When warehouse becomes workhouse

Dehumanising surveillance techniques that echo the Victorian workhouse are alive and well in modern Britain, says Matthew Watson.

In their organisational structure, the prison camp and the workhouse have always had a close familial resemblance.  Both came to mind recently following newspaper reports that Tesco was using electronic armbands to monitor the work-rate of warehouse employees against ever accelerating targets for productivity.

Tesco’s response was a shrug of the shoulders, suggesting that the whistleblower account was a fuss over nothing.  After all, it said, it is common knowledge across the industry that everyone who runs large warehouse operations to deliver online orders at cut-price rates does the same.  Besides, it added, being electronically tagged in the workplace eliminates the pressure for employees to carry around with them the pen, paper and clipboard otherwise required for recording their actions at work.

In other words, its argument was that this is just a worker-friendly device to apply to them surveillance strategies used primarily for keeping an eye on people whose liberty has been legally curtailed in the interests of ensuring the safety of society.

The image of pen, paper and clipboard, though, makes it easy to challenge Tesco’s self-justifying assertions.  That combination is central to one of the most haunting scenes in the film, Schindler’s List, in which a concentration camp guard records in minute detail prisoners’ labouring efforts.

Knowing that the prisoners will temporarily push themselves beyond the limits of their normal physical capabilities while being monitored, the ensuing productivity level is then extrapolated into an unattainable weekly target for work-task completion.  It thus comes to provide a ready-made excuse for executing ‘disobedient’ camp inmates who fail to meet what was always, in any case, an impossible standard.  The pen, paper and clipboard serve as symbols of the inevitable ensuing psychotic brutality.

Of course, the consequences of missing productivity targets for modern-day warehouse workers in the UK are nowhere near as profound.  Yet still the techniques of surveillance, recording and ever increasing productivity targets are the same.

Through these techniques, the warehouse becomes the workhouse behind the facade of the supposedly all-inclusive consumer society.

The main difference with today’s system of oversight is that the watching is no longer being done by someone who shares the same physical space as the people being watched.  It is much more automated than that, with the ticks in the ‘completed’ boxes generated by a computer rather than a potentially humane observer who might give workers the benefit of the doubt on compassionate grounds.  The process has had almost all of its human elements removed, dehumanising the workers it is designed to monitor.

The main complaint from the warehouse whistleblowers is that electronic armbands erode the distinction between what sociologists of the workplace have called the ‘front stage’ and the ‘back stage’ areas of work.  The front stage area is where all the actual output of the labouring effort is enacted, while the back stage area is where workers go to experience the downtime that allows them to replenish their energy levels.  The back stage area traditionally placed workers temporarily out of sight, but electronic surveillance changes that.  With electronic armbands, workers can always be ‘seen’.

Permanent observation, it should be remembered, was also the disciplinary tool of the Victorian workhouse.  It allowed such high levels of control to be exercised that the spirit could be broken in the interests of moral correction.  It also ensured that anyone exiting the correctional process did so as less of a person than they entered it.  Tales are rife of individuals having to sacrifice their sense of self – and the associated feelings of autonomy and dignity – merely to survive the workhouse routine.

Why, though, have the demeaning and degrading practices of contemporary ‘Workhouse Britain’ merited such little critical attention?  Perhaps the answer is because it might just be too unsettling for too many people to learn more about the seamier side of the broader restructuring of the British economy, and of their often unwitting role in it.

Those with the capacity to save, for instance, have been constantly urged to display the financial nous required to build up asset wealth as a substitute for an increasingly residualised state pension.  What better way to channel those savings than into mutual funds that invest heavily in the giant online retailers?  These firms’ ability to generate lightly-taxed but substantial profits creates the upward pressure on stock prices that magnifies asset wealth.  What’s more, there is no apparent end in view of their capacity to capture business from old-fashioned high street retailers in a manner consistent with continued stock price inflation.

And what of consumers themselves?  Much has been made of the UK’s advance in recent times to become the largest per capita fair trade market in the world.  When searching for the primary drivers of this trend the evidence seems to point to new expressions of middle-class morality seeking solidarity with some of the poorest agricultural communities in the world.

However, these are the same middle classes which provide the majority of the business for the giant online retailers that deploy these invasive monitoring techniques.  What does it mean in moral terms to order through Tesco’s online shopping services fair trade tea produced by an all-woman tea-picking cooperative from Malawi, but knowing that en route to the breakfast table it was handled by UK warehouse workers, often of East European origin, who were forced to wear electronic armbands so that Tesco might turn a larger profit?  How might the competing claims to autonomy and to dignity by these respective groups of workers be reconciled in the simple act of drinking (or choosing not to drink) a particular cup of tea?

These are big questions that need to be asked in response to the accounts of the warehouse whistleblowers, because recent revelations significantly blur the boundaries of the moral constitution of the British economy.  Even as electronic tagging devices place workers continually in sight for the purpose of productivity surveillance, they remain almost entirely invisible in public debate.

Yet, without public discussion, it becomes ever more difficult to win people over to new economic practices that serve as resistance to the brutalising experiences of contemporary warehouse workers.  And, for as long as this remains the case, complicity in the reproduction of modern-day ‘Workhouse Britain’ will continue to spread.

Matthew Watson is a Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.  He is the author of The Political Economy of International Capital Mobility, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 and Foundations of International Political Economy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

This post originally appeared as a speri.comment on the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) website.

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