To meet the excess demand, all of the major retailers took on additional workers. Some were hired permanently in areas which were expanding for the first time, while others were hired temporarily as retailers tackled the uncertainties presented by the national lockdown. Online recruitment mobilised vast numbers of potential workers, many of whom had been furloughed or made redundant from their previous jobs. Highly precarious contracts were offered in large numbers, meaning employees could be more easily let go when demand eased. Some were hired temporarily to minimise the effects of panic buying on stock, yet the majority of new jobs were in warehousing and logistics (including picking, packing and driving) to service the move to online shopping.
The gendering of retail work
Retail work has historically been gendered in terms of the roles which men and women carry out. For example, the move online and growing use of self-checkouts in-store have in part helped facilitate a reduction in the need for checkout staff. These jobs have long been disproportionately filled by women who needed the ‘flexibility’ to manage work alongside caring responsibilities. In contrast, there has already been an expansion of new roles in warehousing, logistics and fulfilment which have traditionally been filled by men and demand hours less likely to suit the needs of the household.
Although there have been some improvements in the occupational segmentation of retail roles in recent years, changing demands mean the future of work in food retail is likely to be somewhat gendered if current patterns persist. To avoid exacerbating these gender inequalities, measures are needed to ensure women are equipped to enter into logistics and distribution; for example, employee-led flexible working arrangements and parental leave would allow for an easier transition into these roles.
High versus low tech models
While online shopping was stimulated during the crisis, the method for fulfilling these orders remained heavily reliant on labour instead of technology. Although some retailers have begun to expand into semi-automated warehouses to fulfil orders, most of the picking and packing is carried out on the shop floor or in centralised distribution centres by members of staff. Predicting a sustained move online, food retailers have made their plans to open new regional dotcom distribution centres across the country public. If these jobs are to be accessible to all, additional considerations will have to be made.
Within the sector, Ocado is the only major exception to the human labour approach. As a leader in warehouse technology, Ocado already has a portfolio of hi-tech fulfilment centre which uses propriety-design ‘bots’ to pick and pack orders. This is likely to be a desirable model to pursue in the longer term for those retailers with the capital to do so. However, for those who do not, they may approach the Ocado-model with some caution. Ocado had to temporarily suspend new orders as they were unable to expand capacity in the same way as other retailers, yet others were able to expand capacity by taking on a large hyper-flexible pool of workers to pick up the work which technology could not. If this approach to organising labour is deemed more convenient to retailers post-crisis, it could detrimentally impact the quality of work available in the sector in the future.
The longevity of this approach beyond the crisis remains unknown, yet it is a concerning development for the future of employment relations in that growing segment of the sector. The quality of work available within the sector could deteriorate as mentioned, but the quantity of work available could also decline if some choose to adopt an approach, similar to Ocado, which relies on longer-term investments in ‘big-ticket’ automating technologies. However, there is little evidence of yet that either approach is likely to dominate regardless of what certain predictions suggest. Therefore, policymakers should ensure that the jobs which remain do not reinforce the existing inequalities which are endemic to service work and have been further exacerbated by the current crisis.
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