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Unpacking Online Retailing: The Organization of Warehouse Work and Inequality
Luleå University of Technology, Department of Social Sciences, Technology and Arts, Humans and Technology.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-4089-9159
2024 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)Alternative title
E-handelns olika lager : Organiseringen av arbete och ojämlikhet (Swedish)
Abstract [en]

This dissertation studies the organization of warehouse work and inequality in Swedish online retailing. Online retailing relocates the work of providing service to individual customers, usually performed by frontline workers in retail stores, to warehouses backstage. In line with the on-demand characteristics of online retail warehousing, where a fast and smooth goods handling process becomes a competitive advantage for the companies, the manual warehouse work has been shown to be associated with routinization, and a high work tempo and monotony for workers performing it. Little is known about these issues in Sweden. Union reports and news media have shown that online retail warehousing involves a generally poor work environment and low wages. Research-based findings from other geographical contexts explain that the workforce mainly consists of those who cannot find a job elsewhere and whose subordinated position limits their possibilities for resistance against the working conditions. Herein, inequality appears. Inequality is understood in the dissertation as a consequence of the practices that organize the work, which tend to be shaped by gendered and racialized processes. The inequality as such often, but not always, take the form of class relations (Acker 2006).

 

Based on an ethnographic study of five online retail warehouses in Sweden – Homeware, Electronic, Recreational, Pharmacy, and Grocery – the dissertation aims to explore and understand how practices and processes to organize online retail warehouse work relate to inequality, and it aims to contribute with knowledge in this regard. As part of this, the dissertation also aims to make visible the work, workplaces, and workers that online retail warehousing brings about. The methods and materials include interviews with managers, workers, and union and health and safety representatives (n=30); focus groups with workers and pharmacists (n=15 groups, a total of 49 participants); and ethnographic observations (a total of eleven weeks). The dissertation also comprises material from a systematic literature review of 21 articles focused on warehouse working conditions and inequality, and employment data from Statistics Sweden divided into occupations groupings. My ambitions with the dissertation have been empirical – in how I have worked to contribute with knowledge about online retail warehousing, in particular in with regards to the Swedish context – and theoretical – in how I have strived to contribute with perspectives on how we can analytically approach inequality.

 

The results show that the warehouse work was organized in relation to the ‘on-demand’ element of online retailing, wherein flexibility becomes a necessity for online retail warehouses in the strive to fulfil the (over time fluctuating levels of) customer orders on time. While Homeware, Electronic, Recreational, Pharmacy, and Grocery all strived for profit by making warehouse workers provide a fast and satisfactory service for customers, the differences between them with regards to how the warehouse work was organized meant that there were variations in the shape and the degree of the inequality (cf. Acker 2006). This is exemplified in the dissertation with the practices and processes of the division of work tasks, the monitoring of workers’ performance through productivity data, and a Swedish language policy. In addition to inequality expressed in gendered and racialized class relations between managers and warehouses workers, and other groups of employees, the dissertation also found inequality produced by class and shaped by gender and race/ethnicity between groups of warehouse workers. The variations of the inequality seemed to be associated with the differences in the size and spatiality of the online retail warehouses, the size of the workforce, and the extent of technology applied in the goods handling process. Furthermore, the dissertation suggests that there are three analytical points of entry to from where to approach inequality – the workplace level, the field of work level and the worker level – which together help us understand its manifoldness, how the severity of inequality varies and the lived and embodied realities of it.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Luleå: Luleå University of Technology, 2024.
Series
Doctoral thesis / Luleå University of Technology 1 jan 1997 → …, ISSN 1402-1544
Keywords [en]
Work organization, gender, race/ethnicity, warehousing, e-commerce
National Category
Work Sciences Production Engineering, Human Work Science and Ergonomics
Research subject
Human Work Sciences
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:ltu:diva-105070ISBN: 978-91-8048-530-2 (print)ISBN: 978-91-8048-531-9 (electronic)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:ltu-105070DiVA, id: diva2:1851203
Public defence
2024-06-14, A109, Luleå University of Technology, Luleå, 10:00 (Swedish)
Opponent
Supervisors
Available from: 2024-04-12 Created: 2024-04-12 Last updated: 2024-05-24Bibliographically approved
List of papers
1. Bortom servicefronten: E-handelsarbetets platser och ojämlikhetsmönster
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Bortom servicefronten: E-handelsarbetets platser och ojämlikhetsmönster
(Swedish)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Keywords
genus, organisation, plats, rumslighet, lagerarbete
National Category
Work Sciences
Research subject
Human Work Sciences
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:ltu:diva-105032 (URN)
Available from: 2024-04-12 Created: 2024-04-12 Last updated: 2024-04-12
2. Good girls? Ideal Workers in Online Retail Warehousing
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Good girls? Ideal Workers in Online Retail Warehousing
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Online retailing challenges the traditional male coding of warehousing. Based upon an ethnographic study at two Swedish online retail warehouses, this article seeks to understand why certain warehouses are numerically dominated by women. Employees express that men are less focused and more careless and easily bored than women, and hence not desirable for the goods-handling work. The warehouses extend to hard-working women driven by the shame of doing wrong, which reflect their orientation of bodies in the direction of enhancing production and profit. Workers attribute the positive social atmosphere at the warehouses to the numerical dominance of women and the small size of the workplaces. At the one hand, the constructed sameness of (women) workers through hard work and jargon contribute to a collective identity that strengthened them. At the other hand, the binary gendering of work and workers also contribute to making the warehouses into (potentially excluding) ‘straight spaces’ (Ahmed, 2006).

Keywords
e-commerce, female-dominated, organization, spatiality, queer phenomenology
National Category
Work Sciences Gender Studies
Research subject
Human Work Sciences
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:ltu:diva-105033 (URN)
Available from: 2024-04-12 Created: 2024-04-12 Last updated: 2024-04-12
3. 'There's Nothing Strange': Racialization in Online Retail Warehousing
Open this publication in new window or tab >>'There's Nothing Strange': Racialization in Online Retail Warehousing
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Keywords
language policy, othering, phenomenology, stranger, work organization
National Category
Work Sciences International Migration and Ethnic Relations
Research subject
Human Work Sciences
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:ltu:diva-105034 (URN)
Available from: 2024-04-12 Created: 2024-04-12 Last updated: 2024-04-12
4. On Precarity in Online Retail Warehousing
Open this publication in new window or tab >>On Precarity in Online Retail Warehousing
Show others...
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Keywords
e-commerce, inequality, on-demand economy, precarious, warehousing
National Category
Production Engineering, Human Work Science and Ergonomics Work Sciences
Research subject
Human Work Sciences
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:ltu:diva-105035 (URN)
Funder
Forte, Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, 2019-01051
Available from: 2024-04-12 Created: 2024-04-12 Last updated: 2024-04-12
5. A Systematic Review of Work Organization, Work Environment, and Employment Conditions in Warehousing in Relation to Gender and Race/Ethnicity
Open this publication in new window or tab >>A Systematic Review of Work Organization, Work Environment, and Employment Conditions in Warehousing in Relation to Gender and Race/Ethnicity
2023 (English)In: Annals of Work Exposures and Health, ISSN 2398-7308, Vol. 67, no 4, p. 430-447Article, review/survey (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Objectives

Studies in the goods supply chain in areas outside of warehousing show evidence of gender and racial/ethnic inequalities in working conditions (i.e. in work organization, work environment, and employment conditions). This review aimed to identify, summarize, and discuss research focused on inequality in warehousing and its effects on warehouse working conditions. In the review, racial/ethnic inequality includes inequality related to country of birth and (im)migration status.

Methods

We performed a systematic search in the Scopus and Web of Science databases to identify warehouse studies that addressed working conditions and (in)equality at a workplace level. Screening of records was performed using the Rayyan systematic review tool. Risk of bias was assessed according to established methods and checklists.

Results

Database searches yielded 4910 articles. After title-abstract-keyword and full-text screenings, 21 articles were included. Results showed inequality based on gender and race/ethnicity in both work organization (different tasks were performed by different groups of employees), work environment conditions (physical and psychosocial aspects differed), and employment conditions (disparate employment types and incomes between groups of employees). Health differences, as a possible result of unequal working conditions, were evident between different racial/ethnic groups of employees. A hierarchy that included both gender and race/ethnicity was found, with (im)migrant and racialized women positioned at the bottom.

Conclusions

We found evidence that gender and race/ethnicity influenced work organization, work environment conditions, and employment conditions. Evidence was found for an intersection between gender and race/ethnicity. To improve working conditions, and subsequently occupational health, we encourage researchers to simultaneously consider gender and race/ethnicity factors at work, and to consider both why inequality is present and how it impacts working conditions in future studies of warehousing, particularly in online retailing.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Oxford University Press, 2023
Keywords
distribution center, fulfillment center, inequality regimes, occupational health, working conditions
National Category
Production Engineering, Human Work Science and Ergonomics
Research subject
Human Work Sciences
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:ltu:diva-95453 (URN)10.1093/annweh/wxac098 (DOI)000919276800001 ()36715660 (PubMedID)2-s2.0-85160681304 (Scopus ID)
Funder
Forte, Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, 2019-01051
Note

Validerad;2023;Nivå 2;2023-06-30 (joosat);

Licens fulltext: CC BY License

Available from: 2023-01-31 Created: 2023-01-31 Last updated: 2024-04-12Bibliographically approved

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Rydström, Klara

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