The hidden faces of the flows

Logistics workers occupy a growing place in the working world. An ethnographic survey, illustrated by photographs, compares the situations of these new type of workers, between service and industry, in Germany and France.

Who are the women and men who work in logistics warehouses populating the sides of national roads and the outskirts of large cities?? Based on a collective survey, this work aims to shed light on the work of logistics workers, order pickers or forklift drivers, and their living conditions. Contrasting with deindustrialization, these subordinate jobs thrive in the shadow of the new digital economy and occupy a growing place within contemporary working worlds. the interface between industry and services, focuses on the mobility and distribution of goods rather than their production, logistics is a flow activity. The project of this book is to highlight the towards flows (p. 7) of merchandise, to show the men and women who are at its heart.

A visual and comparative ethnography

If the logistics sector is the subject of a growing number of sociological surveys, the one presented in this book is original for two reasons. Firstly because this collective investigation adopts a comparative approach based on four sites in France and Germany: Marne-la-Valle and Saran in France, and Kassel and Frankfurt in Germany. Each of these sites gave rise to a campaign of interviews with workers working in one or two different warehouses. The companies selected show a certain plurality of logistics, since there are warehouses processing diversified products (food, luxury goods, components for industry) and a mixed workforce in terms of gender (the share of women varies between 9 % and 64%). This diversity in the composition of work collectives is a first result of the survey. Indeed, the surveys carried out so far in France focused on establishments with an almost exclusively male workforce, reflecting the modal situation in the logistics sector (80% male). This has contributed to making the recomposition of the working condition of women invisible, while warehousing represents one of the main sectors providing new jobs following the decline of the textile industry. Here the team interviewed as many men as women, giving rise to the first large-scale survey in France on female logistics workers.

A second originality is that these interviews were accompanied by a photographic investigation carried out by two photographers (Nathalie Mohadjer and Hortense Soichet) and a sociologist-photographer (Ccile Cuny). The research team is more broadly multidisciplinary, bringing together sociologists, geographers and political scientists. This combination of different know-how results in a book which alternates short and synthetic writing chapters, in an article format, and photographic chapters, to which are occasionally added schematic maps of the survey sites.

The central material of the work is made up of photographic routes. Eache of the 14 surveyshe made a journey, most often between his home, his workplace, and other places that seem important to him (neighborhood, former workplace, etc.), accompanied by a photographer and ae sociologist recording exchanges during literature. The people were also seen several months previously for a sociological interview at the workplace. The literary technique questions the connection between work and non-work, and the photographs show the investigationses in their homes or their neighborhood. For example, the route taken with Manuella (p. 64-71) is illustrated with a view of her living room, a view of her building and two photographs of them outside. Interviews and discussions with workersThese, presented in the form of quotes, address residential pathways, neighborhood experiences, domestic life and leisure activities in addition to professional trajectories.

A sociology of working lives

The work thus offers a visual ethnography of the working worlds of logistics (p. 5). It’s about making the workers visibleres des entrepts as a professional group first, but also and above all as people. From the introduction, the subject is part of the sociology of contemporary working classes, more than in the sociology of work, and the survey offers a multidimensional study of the living conditions of logistics workers. With the technique of photographic itineraries, the book explores the spatiality and materiality of the daily life of the In contrast, analyzes of the concrete work activity in warehouses are rarely presented in the book. Only one chapter deals directly with the organization and experience of working in warehouses. It analyzes the effects of the mechanization of activity, and shows that it actually involves a deskilling of work and an invisibility of its arduousness.

Although the written chapters explore different facets of the lives of the people interviewed, they systematically relate them to the experience of blue-collar work. For example a chapter on times outside of work (p. 177) shows that their free time is strongly constrained by work. The need for rest appears in the time devoted to physiological recovery after trying days, even if for workers it is often prevented by caring for children and other domestic tasks. In addition to fatigue, the small budgets of precarious workers hamper their access to expensive leisure activities. Another text focuses on the relationship between workers and their place of residence based on the case of Marne-la-Valle. It is marked by territorial captivity (p. 205) and the disconnection between professional and residential trajectories. Lintrim, for example, offers local working classes the possibility of finding employment near their homes, but prevents access to property and keeps these people close to logistics zones. Conversely, women in Marne-la-Valle owner households are geographically far from the service jobs they would like to occupy and are oriented towards logistics jobs available nearby to more easily reconcile professional and family life.

Connecting experiences to infrastructure

As a counterpoint to the working experiences of daily life, other chapters focus on the infrastructures of the logistics sector. A chapter dedicated the production of logistics spaces (p. 41), studies the way in which logistics zones are developed by public and private actors in the urban areas of Paris, Frankfurt and Kassel. Until the 1990s, warehouse establishments mainly took place within already existing industrial zones. The strong demand for logistics spaces led municipalities to develop dedicated zones from the 1990s, before gradually giving way to large international firms specializing in corporate real estate, which will then develop private logistics zones. The photographs and itineraries in the rest of the book clearly show this logistical perurbanization and its different phases.

The structures of the labor market are also the subject of reflection on the place of temporary work and precarious contracts in the mobilization and retention of the workforce. In warehouses, the use of temporary workers is both widespread and massive. Far from being justified by the seasonality of the activity, the use of indefinite temporary employment (p. 173) represents a form of outsourcing of labor and a method of selecting employeeses. But this precarious employment status is subject to differentiated appropriations by workers, between the quest for Permanent contract in Germany and tactics damaging professional mobility by French temporary workerses. These conditions of employment strongly determine the experience of work and domination, which are analyzed in a chapter on the political relationships of workers to the world of the warehouse (p. 195). The forms of acceptance of the working destiny mainly concern employeesare stable in Germany, for whom transfer creates a feeling of choice compared to temporary workers. In France, the acceptance of warehouse work is often done for lack of anything better, after other professional experiences which act as a foil.

Photographs and gray areas

Photographs occupy a major place in the book since almost half of the pages are devoted to them. This approach is the subject of a reflection on aesthetics in the introduction to the book. Photographers register in a aesthetics of withdrawal (p. 8), inspires documentary photography, which results in a refusal of the spectacular. But they also claim a very present artistic dimension, visible for example in the diversity of approaches between the photographers in the project. Defending the idea that images do not speak for themselves and that they cannot restore a life nor the point of view of the surveyses, the authors argue that it is the overall montage which gives a voice and a body to the working world represented. The choice of short texts disconnected from the photographs is assumed as a refusal to comment on the images. This approach is, however, difficult to access since the text only partially helps understand the photographs, and vice versa. This is the case of photographic observatories (p. 17), in fact several series of exterior views of warehouses or their surrounding spaces. For example, a photograph (p. 20) shows two heavy goods vehicles parked on a road in a logistics zone, with a row of warehouses in the background. The choice not to caption these photographs prevents us from knowing on what terrain they were taken.

Another regret is the impression that the visual part of the investigation remains at the gates of the warehouse, giving little view of the work itself and leaving the feeling of not completely showing the other side of the flows. In addition to the photographic itineraries already mentioned, which only show the places frequented by the surveysoutside of work, a final set brings together some photographs interior (p. 185) of a warehouse, which is not one of those which were investigated. Furthermore, the central place given to photographs, the majority of which represent spaces rather than people, comes at the expense of other materials, notably extracts from interviews which would have made it possible to better embody these working lives. The whole thing reads more like a beautiful photography book accompanied by texts than like an illustrated work of sociology.

Ultimately this work will certainly contribute to the rapprochement between sociology and photography, and it stimulates the sociological imagination regarding methods of investigation and the treatment that can be made of materials. It also represents a contribution to the sociology of working people by showing the recomposition of the working condition around jobs in the logistics sector, with strong similarities between Germany and France.