2003, 2006) studies of the Australian grocery and distribution industry highlight the impact of retailer dominance on the supply chain and illustrates a general shift in work organisation. They highlight a range of information technologies, such as supply chain management, warehouse and transport management systems, which enable the integration of data across the supply chain. This research indicates the variations in the resulting labour use strategies suggesting that within this highly concentrated product market the nature of workplace change amongst these inter-linked organisations has become increasingly complex and dependent on a range of contingencies. The Institute of Grocery Distribution (2007) also indicates that the UK is increasingly recognized for its 'leading edge performance' within the highly demanding food and grocery logistic sector. Indeed 94.3% of food and grocery stock is supplied via a retail warehouse rather than direct from supplier to store with evidence suggesting that overall warehouse stock inventories increasing (IGD 2007). Drawing from qualitative research evidence from four case-study organisations our research examines how organisational restructuring and changing inter-firm relations impacts upon employment and workplace practices with distributors and warehousing. We explore how and at whose instigation the nature of work is changing within these inter-linked organisations. The case-studies have been selected to represent the diversity within the sector; notably two from third-party distribution and warehousing companies and two supermarket distribution depots. In each case-study a number of semi-structured interviews with key managers and trade union representatives were conducted coupled with focus groups with warehouse staff and drivers. Some of these themes referred to above do recur in our study. Indeed much of the research evidence highlights classic labour process issues – notably changes in work organisation, the impact of technology, work intensification, skill utilisation, and employee voice. But we want to add an emphasis on what is under-researched: notably the impact of dominant customer in shaping the direction and nature of work restructuring within these distribution and warehousing organisations. Analytically, we wish to contribute to the growing debate on inter-organisational relations that requires a framework that moves beyond the characteristic labour process focus on immediate workplace dynamics per se. Our concern therefore is to understand the nature of work within these organisations as part of a wider configuration of production, distribution, exchange and consumption (Glucksmann 2005).