At warehouses and distribution centres across the UK they are not laying off workers but are on a hiring spree. While employment in most of the economy is contracting, logistics is booming. Tesco, for instance, announced it is planning to permanently employ 16,000 workers to staff its expanded online shopping operation. Amazon is to create 7,000 new permanent UK jobs over the coming months to deal with surging sales since the coronavirus pandemic began. The online retailer said it had already recruited an additional 3,000 permanent staff this year and is also looking to hire 20,000 temporary workers for Christmas. Also 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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 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.
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.