Work Tasks on the Move - Local Consequences of Global Divisions of Labour

Benedicte Brøgger

Benedicte Brøgger

Postdoctoral Fellow Norwegian School of Management, Oslo

The key issue in this paper is how globalization shapes and is shaped by those who work in contexts that are not global, like regional warehouses and local stores. It is argued that even though their lives and work relations are affected by economic and corporate restructuring, the global is as yet an emergent phenomenon.


We know much about how migrants are caught up in global transformations. The creativity and resourcefulness with which work migrants tie and retie their bonds around the globe have been well documented (Zelizer 1997), and the shifting meaning of work revealed (Sørensen and Olwig 2002; Svendsen 2008). It has also been shown how new sources of income and employment affect local economies in different ways (Chari 2004; Freeman 2000, Tsing 2005), and how new patterns of distribution and consumption change within and between countries (Hansen 2007; Watson 2006). The relocation of production from Western Europe and North America to Eastern Europe and Asia, has led to a reshuffle of tasks in all countries engaged in value and supply chains (O’Toole and Lawler 2002), deregulation and fragmentation (Beck 2000), and changing industrial relations (Burchill 2008; Deakin 2006). The importance of globalization for social movements and policy makers is also unmistakable (Berger and Huntington 2002; Stiglitz 2003), and it is a discursive reality in companies attempting to reach a global market (Mazzarella 2006; Moeran 2006).

However, we know much less about what happens to those who do not migrate, in companies that produce more or less what they did before, and in the same location as before. People work to make a living, but the tasks they do also to define who they are to themselves and others. When people migrate to take up work in a new place, many of the strands of relations into which they are woven are ripped out, and there emerges a need for (re-) interpretation and (re-) connection. The same happens when tasks migrate even when people stay on. In a workplace, tasks are linked together in long chains of consequences; hence to execute a specific type of tasks is also to realize a social position and shape the specific forms of relations with people and objects. What does globalization mean in this context? When is it important? What other points of reference does it compete with? Does it at all serve as a point of identification?

Globalization is a phenomenon that is taking on a definite shape in academic discourse. In this paper however, I follow Robertson’s view. He began to explore the conception of the ‘global’ at a time when it was a far more uncertain term than it is today (1992). He wrote in opposition to a type of understanding of globalization as an extension of the modern or a super-international or transnational level. Globalization should be studied as a phenomenon of its own order, not something else “writ large”. In a Robertsonian view then, globalization exists as a phenomenon only as far in as far as the concept can be shown to be meaningful in a specific social setting.

The setting and the project

Retail has changed profoundly through the globalization processes that have taken place since the 1970s. The majority of merchandise today passes through global supply chains whose control stretches much further than ever before into the work of the producers at one end of the chain, and into consumption patters at the other (Meyer-Ohle 2003). Norway, which is the setting of the empirical material discussed in the paper, is no exception. This paper focuses on the Norwegian food and convenience store sector, a sector that has been affected profoundly by globalization, especially in its encouraging a process of unification - while there were thousands of stores and more than hundred wholesalers in the 1960s, today 99% of the business is in the hands of 4 integrated retail chains.

By way of background, it should be noted that this research relates to a broader project to develop the content of tariff agreements in the sector that was initiated by Handels- og Servicenæringens Hovedorganisasjon (The Norwegian Federation of Commercial and Service Enterprises), Norway’s largest employers’ association in the retail sector. The agreements should serve to help develop more efficient operations, work conditions and work climate locally in the enterprises.  The project lasted from 2004-2007. The two unions that organize the majority of retail workers were invited to participate, Transportarbeiderforbundet (The Norwegian Transport Workers’ Union) and Handel og Kontor (The Norwegian Union of Commercial and Office Employees).  The Work Research Institute designed the research part of the project according to a research approach known as ‘democratic dialogue’ (Gustavsen 1992). ‘Democratic dialogue’ is a key communicative concept that creates space for stakeholders to voice their concerns in public as well as procedures to work on solving them through collaboration. It is built on the typical pattern of industrial relations in Norway and a long tradition of collaboration (Qvale 2002).

Representatives from eight retail chains first participated in a two day dialogue conference in order to bring out the main concerns and ideas of what was at stake in their enterprises. The singularly most common worry was the integration of the chains’ different links. Several participants wanted to explore way of reducing internal distances and ‘noise’, especially between the wholesale and retail parts of their companies.

One of the chains wanted to continue the work in-house. In this chain, the researchers first conducted short fieldwork in several stores and warehouses. The chain had divided its operations into several brands, and some of these had their own logistics streams. The chain was fairly new. It started out in the mid 1990s when a wholesale company engaged in voluntary collaboration with a number of regional retail chains. In 2000, the voluntary association became a fully consolidated concern. However, its constituent parts have a much longer history. The eldest company in the group was established in the mid 1800s and it is still one of the landmark stores on the Norwegian scene.

After the initial explorations, it turned out that there were more than enough integration issues between the warehouses, and the store part of the pilot-project was discontinued. At the time of the project the merchandising part of the chain consisted of 13 regional warehouses and 1 central warehouse served by 500 trailers, 2200 full-time employees, and it reached 13 000 customers (stores, restaurants and kiosks) with 22 000 types of goods. The chain wanted to continue to work with the researchers on integration issues in this context. A collaborative project was then designed for organizational development processes in three regional warehouses, and at the central warehouse. More extensive investigations continued, in parallel with dialogue seminars and meetings.

The development work mainly involved improving the quality of local industrial relations, which had to be worked out collaboratively and experientially though concrete problem-solving. This included definition of requirements for ICT-systems, which impacted on the minutiae of everyday work; absenteeism, which was high in two of the warehouses; and high turnover of employees and low work satisfaction in some units, balanced by stability and pride in work in others. It also included the working of procedures and arenas for dialogue and collaboration in general. The global appeared only occasionally as a vague object of relevance in these particular circumstances. How and why did it appear in a setting that is not a priori determined as somehow global? At the level of the macro or the abstraction, globalization has happened to retail. At the shop floor level what we get glimpses of is an emergent world, but nothing more.

Globalization at the shop floor level

The chain of consequence of the tasks in this setting can briefly be described as follows: Goods arrived to merchandise hubs on four types of vehicles: ships, plains, trains, and trailers. The company owned its own trailers, and employed its own drivers to shuttle between the different hubs and the warehouses. Some of the goods were sent to the central warehouse for redistribution, and the rest was transported directly to the regional warehouses.

Work in the warehouses consisted of receiving goods at bulk in one end of the building and sending out different bulks from the other. At the in-end of the warehouse, goods came stacked from the producers. At the out-end, they had been re-stacked according to customer orders. The stacking and restacking was the job of the pickers, driving forklifts and trucks. Then another set of drivers took over and brought the goods to the stores. These were all chain owned. Here the wares were unpacked and restacked again by the store people. Every work task was determined by the specifications on computer-generated lists.  These lists were the result of the work of the purchase, order and logistics units located somewhere else. A small team of managers supervised the employees and each other.

At the time of the project the demand for goods seemed to be always increasing. The central warehouse was initially built for a smaller number of specialty goods, but due to increased demand had been rebuilt several times and was now a maze of shelves and corridors. The number of regional warehouses had been steadily increasing too. The order of work differed somewhat between the warehouses, but the most common pattern was two-shifts, with an extra team to fill in the odd hours, and an endless stream of temporary employees to provide cover in cases of absenteeism. Many of the temps were immigrants.  The warehouses were closed for a few hours each night, usually somewhere between two and six a.m., but apart from that they were teeming with activity.

Foreign people

One morning in the central warehouse, a shift supervisor and I were walking to a meeting. He was talking about how he trained new pickers, by pairing them with more experienced people. The usual standard for errors was 5 per week, he said, but during the first month of employment there would be leeway for more. I asked if he was serious. Each picker handled hundreds of items every day, and the margin for error was 5, per week? He smiled at my incredulity. My next question was how anyone could handle that type of concentration and pressure for long, and what happened when people got older, and tired? The supervisor then pointed to an older man who was busy with a forklift by some shelves, and explained that the picker was close to 50 years old, had worked in the company for 25 years, and was still the most efficient picker in the warehouse. His stacks were usually faultless, and completed on time. As he worked the morning shift, he was free to go home early and did so, the supervisor told me. Then he commented that some of the foreigners also had this work pattern. They just came in the morning, did what they had to do and left. As the work was shaped by the systems, there was actually not much need for anyone to become socially involved at the workplace.

There was a somewhat hesitant quality to his speech when he spoke about the “foreigners”, some of whom I knew were born in Norway, while others had lived in the country for many years. It was apparent that he knew how to interpret the tactics of the older picker, but not that of the others, and that it was the idea of foreignness that created the difficulty for him – or, rather, what a not clearly defined difference could mean. He was worried because one of the “foreigners” did not work in an ergonomically correct way, and he thought that might ruin the employee’s back eventually. Only, the supervisor did not quite know how to broach the subject with him or what else to do.  I later spoke with both the older picker and some “foreigners”. The first had a passion for sports, which gave his life meaning, and the job was just a means to earn an income. The second worked in the manner that was thought to be  proper and professional in a Norwegian company. No fuss there then, was there? All of them insisted that they knew how to protect their backs. There was, in a sense, no reason for any further communication or action, just as the supervisor had decided. The work got done, and done well too.

There was ambivalence in another case too. I had noticed that several trucks were often parked in the same area. I could see that they did not directly hinder traffic, but heard people mumble time and time again that they were in the way as they drove their vehicles around them. No one wanted to talk about it much, and it therefore took some time before I had pieced together what the mumblings were about. The trucks were operated by workers from one particular ethnic group. They had, contrary to anyone’s intention, managed to coalesce in-between jobs in the middle of the warehouse, and protected each other through aggressive behaviour and challenging language.  They somehow complied with work requirements, even though there were some problems with absenteeism. They broke with many of the unwritten rules of work behaviour, and no one knew quite how to categorize the relations or the problems. The established categories of ranks based on formal hierarchy, of managers, unions and workers, as well as informal criteria for differentiation and distinction, like tasks, performance, age and experience, were also of little help in making sense of the situation or in terms of providing handholds for action. It was a situation waiting to blow up. There was a need for a language and procedures to deal with it, but as long as work got done one way or the other, no one had the time or the inclination to dig deeper into the matter.

What we see here is an example of how one identified characteristic of the globalization process, migration, has shaped the relations at a particular workplace. But what was mobilized and activated were not conceptions of anything global. At the most abstract level the national was mobilized, against which the categorization of foreignness and ethnicity became relevant. At the practical level, it was the work and the company.  The fact that everybody felt some type of “foreignness”, if for different reason, or the possibility of exploring that as an object of identification relevant to all, was not identified.

 Dealing with products and standards

Incessant streams of merchandise concretely shape everyday practices at the warehouses. There was a keen awareness that these streams were changing and changeable and that it had to with something happening out there on the globe, as one commented. That globe was obviously not here, in the warehouse, but it was at least somewhere.

There was, for example, a much wider variety of goods than before. No matter how well the goods, shelves and pallets were labeled, and no matter how precise the work lists, a good picker still had to quickly remember where to find the different goods and decide on the most efficient route to pick according order. As no orders were identical, there was always leeway for choice, and error. With the steady increase in the amount of goods, and the many new goods, there was always something being moved around. Strings of numbers and letters on lists and labels were therefore not enough to find the good needed to “complete a pallet”.   Symbols, colors and shapes on the packing provided mnemonic devices. Forms that triggered particular memories were especially useful, and in this case it was the most foreign forms that gained the most meaning. One picker for example, pointed at a drawing on a packet and shyly said that it reminded him of a summer holiday in Asia. The drawing made it easier for him to remember where the ware was. It was not often required and therefore tucked away. When I began to ask more about the personalized map of the geography of goods that I had glimpsed, he just shrugged his shoulders and walked over to some other shelf. I got the impression that personalizing the job in this way was not quite proper, or at least not something to discuss in public. However, occasionally, a world far beyond the walls of the warehouse would emerge from musings about the goods in this way. It always appeared for a useful reason, no one had time to muse much, but that world, diffuse and shadowy as it might be, was nevertheless instantaneously real.

Another and much more public variation over the emergence of another world was a case in a fruit and vegetable warehouse. Since produce is frailer than staple wares, and has to be kept cool and handled with care, the chain had set up a separate logistics line.  As I walked around in one of these warehouses, a group of pickers motioned me to come over. They were discussing the nature of a little red fruit or vegetable that no one had seen before. The Norwegians in the group clearly expected the immigrants among them to know about this exotic item, but they just shrugged their shoulders. I also had no idea what it was.  The item’s formal name and other useless information was provided, but none of us knew how it tasted or what it was used for. A supervisor emerged in the doorway and walked over to where we were standing. The content of the conversation changed immediately. They asked him if the temperature in this part of the warehouse was right for this item. It reminded them of this or that fruit, which should be stored at this or that temperature. The supervisor listened for a few minutes, and then replied that the item was placed where it should be according to the specifications, and that they need not bother with it. All the pickers quickly dispersed to their respective work stations. The simultaneously concrete and unknown had united the group in a common inquiry for a brief while - a flash of globalization in practice. However, the hierarchy did not allow for that type of work and so nothing more came out of it. What the hierarchy allowed for however was routines and standards, and these too were regarded as manifestations of that other world. It was always cool in the produce warehouse, but bananas for example needed to be stored at higher temperatures than tomatoes, which needed higher temperatures than potatoes and so on. Some pickers had different ideas of what temperatures suited the different types of produce, according to the traditions where they came from. However, the different sets of classification were not played out in practice, as there was general acceptance of the outlandish standards decided on by some bureau far away. These standards were then used to put the goods in their place, and that schema again determined the chains of tasks needed to get any job done. The resulting new configurations of work were not worked out in-depth, but they did challenge local classificatory schema and made it possible to transcend established patterns of social relations, even if only briefly.


Is this globalization? Yes, and no. The matter of globalization was never explicitly part of the agenda. Nothing was ever systematically thematized in those terms. However, there was an awareness of “the global” as a force somewhere out there which fuelled the incessant stream of goods that passed through the trailers, forklifts and selves. This world branded the merchandise with colors and designs, which served to make itself manifest as different and locally meaningful at the same time. It shaped the work through standardization, which required interpretation and opened venues for dialogue. It did not quite have a form or a name, but was nevertheless a presence. That is in itself an important finding. The global, did not compete with national, local or company discourses, but represented possibilities to become aware of and transcend their taken-for-granted assumptions. That is an important finding too. It may be that the global will turn out to be nothing more than this vague presence and an object of identification only for cosmopolitans, or it may turn out to become a political economic institutional system of a new kind, a point of orientation for everyone. So far however, the global is the frontier, and what is beyond is just beginning to take shape.


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