Life as a Shelf-Stacking Wage-Slave: Week 1

Submitted by hadrian on Sun, 10/18/2015 - 23:50

The names in this article are anonymized.

Few can avoid it, wage-slavery. Although I can still get a student loan the time is coming to switch to the work of a labourer. A major in the Humanities doesn't often lead to jobs that have any relation to the field and the jobs that are available tend to pay little more than a pittance. Nevertheless, the bills for rent, food, insurances, and with luck something more don't stop coming. With the aim of making the switch I have, with apprehension, taken a job at a supermarket. After a week's work the time has come to write about my experiences. I am, by far, not the only shelf-stacker in the world. As a matter of fact, there are lots of us. Nevertheless, little is being written about these experiences. These jobs, at least in the Netherlands, tend to be taken by high-schoolers for whom this job is not a primary source of income. When they can't take the pressures any more they can simply stop and go on to the next job. The existence of a lower minimum wage for young people, in the Netherlands, further exacerbates this dynamic. However, people who, for various reasons, like a bad job-market, end up at the supermarket do so because they have to pay the afore-mentioned bills.

Before I started stacking shelves I was already aware of the sheer pointlessness of this job. I have already talked about useless jobs in my essay 'The End of Employment.' The shelf-stacker is merely the person who takes products from a pallet or movable container and puts them on shelves for easy access by customers. In an anarchist communist society I would imagine there are warehouses in various locations which are connected to small railway networks and contain boxes with the things we require. Almost all of us are capable of taking products from boxes ourselves and the only reason that shelf-stacking exists is a certain idea of luxury. Supermarkets in which shelves are stacked with the products out of boxes get a higher status than those where the boxes with the products in them are put on shelves. Next to this, the cash register itself would also not exist in an anarchist communist society; after all, products are held communally and we can take what we need without having to pay. Having to pay for our food is part of the system which maintains these human-demeaning jobs in the first place.

As such, shelf-stacking is not necessary. I have already called it human-demeaning labour and this becomes more clear when we look at the division of power in the supermarket at which I work. There are two main managers, of course these are white cis-men. I rarely see them actually perform any labour. New products are ordered automatically by a computerized system and what is left for the manager is to decide what to do when someone has stolen something, lazily looking at the surveillance system, making women colleagues uncomfortable by treating them in a sexist way, hire and fire people, and making the non-Dutch colleagues uncomfortable by treating them in a racist way. There is another task they have to which I shall return later. In any case it is clear that the tasks they have are devoid of any real labour. They can, of course, fill their jobs with as much or as little of these lazy tasks as they want.

Below the main managers there's a sort of sub-manager. He doesn't have many more tasks but, until now, he is the only manager I have seen who isn't a native Dutch person. Don't be afraid, he's still a cis-male. His tasks are taking over the tasks of the main managers when they're not present and making the work-rosters. I don't have much experience with this man yet but I do have a very uncomfortable feeling about him. Maybe this feelings comes from him being, as manager, present on the work-floor and, as such, he functions as the front-man while the main managers are far less visible. My feelings are probably added to by me overhearing a piece of conversation where colleagues were discussing about how to most effectively remove him from their Facebook friends' list without making this too obvious to him. I do not know why they want to remove him, I didn't hear that part of the conversation, but there is clearly a fear for the man.

Below him we come to the people directly above the shelf-stackers and other low-level employeers: the team-leaders. Team-leaders are people who do the same work as the other labourers but have been given a little bit of responsibility for how this work is carried out by others as well. I have dealt with two team-loaders, Roland and Mohammed. Roland came across as the type who feels highly self-important because of his function and considers himself superior to those below him. Mohammed, on the other hand, came across as very insecure. I haven't been able to find out if he is because he hasn't been in this position for a long time yet, because he doesn't feel comfortable not being native Dutch, because he may be more shy, or a combination of these and possibly other factors. However good the team-leaders may feel about their position doesn't change anything about the fact that they are still treated like dirt. I have already heard one of the main managers berating a team-leader.

Finally we get to the shelf-stackers, the people at the registers, and people with other tasks. There's a special cleaner who, to allow him to do other tasks when needed, has been given the title of quality assurance employee. Next to these people there are some who work at the bread department. The relation between these tasks hasn't become completely clear to me yet. My experience from another supermarket at another chain was a certain snobbist attitude between these groups. At that specific supermarket there were special meat, bread, and cheese departments. The people working in these departments often felt themselves superior to shelf-stackers but were, in the hierarchy, inferior to the people at the registers. Perhaps I shall, in another post, return to the power distribution at that supermarket as well as other problems such as food safety.

This is, quickly, the functions that exist in this supermarket. Of course, these functions exist to maintain a certain company order, this is the most important duty of the managers. Shelf-stackers are perfectly capable of self-organising the stacking of shelves yet there are, still, team-leaders. These team-leaders have, until now, only given us stacking-schedules at the start of our shifts. These stacking-schedules are draconian control methods in which the stacking job is given strict deadlines. These deadlines are supposed to be met and although nothing is being said about them there is a certain fear of not making them. Another problem is that the end-time of the work-shift is not determined beforehand but is determined by when we are finished with the day's work. The work-rosters usually say that we are supposed to be free after 2 but we are usually done at least an hour later. As the job is horrible we all try to finish as quickly as possible so we can leave again. The combination of variable times when we are supposed to be finished and the deadlines make the job harder. Nevertheless, every hour we work is being paid and it would, for our well-being, be good if we collectively decide to work more slowly. This would make the job easier and would imply higher pay at the end of the month. It would, perhaps, also be possible to collectively decide to leave at the time the work-roster says we're supposed to be done in spite of whether or not we are done but this might entail more risk for those who are dependent on this income.

The continuous presence of team-leaders also creates pressure. Their position grants them slightly more authority and, although this authority is likely to be lower than we think, I am not yet certain to what extent we can deny it. These team-leaders, thus, function mainly as cops at the work-place. With their presence and their authority they make us work harder. Moreover, people do not talk about certain topics when a manager/cop is present, no matter how low their position in the hierarchy. A discussion about problems in the workplace is unwise when their are curious managers listening in. Their job is, of course, making sure employees don't complain too much and do their work as quickly as possible zo that the invisible capitalist, or capitalists, can make as much profit as possible. This is also the main duty of the main managers. When team-leaders are, once again, called shelf-stackers en we become self-managing this would lead to a more healthy and manageable workplace environment for us but also would lead to lower profits for the capitalist(s). We would not drive ourselves crazy with targets and demands. The presence and authority of managers simply makes the workplace unbearable. Within the hierarchy of the supermarket the team-leader is merely a low-level cop, the sub-manager is a higher cop and the main managers are the chiefs of police.

If you would like to share your experiences with working in the supermarket you can send me an e-mail:

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