Empty shelves crisis is not just due to Covid and Brexit – it has been brewing for decades | Felicity Laurent
The retail phenomenon of 2021 is not a new fashion craze, electronic gadget, or children’s toy. The most discussed items in stores today are “empty shelves”. And as the problems grew, the arguments raged: Was it Brexit? Is this the pandemic? Is it a British problem or a global problem?
In fact, although the pandemic and the EU’s new restrictions on trade and free movement have contributed to shortages on shelves and companies cutting production despite demand, the roots of this market failure can be traced back to decades.
Worse yet, the jobs crisis across the UK – affecting businesses from transport to food, agriculture, retail and construction – is now so deep that better wages alone won’t. we won’t get out of it.
To understand the underlying causes, take a look at the informal truck parks right next to our motorway network or at the parking areas along the main roads to English ports. I visited one of those truck parking lots just off the M25 last year to interview carriers doing deliveries for large transnational retail and e-commerce companies. The “park” was a field of rough gravel and mud arranged around an outdoor shower block with livestock sinks and a small transport cafe. The signs were in Russian and English, acknowledging the fact that more than half of the dozens of trucks parked there were driven by migrants from Ukraine and Belarus, working for European companies registered in Lithuania.
Some of the drivers had been on the road away from home for six months or more. They slept in their trucks week after week, washed themselves and their clothes by the side of the road, and often went to the bathroom by the side of the road. Cooking a meal over the open flame of a camping gas stove downwind of a juggernaut with 800 liters of diesel in its tank counted as a rest. Their pay was pitifully low, and the cost of a proper trucking hotel was not factored in.
The job of driving heavy trucks is highly skilled and in the past was characterized by direct employment and strong unionization. It is also highly regulated, and for good reason: a fully loaded 44 tonne truck with a poorly rested driver can quickly turn into a killing machine. Rules to protect both drivers and public safety may exist, but in the experience of truckers their enforcement is lax, especially in the UK. A Ukrainian driver told me he was worried about being arrested and fined when he was forced to break the rules in Germany, France or Austria, but “not so much in the UK”, which , according to him, “close your eyes”.
UK transport companies, still trying to operate on the old-fashioned principle that a driver should return home for a few days of family life at least once a month, have told me they cannot compete. Increasingly, they are called upon to bid for transport contracts on new Uber-style platforms run by e-commerce sites that set the precise price and time slots for collection and warehouse delivery in an auction. one-way.
The technological revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, with its electronic tracking and advanced traffic control software, brought about dramatic upheavals. It has enabled industries to move to a globalized just-in-time ordering system with extremely extensive supply lines. Work was also done to bow to the iron brutality of 24/7 computer-controlled efficiency.
The trend is the same in other sectors which are currently suffering from severe labor shortages. Harvesting the crops has always been difficult and dirty work; bands of workers did this for relatively short hours over short periods of the year or in shifts around school hours. Now, shifts longer than 12 hours, seven days a week, are common.
Meat factories viewed late or weekend work as optional overtime for extra money. Workers are now expected to sweat in the capital-intensive factory of a slaughterhouse, for as long as it takes owners to supply supermarket orders, for a fixed hourly rate.
Conditions, as much as wages, underlie the refusal of British workers to take up these trades. They are not, as some ministers would have us believe, idlers who prefer their paddleboards to a bit of bribery, but the industry has made these vital jobs incompatible with any normal sedentary life. Only desperate people, from the poorest countries, will take them, and only then long enough to earn what they need to build a better life at home, or long enough to learn English and move up the employment ladder. in Great Britain.
These conditions have depended not only on migration, but on an endless cycle of new migrations, drawing people further and further east, as successive nations of Eastern Europe improve their standard of living. and that their workers no longer seek what carriers call “trapping”. Recruiters are now finding their new inexpensive truck drivers not in Poland, Hungary or Romania, but in the former Central Asian Soviet states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Greater automation has always been seen as the answer to workforce issues. Short of heavy truck drivers? Don’t worry, driverless trucks are just around the corner. Not enough workers to harvest your crops or slaughter your pigs? Invest in machines to do it. Experience belies this wishful thinking.
Walk behind a state-of-the-art lettuce or leek harvesting platform – all brilliant investments with computerized grading systems, integrated conveyor belts for washing vegetables and dazzling spotlights – and you will always find dozens of workers, bent in half before dawn to well after dusk, pulling food from the ground. Stand in a supermarket packing station and watch a series of digital cameras calculate in seconds the percentage of reddening to green on apples as they pass an automated line (such as those that are not pink enough. are thrown in a trash can), and you will always find armies of tired people using the system.
The new technology has indeed created a distribution system miraculous in its sophistication and in the returns it gives to capital, but it is built on a fatal flaw. Workers are not automatons in certain dystopias of the Fritz Lang Metropolis type. And automation itself doesn’t eliminate mindless jobs, but has a way of creating new forms of drudgery with every leap forward.
It is not a world in which the market maintains the balance between supply and demand for labor. It is a dysfunctional market in which a handful of large companies dominate each sector. Their purchasing power is so great that suppliers faced with the need to pay higher wages cannot pass on the cost. Successive governments have used immigration as a wage policy, to put downward pressure on incomes rather than tackling this oligopoly trend. Now that the government wants to stop immigration, the problems it has covered up have been exposed.
Decades of anti-union legislation have swayed what has always been an unequal relationship between workers and capital in favor of the latter.
The solution involves breaking the structures that reinforce and accelerate this imbalance of power, and overhauling the relationship between work and capital, so that work is not only profitable but also human. Yes, it will reduce business profits. But ignore the social costs of a super-light supply chain, and you might find that you’ve created a system that is so cost-effective for businesses that it collapses completely.