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On 11 July, Theresa May heralded a new direction for her government: hard pressed workers would be given a voice on company boards and the excessive earnings inequalities that have become an entrenched feature of our workplaces should be reined-in. Though May's speech, made on the day that it was confirmed she would become prime minister, was short on specifics, the overall tone was suggestive of a more compassionate and inclusive Conservatism.
Whether or not this will materialise – and her voting record in office does not bode well – she was right to highlight the plight of the voiceless, low paid workers that are so common in 21st-century Britain. Subject to a daily diet of routine, high pressure, and closely monitored tasks, millions of workers experience minimal discretion, autonomy and dignity at work. Parcel delivery workers, currently in the spotlight because of the exponential rise of internet shopping, highlight many of the salient issues.
Subject to a daily diet of routine, high pressure, and closely monitored tasks, millions of workers experience minimal discretion, autonomy and dignity at work.
The volume of parcel deliveries in Britain has exploded, accounting in 2016 for more than one billion home deliveries. Britain, the biggest online shopping market in Europe, boasts a growing army of workers engaged in the connected activities of logistics, distribution, and delivery. Transformations in logistics and parcel delivery have been directed at securing more exacting, demanding and time critical levels of service delivery at minimum cost.
Squeezing workers to gain competitive advantage
The ‘last mile of delivery’ at the end of the supply chain is said to be the key to competitive advantage. The application of increasingly complex IT systems that track and trace the movement of parcels under the gaze of the final customer is paramount. This reconfiguration in turn has fuelled a burgeoning logistics infrastructure and a myriad of subcontracted supply chains and relationships. The result is an increasingly competitive market for parcel delivery companies. Amazon and other large retailers entice their customers with ‘free and immediate’ delivery which relies upon the supply of flexible labour services at minimum cost.
Technology is critical to the successful coordination and control of product movement. The application of algorithmic optimisation techniques and routing software has revolutionised logistics, speeding the circulation of commodities through the annihilation of space by time on the one hand, and affording closer monitoring and surveillance of worker effort on the other.
The introduction of hand-held personal digital assistants (PDA) has also been crucial. These devices render the supply chain transparent by affording senders and their recipients ‘sight' of an item’s progress and expected delivery time. Efficiency gains, however, must be set alongside the costs for labour. Workers may be subject to labour intensification (more labour input per unit of labour time) and dehumanising patterns of control that render them literally appendages to digital devices. Whether or not they are depends on their location within the sector.
Tiers of control, tiers of exploitation
There are three main interconnected tiers. The first constitutes large parcel delivery companies, in which employment relations are framed by extant collective agreements with a history of bargaining over terms and conditions. The latter may be renegotiated in the context of the pressures brought by service level agreements, but provide some guarantee of protection for a long-standing organised workforce. The second, based in depots and working alongside directly employed drivers, are the ‘self-employed’ owner drivers on piece rate pay. A third tier is populated with home-based, so-called ‘lifestyle’ couriers. Also technically self-employed, these individuals use their own vehicles without close organisational ties or a fixed workplace. Sometimes all three sources of labour power may be present within a single enterprise.
Where collective agreements continue to prevail, our research found a higher ratio of directly employed workers in those organisations which assign normal workloads of 70-80 drops a day. By contrast, ‘owner-drivers’ and ‘lifestyle' couriers on zero-hours contracts face a typical workload of 100-120 daily deliveries. Bearing the costs of fuelling, maintaining and insuring their own vehicles themselves, these workers are paid only for the goods they deliver (non-delivery attracts zero pay).
Digitalisation may lead to greater life chances and prosperity for some, but for vast swathes of the workforce it merely serves to intensify the pressures of work.
Perhaps more crucial are the implications for the utilisation of new technology. In the former case, collective agreements have been negotiated to include restrictions on the application of digital devices for the purpose of surveillance and discipline. Monitoring of work pace and performance takes place to be sure, but the agreements specify limits to the intensity of work. By contrast, as noted, the self-employed and life-style couriers are afforded no such protection. The payment system, linked to the number of successful deliveries, acts a powerful anonymous force for coercion.
These contrasting experiences highlight three issues. First, ‘self-employment’, so often celebrated as a route to personal liberty, masks a variety of work practices and experiences. In parcel delivery self-employment means the removal of basic rights, safeguards on hours, holiday and sickness entitlements, and for ‘lifestyle couriers’ decent pay. Second, the advance of science and technology does not necessarily confer positive gains to workers’ material, physical, and mental well-being. For those that too readily link the digital economy with more creative and autonomous forms of working, the evidence from the parcel sector offers a sobering, and far from unique, case of degraded work patterns. Digitalisation may lead to greater life chances and prosperity for some, but for vast swathes of the workforce it merely serves to intensify the pressures of work.
Third, and connectedly, collective regulation can be shown, historically and with reference to the contemporary changing world of work, to be the sine qua non of decent work. Under competition from the unregulated parcel delivery companies, it is likely that the reach of collective agreements will diminish as the sector slides towards a free for all.
In this context, the boardroom level representation that May speaks of must be judged a longer term aspiration that can only be meaningful following a root and branch transformation of workplace representation. If May wants to achieve the ‘economy that works for everyone’ that she has spoken of, then tackling the harsh realities of degraded employment in the parcel delivery sector would be a good place to start.
The research was funded by a British Academy small grant.