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Ending Despotism at Work after Coronavirus

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The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the vital role that supermarket workers play in keeping us fed and the economy running. But despite being essential, these jobs are often poorly paid and undervalued. In my book, Despotism On Demand: How Power Operates in the Flexible Workplace, I wanted to find out what it’s like to spend your days keeping shelves stacked and customers served in these key post-industrial workplaces. I embedded myself within the daily experiences of workers at two of the largest retailers in the world, one in the UK and one in the US. This ethnographic research included going undercover in the workplace to experience for myself how these workers were treated before the coronavirus crisis.

Central to my approach was seeing employment not simply as a market exchange, but instead as a power relationship embedded within institutions and interpersonal relations. I built on the work of sociologist Michael Burawoy, who provides us with a key insight regarding the nature of paid-work: that exploitation must both be secured within the workplace but also obscured from the eyes of the exploited. Otherwise exploited workers would resist their subjugation.

Despotism On Demand

At the US retailer, that I called ConflictCo, workers faced extensive traditional workplace despotism, such as threats of dismissal. My informants explained that managers could do “Whatever they want to do to whoever.” These workers were also paid-poverty wages, for example, one worker explained:

“I should be able to afford a stove or at least payments on a stove… We [he, his wife, and two small children] all sleep in the same room over here as I can’t afford a bed in that one.”

Managers could do “Whatever they want to do to whoever.”

Sociologist Jennifer Chun, who studied microchip assembly plants in the 1990s, argued that the increased use of temporary and agency workers produced a workplace regime of Flexible Despotism. While ConflictCo used some temporary and agency workers, what was most striking was how, in an on-demand economy, flexibility was achieved temporally—a situation that led to a scheduling nightmare for workers. At the drop of a hat, workers’ hours would be changed, and they would no longer be able to make ends meet or their new schedule would make caring for their children impossible. As one worker explained:

“You are just wondering like, ‘Oh my God, are they going to change my hours, are they going to cut my hours next week, am I going to have enough money for my rent next week?’”

“You are just wondering like, ‘Oh my God, are they going to change my hours, are they going to cut my hours next week, am I going to have enough money for my rent next week?’”

Greater employment protections, and a recognized union and collective agreement, resulted in better conditions at PartnershipCo—the UK retailer. Workers nevertheless experienced low-pay and managerial abuse. Again, what really stood out was the insecurity caused by precarious scheduling. As one worker put it: “you’re never secure in your hours.”

So, despite differing country and industrial relations approaches, I found flexible despotism at both firms. The insecurity inherent to this regime secured exploitation by granting managers an insidious and arbitrary power to discipline workers simply by altering their hours—I term this practice ‘flexible discipline’. However, this flexibility also obscured exploitation by forcing workers to constantly beg managers for schedules that met their material, family, and social needs. When managers acquiesced to workers’ needs, it seemed as if their managers were granting them a personal gift—what I term “schedule gifts”—and with no other means to repay this debt, employees ended up working hard and trying to be a ‘good worker’ in the eyes of their manager despite the injustices they faced. In this way, schedule gifts acted to bind workers to their managers through emotional debt and feelings of gratitude—a feature of gift exchange famously described by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. 

Resisting Despotism

For these workers who are so essential for the functioning of our society and yet face daily despotism, is there any chance of overcoming this injustice? My book finds some cause for hope. Flexible despotism is an inherently unstable workplace in which control is maintained through interpersonal relations rather than hegemonic institutions that suppress and transform conflict.

For these workers who are so essential for the functioning of our society and yet face daily despotism, is there any chance of overcoming this injustice?

At PartnershipCo, resistance manifested in hidden forms, as the union provided workers with employment protections but also limited collective challenges to control. For example, one worker took action against their manager by secretly rotating all the store’s milk supplies so those going off first were at the back of the refrigerator. This caused the loss of over £500 of milk and the sanctioning of the manager by his superiors. This demonstrates that people are inherently ingenious and will always find creative ways to fight injustice. Workers at ConflictCo were less protected and surveillance was much more pervasive, which made such acts of hidden resistance rare. Instead a militant worker association had formed, with a minority of brave workers using social media networks and direct action to force ConflictCo to improve conditions.

With the current crisis making clear how much we rely on low-paid and undervalued employees, next time workers stand up and fight for dignity in the face of flexible despotism, hopefully, they won’t be on their own. Coronavirus has shown that these workers deserve a new normal in which despotism is eradicated from the workplace.


Alex J. Wood is Lecturer in the Sociology of Work at the University of Birmingham and a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

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