At the Graduate School of Social Sciences, University of Amsterdam

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A thesis submitted by:

Naomi Veenhoven (11021136) Supervisor: dr. Y.M. Sastramidjaja Second reader: dr. C.H. Harris Research Master's Social Sciences

At the Graduate School of Social Sciences, University of Amsterdam

18th of June 2021




What are the lived-experiences of operational workers in the sociotechnical assemblage of distribution logistics in The Netherlands? Based on

ethnographic fieldwork, I demonstrate that operational workers participate in a dance of agency with corporations, supervisors, customers, and more- than-human actants such as hardware, software, goods, and

infrastructures. Corporations in the field of distribution logistics

implemented technologies and material actants such as handhelds to constantly direct workers’ movements and behaviours. In turn, workers are using their limited) knowledge of the logistic chain and technological

affordances to dodge and subvert these corporations’ technological control. In this thesis, I analyse how the corporate utopia of efficiency, the labour regime of digital Taylorism, and the managerial practice of the datafication of performance impact operational workers’ experiences in different parts of the logistics chain. Critiquing the precarious position of workers caused by the unbalanced power relations in this assemblage, I argue that we should rectify the agentic asymmetry in the distribution processes and identify the accountable actants to better the experience of operational workers.

Keywords: Distribution logistics, Just-in-time logistics, delivery processes, sociotechnical assemblage, dance of agency, agentic asymmetry, digital Taylorism, datafication.




Acknowledgments ... 5

INTRODUCTION The sociotechnical assemblage of distribution logistics ... 6

The field of distribution logistics ... 7

The utopia of efficiency ... 10

Labour in the chain: (Digital) Taylorism. ... 11

The logistics chain as a sociotechnical assemblage ... 12

“The System” ... 15

Entering “The System”: access, methods and positionality ... 16

Situated Ethics ... 20

What to expect in this thesis ... 22

CHAPTER 1 The Rhythm of “The System” ... 24

Power-chronography and temporal regimes ... 26

“The system” as the timekeeper ... 28

Juggling Rhythms ... 30

Chasing seconds ... 34

Temporal agency and temporal inequality ... 36

Interlude DEXTERITY ... 37

CHAPTER 2 Efficient bodies ... 39

The logic of the chain ... 40

“Follow the System”: Humans as material ... 44

Dehumanised into replaceable parts ... 47

Tricks in the dance of agency: “rehumanisation” ... 50

A system of digital Taylorism ... 55

Interlude THE PEOPLE I DID NOT MEET ... 56

CHAPTER 3 Management and the datafication of performance ... 58

Scorecards as KPI artefacts... 60

The metrics: what counts and what does not ... 64

The total score: the selection of efficient workers ... 67

The ranking: the gamification of labour ... 69

The red dot: algorithmic management ... 71

The technological sublime ... 72

CONCLUSION What now? A different way forward ... 76

The future of the chain ... 77

Back to the present: towards a new future ... 80



References ... 85 Appendix I: Jargon Glossary ... 94 Appendix II: Layers of Time [illustration] ... 97



List of figures

Figure 1: An impression of the distribution chain I observed during this research. ... 8

Figure 2: A marketing poster of DHL Express. ... 10

Figure 3 (on the left): The flyer I designed with a link to the website (both in English and Dutch). Figure 4 (on the right): A picture I took during my fieldwork, when I visited a depot one of the drivers coindidentally received a flyer from my mother and placed one of my flyers on their bullitin board. ... 17

Figure 5: Anonymised list of interviewees ... 17

Figure 6: The distribution corporations and a brief overview of their narrative. ... 20

Figure 7: Layers of time... 27

Figure 8: An impression of a handheld with the timeliness scores. ... 29

Figure 9: The "box opener" ... 37

Figure 10: Decoded labels. ... 43

Figure 11: An impression of the handheld with the instructions for pickers. ... 44

Figure 12: An impression of the hacked handheld playing music. ... 53

Figure 13: An impression of the scorecard at Jade's depot. ... 59

Figure 14: An impression of the stage in the fulfilment centre. The design of the stage reflects the hierarchy on the work floor, with the trainers on the first level and the supervisor and manager of the fulfilment centre on the second level. ... 62

Figure 15: An impression of the screen mounted to the stage, that all workers pass when they have finished their picking round. ... 63

Figure 16:: An impression of the message from a supervisor. In an effort to anonymise I have altered the message by combining several target announcement messages. ... 68

Figure 17: An impression of the responses on the message board. ... 69




The idea for the topic of this research started to develop in the cinema, while watching the precarity of delivery driver Ricky unfold in the film “Sorry We Missed You”. Over a year later, this idea evolved into the thesis and I have many people to thank for that. First of all, I want to thank my interlocutors. I am so grateful to have meet you all and that you found the patience to talk me through the nitty-gritty of your work. I want to thank you all for your honesty, openness, and trust. I owe special thanks to the delivery drivers who allowed me to drive along with them. Thank you for tolerating my clumsiness and all of the questions that undoubtedly slowed you down. I am also grateful for my colleagues at the fulfilment centre that thought me tricks of the trade. As workers that often remain out of sight, I tried to shed light on your labour conditions. I will continue to listen and learn and hope to continue my efforts to better the field of logistics labour.

My deepest gratitude goes to Yatun Sastramidjaja, the best supervisor I could have imagined. When I started thinking about doing fieldwork during a pandemic, you spurred me to look for new opportunities instead of dwell in all that was not possible anymore. Thank you for guiding me through this process. I am so grateful you took the time to listen to my enthusiastic blabbering every time we discussed my fieldwork. You always cheered me on and knew how to get me back on track when I felt lost. Thank you for thinking along, sharpening my thinking and your careful edits. This thesis would hot have been possible, nor be what it is now, without your guidance.

Though many professors at Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam have been helpful and encouraging, I especially want to thank Tina Harris.

Before I started this Master's, I would have never thought I would end up writing about the field of logistics, but your research and passion for the topic have inspired me to dabble in this field. I am so grateful for the kind guidance, all the references to the amazing work of other scholars and your enthusiastic encouragement throughout the process.

This thesis would have been riddled with spelling mistakes and overly long- winded sentences if it was not for the amazing and intelligent women who took the time to review my work. Silja de Vilder-Coombs, Floor Stolte, Ronja Jansz, Weera Koopman, Alexanda (Alex) Lopez, Jitske Veenhoven, and Elise Koppenol, I am so grateful for your reviews and constructive feedback. You helped me to create more clarity and improve my writing. I owe special thanks to Alex and Weera, who have been thinking along with me since the very beginning of this project and supported me throughout the Masters.

Also, the mimosa and scone brunches and the banter in the WhatsApp group carried me through some rough patches: this Masters' would not have been the same without you two.

Finally, dear Gian Sanrodji, you have been my rock throughout this process.

Thank you for all the kitchen-table brainstorm sessions and the support during my freak- outs. Thank you for motivating me to get out of bed at 5:30 for my morning shifts at the fulfilment centre and caring for me, and my hurting body, when I came home. Your love and support means the world to me.




The sociotechnical

assemblage of distribution




This morning, my laptop charger stopped working so I ordered a new one. A couple of hours later, a guy arrived at my doorstep with a new charger in a small cardboard box. It

sometimes feels like magic, just a couple of clicks and someone appears in front of my house with the item I requested.

Same day delivery. Next day delivery. One-click ordering. Most people know and use these services without giving it a second thought. The logistic process of delivery is often only visible to consumers when they meet the delivery driver at their doorstep, but they are unaware of all the movements and effort before the hand-off. The delivery process seems mundane, banal and, to some, boring. Consumers are lured with the tales of simple and quick delivery without getting into the nitty gritty of the actual work going into the movement of the parcels. In contrast, in the corporate world of logistics the process is discussed with much grandeur and reverence for the complexity. Here, a smooth delivery process is praised as a high-tech masterpiece—it is a field full of smart technologies, robotics and automation. In both renditions, there is a fantasy of speed and uninterrupted flow, but much of the human labour needed to move goods from one place to another goes unnoticed. Between the tales of seamless, quick and simple logistics and the technological marvel there is a workforce hidden away in large

warehouses, depots and in the vans speeding by. It is this overlooked labour involved in seemingly seamless logistics that I placed at the centre of this research. Who are the people involved in moving parcels from one place to another? Under what conditions do they work? How is their work impacted by automation and the tales of high-tech

logistics? This thesis is concerned with laying bare the world behind something seemingly banal, and tends to the everyday practices within logistics spaces in The Netherlands.

The field of distribution logistics

Logistic processes, at its core, refer to the “seemingly banal management of the movement of stuff” (Cowen 2014: 187). In a more precise definition, logistics is “the management of the flows and circulation of goods, ideas, and peoples with a typical emphasis placed on efficiency and optimization” (Tay & Hockenberry, 2018). This research focusses on distribution logistics, a specific field in logistics tasked with the delivery of a finished product to a consumer—often consisting of order processing, warehousing and transportation. On the next page, I have included a simplified map of what the distribution process might look like, with a short explanation of the different links in the logistics chain.0F0F1

1 For more information about the terms used in this map, please consult the jargon glossary.


8 Figure 1: An impression of the distribution chain I observed during this research.



Based on this description, the logistics chain seems neatly organised,

unidirectional and bounded, but this is not a fair representation. It is important to realise that chains of distribution logistics in The Netherlands are embedded in global supply chains: vast intercontinental networks of infrastructures, organisations, people, activities, information and resources involved in supplying a product or service to a consumer. The parcels I encountered throughout this research had been shipped from faraway places such as China, flown over from the USA or arrived by train from Germany. It is important to add that the logistics chain does not “end” after the moment of delivery. Delivery drivers sometimes drive to pick up the parcels they have delivered a while before. These parcels go back through the chain: sent for return, some parcels travel a similar route back to the seller.1F1F2 Hence, distribution logistics is not a linear and unidirectional process, but a circular network moving in multiple directions with numerous possible starting points, boundaries and edges (Lepawsky & Mather, 2011).

The map of the logistics chain is also simplified in terms of the many different flows that comprise the chain—such as information, finance, production and distribution.

In the 1960s, logistics underwent a radical paradigm shift in theory and practice, most notably the introduction of the systems approach (also called “Systems thinking” or

“Systems Theory”) (Cowen, 2014). Previously, distribution logistics and production processes were not seen as interconnected, but as two separate processes that were managed independently. In the systems approach the focus is more on the sum of its parts—the complete logistic operation (Smykay & Lalonde, 1967). Hence, the whole supply chain is managed from one point, connecting the production and distribution processes, as well as the information and finance flows. In other words, the systems approach offers a holistic view in which the logistic process is seen as interlinked components. The systems approach has changed the world of logistics, while it first considered the movement from one place to another, it is now approached in systemic terms. What happens in the production process also influences the distribution process and vice versa. I will explain how workers experience this when I introduce the emic notion of “The System”.

Although logistics is spatially diffuse, I chose to focus the logistics chain of

distribution within The Netherlands. I argue that a local focus within such an international affair is important as it allows to attend to the historical, economic and social context of the chain. Pertaining to the history of logistics, the field is firmly grounded in war (Cowen, 2010, 2014). In the early years of the 20th century, logistics signified “a military art”: it referred to the strategic distribution and movement of war supplies to and from

battlefronts. In the Netherlands, the history of logistics is embedded in tales of a past of seafarers, intercontinental trade and explorations—logistics and colonial pasts are

2 But even if the customer keeps the product, often the boxes are reused or recycled and the items that it held become part of other cycles of use, gifting, recycling, waste processing or deterioration on waste sites.



deeply intertwined. As a report from the Dutch government about Dutch logistics proudly announces:

The year in which the Dutch East India Company was established, one of the first large-scale logistics companies in the world. The Dutch East India Company imported spices from overseas, a logistical operation which made a major contribution to the nation’s ‘Golden Century’ (RVO, 2014).

In the history of logistics, the colonial past is discussed to emphasise the trade

successes and wealth, it is the epitome of the “Dutch trade mentality”. Evidently, from the early beginnings, logistics was an uneven and power-laden field.


he utopia of efficiency

Distribution corporations are in the business of “time-space compression”—at a

seemingly ever increasing speed they bridge greater distances (Harvey. 1989). In this effort, logistics is constantly working on time- compression: they “register the calculation of time against the performance of tasks and movement of things, constantly aiming to remove any “wasted” time from the business process (Neilson & Rossiter, 2010, p. 4).

Hence, distribution companies’ primary concern is efficiency. In logistics, efficiency concerns a fast and constant movement with the least amount of effort and costs.

Efficiency is creating a maximum output with minimum input. Often, efficiency is not concerned with the present, but more with the possible futures: it is aspirational and demands continuous evolvement.

In the world of distribution logistics,

efficiency is the unalloyed virtue, the imagined perfect state of affairs. I refer to this as the utopia of efficiency. Although these corporations are all striving for it, imagining ways to reach the ultimate form of efficiency, it is a utopia. Every time the envisioned form of efficiency is reached, the benchmark is moved—it is a constantly shifting ideal. A utopia for one, however, can easily become a dystopia for others, as is the case in the world of distribution logistics. The drive for efficiency creates a dystopic reality for the workers in these chains—constantly pushing them to accelerate. Hence, it is important to look beyond the hegemonic narrative of efficiency and examine what is underneath. To do

Figure 2: A marketing poster of DHL Express.



so, in this thesis I question the ways the utopia of efficiency is lived, experienced and done.

Labour in the chain: (Digital) Taylorism.

The strive for efficiency has greatly impacted the field of distribution logistics. From the early stages of logistics, automation and technologies have been implemented to make human labour as efficient as humanly possible. In this quest for efficiency, labour

became simplified into “isolated problems of mechanical efficiencies” and there was a growing need to create scientific forms of control of the labour process (Scott, 1998, p.

98). Frederik Winslow Taylor (1964) developed a specific system of industrial

management, known as Taylorism, which has been widely implemented into logistical fields. In this system of scientific management, each job is broken down into individual movements and all tasks are rendered into desired inputs and outputs. Through a form of analysis called time-and-motion study, every part of the job is made into measurable elements that can be assessed to standardise the work in ways that it could be

managed to the utmost efficiency.2F2F3 With this analysis, managers decide what movements can be eliminated and what speed they can demand for each task. In Taylor’s management system, workers have to follow a machinelike routine, where any form of human intervention or creativity is filtered out. To this day, work implementing the principles of Taylorism centres around standardisation, segmentation and


Taylorism requests a strict form of management to keep an overview of the

segmented and standardised processes. Recently, technological innovations have made it relatively easy for managers to closely monitor their workers, even when they are out of sight. Most workers are guided by technological devices throughout their work.

Manuel worked with a headset with a robotic voice that gave him information about his tasks. Other workers use handhelds, minicomputers with scanners, or tablets mounted to their vehicles, also called a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), often also casually referred to as their “scanner”. Pepijn, Rae, Ruben and myself, for example, worked with a wrist mounted PDA, with a small scanner attached to the index finger.

3 The most common example of the implementation of Taylorism is the management of workers at a factory assembly line. At an assembly line workers are only working on one small part of the process, such as screwing tight one single bolt, and it then automatically moves to another worker with another task—all these tasks together are combined into a whole product



These devices are used to scan the goods or parcels, receive tasks and view the planning. When workers scan items and interact with the devices, specific data is collected and presented to managers through software, such as a Warehouse

Management System. Managers monitor the data to see if workers are following orders or making mistakes as well as calculate their working speed. This form of management has been called “New Taylorism” (e.g., Salame, 2018), “digital Taylorism” (e.g.,

Altenried, 2019, 2020; Head, 2005, 2014; Nachtwey & Staab, 2015) and “cybernetic Taylorism (Raffetseder, Schaupp & Staab 2017). As Moritz Altenried (2019, 2020) argues, in these new forms of Taylorism the classical elements of standardisation and segmentation are implemented with new forms of control: precise surveillance and technological measurement of the labour process. Hence, “digital Taylorism’s horizon is a system of real-time control, feedback and correction” (p. 122). The technologies used by workers are part of a larger effort in standardizing and routinizing the techniques for completing each task in the job. In the distribution logistics technologies lead the workers much like an assembly line.

The logistics chain as a sociotechnical assemblage

The world of logistics is often described in terms of materials, infrastructures and

technologies, but I look at logistics as a sociotechnical assemblage. To explain this, I will first focus on the notion assemblage and then discuss why the assemblage is

sociotechnical. Originally, the concept of assemblage was coined by ecologists, who used it to make sense of the multispecies world in which organisms are in complex reciprocal relationships with one another. The term has found fertile ground in the Social Sciences when Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introduced the term in their book Mille Plateaux (1980), and combined it with their conceptualisation of the rhizome as a model to the multiplicity of the social. They argued that an assemblage approach allows

Figure 3: An impression of a handheld used by

delivery drivers. Figure 4: An impression of a PDA used by pickers in a fulfilment centre.



scholars to move away from looking at social things as structured and stable, but embrace the variety of discordant components and the ever-changing, evolving and active practices. In an assemblage it is not so much the distinct elements momentarily that matter, but that what lies between, the “set of relations which are not separable from each other” (Deleuze & Parnet, 1987, p. viii)

The concept of assemblage has been widely used in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and material semiotics as it encapsulates the epistemological view in this field. The material semiotics approach foregrounds the “material”, as it aims to include all living and non-living matter as part of the social. “Semiotics” emphasises the

“sensitivity for the fundamental relationality of the entities studied” (Law, 2009, p. 141).

According to John Law (2019), material semiotics propose a set of “tools, sensibilities, and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as

continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located” (p.

141). From this approach, no single structure or form of “the social” exists “out there”;

through enactment, objects are in a constant flux, everchanging through their relations to other matter (e.g., Barad, 2003; Latour, 2005; Law, 2004, 2009; Mol, 2002).

I embarked on this research inspired by the approach of material semiotics. I see the assemblage of distribution logistics as an entanglement of many human and more- than-human actants: hardware, software, goods, infrastructures and people.3F3F4 In this assemblage the “human” and “technological” are inextricably bound and enacted in relations. Embedded in these assemblages, technology is never generic or simply material (Harvey, 2015), instead, these are “historical forms that emerge through and with social systems of ideology, meaning and imagination” (Appel et al., 2018, p. 25).

Whereas many studies that look at the interaction between humans and technologies assess humans as active subjects and technologies as passive objects, the material semiotic approach helps to move away from this rendition. From this approach, I see the logistics chain as a sociotechnical assemblage. The term sociotechnical emphasises that technology should not be seen as “non-social” variables that “impact” society or culture (Pfaffenberger, 1988, p. 241; Bijker & Law, 1992; Gillespie, 2014; Lowrie, 2018).

On the contrary, Bryan Pfaffenberger (1988) argues, “any technology is a set of social behaviours and a system of meanings” (p. 241). Thus, in these sociotechnical systems the social and technological are mutually constituted and reconfigured: technologies are constantly shaped in interaction with individuals, diverse groups, social processes and the social context they are embedded in, and in turn, technologies shape these social configurations. The sociotechnical, therefore, demands that we think simultaneously about the social and the technological (Bijker & Law, 1992, p. 4).

A critique of assemblage theory (and STS at large) is its relative neglect of power dimensions. Anna Tsing, however, shows that it is possible and necessary to link

4 I use the term “actants”, instead of the more well-known term “actor” in an attempt to problematise the unit of an act and the connotations of human action it carries. Actants are not bound by the human body (Haraway 1985; Latour 2005), instead, they consist of many different functioning parts such as automobiles, the internet, robotic parts and computer networks.



assemblages and power dimensions. In her book Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) she uses the term polyphonic assemblage as a conceptual tool to locate power in her ethnographic exploration of the life of matsutake mushrooms. Polyphony is a musical texture, in which several instruments come together in harmony or diverge in dissonance and rhythmic deviations. In an assemblage, harmony and dissonance co- exist and projects of world-making are layered rhythms that “coalesce, change and dissolve” (2015, p. 158). Using this conceptual tool, Tsing discusses the complex power-laden weaving of the mushroom in its surroundings and context, including socio- cultural systems, geopolitical frictions and economic schemes. Inspired by Tsing’s analysis, when I talk about the distribution logistics as a sociotechnical assemblage, I do not see it as deprived of power relations. To the contrary: it is entrenched with power as with many elements and actants clashing and colliding, sometimes dominating the movement and interactions of others and sometimes staying in the background.

While I take into account more-than-human actants, a common assumption in the field of STS that I try to tackle in this thesis is that the implementation of technical

devices leaves humans “vulnerable to non-human forces and pressures” (Bear, 2014, referencing Mackenzie, 2001; Pickering, 1995). This move away from anthropocentrism is important, yet we should not try to analyse technology as apart from human forces, as the sociotechnical approach shows technologies are inherently social. Theorising

technologies as agents, one runs the risk of losing sight of the humans creating the technologies in the first place and the setting they rose from. As Jenny Davis (2020) argues, it is important to “resist designations of either humans subjects or technological objects as autonomous and effectual”. Instead we should position “human-technology dynamics as necessarily relational” (p. 45). Merely focussing on the technology can hinder locating responsibility, accountability and ethics of action, Arjun Appadurai (2015) warns. As he speculates: in a new materialist world, “[w]ill future courts only be judges of assemblages of hands-guns-bodies-bullets and blood[?]” (p. 24). To avoid this pitfall, agency of technologies should always be discussed in their context, the social systems and fields of power they emerge from.

Only a sociotechnical perspective can turn our gaze towards responsibility and accountability. But simply seeing the technological and social as inextricably connected might not be enough. As I will further explain in the third chapter, algorithmic error or computational inefficiency are too often seen as the culprit of problems in the chain. To be able to work towards accountability, Davis (2020) argues an “evolution of STS thought” is needed (p. 59). To do so, she draws on the materialized action approach of Ernst Schraube and proposes to take into account agentic asymmetry. Davis creates a division between the social and the technical in the sociotechnical assemblage—while she emphasises they are co-constitutive and relational, this relation is asymmetrical.

Whereas both the human and technical have the capacity to effect change, when looking at the political implication of the sociotechnical entanglement “the weight of responsibility always falls to people” (p. 45). In this thesis, I will discuss how the technology in the assemblage are used as a tool and discursive strategy of control by



the distribution companies. In this context, I argue that analysing distribution logistics as a sociotechnical assemblage, while recognising the asymmetrical relationship, is vital to recognise the polyphony and pinpoint accountability.

“The System”

Both in theory and in corporate practice distribution logistics is considered an intricate meshwork of human and more-than-human actants. The experience of operational workers, however, is not as holistic. Even though they are undoubtedly aware that they are not the only ones handling the parcels, much of this logistic operation happens out of sight. People working in fulfilment centres, for example, rarely see what happens to the boxes after they filled them. Sorters often do not even know what locations they are sorting for and some never even see the delivery drivers that take the sorted parcels with them. Workers rarely know which processes came before or after theirs. That is not to say the sociotechnical assemblage does not exist in the lived experience of workers. It does, but it is segmented and is experienced on a smaller scale.

In their work, my interlocutors are constantly involved with several technologies and more-than-human actants. To make sense of their position in this sociotechnical assemblage, many of my interlocutors talked about “the system”. Some quotes from my fieldwork and interviews are:

“Just do exactly as the system tells you to do” / “just follow the system”

“The system knows my every move” / “the system tells me to ... ”

“We need to do this, so the system knows where this item is located”.

For a while, I tried to dissect what my interlocutors were referring to when they

discussed this system, to see if there was indeed one system they were all referring too.

I realised, however, that the system is abstract, polyvalent and amorphous. My

interlocutors used the term to talk about many different things in the chain. Some would point towards their handheld, PDA or headset when referring to “The System”. Some referred to the Warehouse Management System (WMS), that guided the work in the fulfilment centres and is connected to the handhelds. Some referred to it when talking about the monitors their managers are looking at when assessing their performance.

Others pointed towards the overall logistics of the sorting centre—the conveyor belt, the way parcels should be stacked and where they were stored. Interestingly, operations managers seemed to include the workers themselves in this last rendition. For them

“The System” did not only include the technological devices but the workers too. When talking about disturbances or glitches in “The System”, for example, Gijs (an operations manager) described the issue of “drivers falling ill”. In all these uses, the term represents an infrastructure and surveillance and hints at the lack of flexibility and autonomy. There is a system workers should follow—as well as a larger logic behind the operation.



Because of the term is ambiguous and emic, I place “The System” between quotation marks. It is clear that “The System” is not a thing “out there”, but is something that these workers experience. To workers, “The System” is not one but it is multiple: a floating signifier pointing to various parts of the sociotechnical entanglement at the same time. In practice, however, it does not just refer to anything in the entanglement: it only points to those elements that are agentic. What is agentic in “The System”, however, is situational. To understand this, the notion dance of agency is useful (Pickering, 1995, 2012). Following the tradition of Science and Technology Studies, sociologist Andrew Pickering studied the way scientist and the material world intersect, and specifically looked at the ways scientist interacted with their machines and instruments. Pickering discusses that, in this interaction, agency is not something that is inherently possessed but it occurs in varying degrees. When the scientists stood back, their tools and

machines became more agentic—when the scientist stepped forward again to adjust a setting they regain some agency. I contend that this is also the case in the

sociotechnical assemblage of distribution, in “The System” of logistics sometimes technologies dictate the work and at other times more than-human rhythms, corporate notions, managers or the workers themselves take the front-stage. I argue that the notion of “The System” elucidates the lived experience of workers in this dance of agency with hardware, software, goods, infrastructures and people—the sociotechnical assemblage itself.

Entering “The System”: access, methods and positionality

It is not easy to enter a sociotechnical assemblage in logistics: there are many people involved and often, the ones in charge are hard to reach due to the tall hierarchies. I deliberated entry from “above” (in collaboration with a corporation), from the “side” (in collaboration with labour unions) or from “below” (in collaboration with different

workers). All these different ways of entering the chain have pros and cons, with varying access issues and ethical hurdles. While I debated all of the possibilities, practicalities defined my entry. After many attempts, the companies and labour unions stated they were not interested in my research or simply ignored my requests altogether. Hence, I started contacting individual workers, through my own network and the network of my friends and family. I shared posters on social media, created a flyer that friends and family handed out to delivery drivers when they received a parcel and created a website where workers could read more about my research and leave their contact information so that I could contact them.


17 Figure 3 (on the left): The flyer I designed with a link to the website (both in English and Dutch).

Figure 4 (on the right): A picture I took during my fieldwork, when I visited a depot one of the drivers coindidentally received a flyer from my mother and placed one of my flyers on their bullitin board.

This way of entering the field, gave me a fragmented access to very different parts of the logistics chain in varying corporations. I have been able to talk to people in sorting centres, in distribution centres and drivers:

Figure 5: Anonymised list of interviewees



Most of my interlocutors are currently working in the position listed, except for Manuel, Olivia, Tom, Pepijn and Rae. Olivia only worked as a driver in the last mile for a couple of shifts in the summer of 2020, but quit as she found it too stressful. Manuel, Pepijn and Rae held their jobs for over 6 months, but quit due to pressure or boredom. Tom did not work in the sorting centre anymore at the time of our interview as he was recently fired. I wanted to speak to both people active in the field and people that had recently quit or were fired, as I think it gives a more accurate view on workers’ experiences: including both those who “make it” and those who do not thrive under the pressure of the field.

My fieldwork period spanned from September 2020 to the beginning of February 2021. During this time I used five different methods: participant observations, interviews, observation, participation and discourse analysis. The two main sources of my data are the participant observations and interviews. To get to know my interlocutors, I requested to interview them. Some interviews were held at the homes of my interlocutors. I

interviewed Dylan in a café, in the morning after a night-shift while he drank a beer to decompress. Other interviews were conducted on video-calls due to covid-19

regulations, or simply because my interlocutors lived far away. All interviews had a similar structure: I first asked them about their work practices by simply inviting them to walk me through a normal day at work—from the moment they wake up to get ready to the moment they get home. I asked about their tasks and how they performed them.

After discussing the practices and logistic process, I asked them about their

experiences. Here, I tried to understand their relation to the technologies and other actants in the field. Whereas the focus was their practices, these interviews helped me grasp the lived experiences of different workers in the sociotechnical entanglement of distribution logistics.

After each interview, I asked my interlocutors still working in the field if I could maybe join them during a shift for a day. While all of them seemed positive, only two got permission from their managers: Jade and Marlene. Jade works in the last mile of

delivery in the province of Zeeland—driving from a local depot in the outskirts of a city to customers in several smaller towns and cities. She allowed me to drive along with her during a day shift and an evening shift. The first drive-along was in October, and the second shift was right before Christmas—in the midst of the peak season for delivery drivers. Marlene worked in the Amsterdam region in the first mile (picking up parcels from companies) and returns (picking up parcels from service points or at customers’

homes). During her route, she was also tasked with emptying the public mailboxes in her area. The Amsterdam region was very different from the provincial region Jade drove in.

Marlene was constantly battling traffic—getting stuck in traffic jams or navigating through narrow streets.

In both cases, the drive-alongs were participant observations. I did not only observe but also participated in the work. I helped sorting the boxes into the car, scanned the parcels, carried boxes, delivered parcels customers’ front door, emptied mailboxes and entered details about the delivery or pick-up in the handheld. By doing the work myself, I noticed how much more goes into the work than Jade and Marlene



had described during the interview. There were so many little things to take into consideration—bumps in the road messing up the organised parcels in the back, the clamping door of the van, the annoying notification beep when we did not put our seatbelt on, customers asking the most random questions about parcels ordered via a different company. Although the work is standardised and neatly organised in design, in experience it was much more messy and clumsy.

I was also hoping to conduct participant observations in warehouses and sorting centres. After many attempts, the companies did not seem to be willing to grant me any form of access. This made me even more interested in what was going on. Based on the experiences of driving along, I had come to realise that I could never understand

logistics from outside the warehouse. When the end of my research period was near, I realised the only option left to access these warehouses, was by working there myself.

Hence, I decided to apply for a job in a fulfilment centre and conducted research through full participation. I ended up working in a fulfilment centre of a supermarket chain. I worked ten 9-hour shifts in the span of 1,5 months. I worked both dayshifts (from 7:00AM to 16:00PM) and evening shifts (from 15:00PM to 00:00AM) and went through an initial day of training, with classes and short practice sessions for each different task in the fulfilment centre. This was the most visceral fieldwork I have ever conducted. After every shift I came home tired and bruised, and I thought of quitting after every shift. But I kept going as this experience was invaluable as an ethnographer: I could feel the work in every inch of my body, the lived experience became mine too.

Besides arranging the drive along, Marlene brought me into contact with her supervisor, Gijs. He invited me to his office, and gave me a tour around the premise He showed me the sorting centre, depot, planning office and control room. From a bridge with a birds-eye view on the whole facility, I gaped at the automatic sorting machines on which parcels whizzed by. I observed the repetitive tasks of the workers placing the parcels on the roll-shaft conveyor with the barcode facing up so that the scanning portal of the machine could read the barcode. While this was exactly as I imagined the field to look like, other parts of the facility were far from what I had imagined it to be. When we approached the control room, the place where all data gathered from workers is analysed to manage the workers, the epitome of digital Taylorism, I noticed the large screens that filled the wall were all turned off. Gijs laughed, and told me this was

because they didn’t actually have the data to “fill” the screens. Similar, the planning staff was not working with exciting software driven by algorithms, but with excel sheets and whiteboards. This tour showed me the reality behind the corporate tale of logistics, something I will further elucidate in the third chapter.

During this tour I realised the logistics chain “on paper” was very different to the logistics chain I had been observing in the field. This made me wonder about the two distinctly different perspectives on the chain; the business perspective and the operational perspective. To better understand the ways corporations focus on

innovation, automation and smart technologies, I started collecting documents (such as year reports, newsletters, articles) by three different companies in the field:


20 Figure 6: The distribution corporations and a brief overview of their narrative.

I familiarised myself with these companies by observing their websites and watching online clips of their work processes and ambitions. I also visited an online conference on the future of logistics, an online masterclass organised by DHL and viewed a talk show organised by online grocery retailer Picnic celebrating their 5 year anniversary. The analysis of these documents and fieldnotes in relation to the interview and fieldwork data has helped me better understand the very different perspectives on the chain.

Situated Ethics

These methods all come with certain ethical concerns. Throughout this research, ethics was a constant negotiation. I do not see ethical research as something that can be secured a priori by ticking some boxes or filling on forms, neither can it be done by simply following ethical guidelines. Instead, I follow David Calvey (2008) in his discussion of situated ethics. As Calvey argues, research is “situated business, and not open to rationalistic planning” (p. 908). Ethics is not a static label, but it is “in the particular cases of the here and now with participants that ethics are situationally accomplished” (p.

908). Before and during the interviews, I assured informed consent. I discussed the possible consequences of participating in this research, establishing rules for

anonymisation and made my interlocutors aware of the possibility to withdraw at any given moment or leave questions unanswered. After every interview I asked interlocutors how they experienced the interview and if they thought I had left anything important out.

During the drive-alongs I had informed consent from both the drivers and their managers. For the discourse analysis, I used publicly available material and at the masterclasses I listed my research intentions in my profile description. The ethics of this part of the research did not cause any issues or major dilemmas, but the participant research in the fulfilment centre was ethically more tricky.



During the application process I subtly mentioned I was also researching

distribution logistics.4F4F5 But, as I had already tried all possible ways of official entry, I knew that if I stressed my research interests too much I would probably not be hired. Hence, this part of the research was conducted semi-covert.5F5F6 This is a clear case of situated ethics. In this case, this was the only way to do this research and get full access to the experience of working in a fulfilment centre. I was treated as just another worker, instead of someone with a research agenda. This way, I was able to experience the extreme time pressure the workers are put under, the bodily strain of the work and the harsh and opaque measures of performance. This “insider view” has been vital for my

understanding of the field and has allowed me to see past the image these companies present. While I was aware of the necessity of this part of the research, I felt a lot of discomfort with my “undercover” position. I often felt guilty when my supervisors talked to me about my possibilities of getting through the training, while I knew all too well I would quit before that could ever happen. I also did not always feel comfortable that some of the data I gathered during this fieldwork is “dirty data” (Shulman, 1994). I took pictures (without any people in them), made sound recordings, mapped the space and observed the content on the employee website and the message board for co-workers.

On this message board, I was able to read intense discussions about payment, unionisation, work pressure, raised targets, frustrations about colleagues and so on.

Although I was invited to join as I was a worker myself, I felt like an uninvited lurker.

My semi-covered participation as a researcher in the fulfilment centre made me constantly question and reflect on what it means to do ethical research. I am convinced researchers should be able to look in places they are purposefully kept out by those in power. To me, laying bare power structures and challenging institutions of power is part of my moral obligation as a researcher. Still, I find it important to stress that within this research I have done everything in my power to not harm the operational workers, or any individual involved. The semi-covered research is used to critique the management techniques in the field and the capitalist fascination with efficiency—it is not used to bring harm on any individual within the company. To make sure none of my research could be used against any of my interlocutors or myself, I looked for ways to anonymise beyond simply using pseudonyms. I created illustrations based on original data, in which all the elements that could link the content to any company is filtered out, but the data I used for my analysis has remained intact. With this play on data, mixing fiction and reality, I try to address some of the ethical concerns of using “dirty data”.

Ethics is situated, not only in the specific field site and the positionality of the researcher, but also in the world at large. This research has been conducted during

5 When the recruiter asked me about my motivation to work at the fulfilment centre, I told her about my research and told her that because of this research I thought working in a fulfilment centre would be “very interesting for my research.”

6 It was not fully covert as I was not particularly “hiding” and never lied or pretended to be someone else. I told several co-workers that I had conversations with about my research and I asked them for consent whenever I wanted to write down something they had said to me.



extraordinary times: the COVID-19 pandemic. I started fieldwork in the midst of what has been called the “second wave” of the pandemic in the Netherlands. This situation posed some specific ethical dilemmas. First of all, ethnography often demands proximity, but what if proximity equals danger for both my interlocutors and myself? When I met my interlocutors in person, I discussed beforehand what precautions they wanted to take to limit the risk of infection and during the meeting I kept checking if they felt comfortable. I personally also tried to make an informed decision on the risks I wanted to take and reflected on this after every event in the field to inform my further steps. Although on paper this might seem easy and straightforward, it was not always as easy as it seems.

One of the drivers I drove along with did not wear a facemask. As I was sitting close to her in the confined space of the delivery van, I realised I was not very comfortable with this situation. As it is important to build rapport, however, I did not want to start a discussion or pressure her to wear one. The moment we visited an elderly home to deliver parcels, I drew a line. As she wanted to walk in, I offered her an extra facemask.

Luckily she accepted it and wore it inside the building. This situation made me aware that ethics is not just situated, but constituted in collaboration with interlocutors in the field.

What to expect in this thesis

In the following chapters I will detail the lived experiences of operational workers in the sociotechnical assemblage of distribution logistics. In the first chapter, I discuss how the principle of Just-in-time logistics has resulted in a design of the logistic processes of distribution like a clock, where multiple parts move in sync with extreme regularity. In this design, “The System” functions like a timekeeper. The operational reality, however, differs from the intended design of the logistics chain. Addressing the human and more- than-human rhythms workers encounter during their work, I talk about the dance of agency in which workers are constantly recalibrating, redirecting or utilising these rhythms. To compensate for the rhythms that collide with the rhythm of “The System”

and the workers cannot control, they are constantly chasing seconds: either catching up with time or saving up time that will be inevitably lost. In the second chapter, I further explain how it is possible that “The System” becomes the timekeeper through the principles of digital Taylorism. Technologies in the field of logistics are used to monitor, control and regulate the workers bodies and tune them towards productivity and

efficiency. Dependent on technologies, workers are dehumanised and only regarded as productive (or unproductive) tools in “The System”. But again, in the polyphonic dance of agency workers push back and resist the control of “The System”. The workers utilise the affordances of the techologies and play with the limits of “The System” to

rehumanise themselves. Continuing the discussion of the effects of digital Taylorism, in the third chapter I critically assess the management techniques in the field. Through Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), performance is rendered into seemingly “objective” data, that is constantly assessed and analysed to calculate if workers are efficient enough. In



a critique on scholars pointing to the implementation of algorithms as the cause of the precarious labour conditions in this field, I argue that it is not the technologies perse but the practice of the datafication of performance —where workers worth is equated to their efficiency and profitability—that is at the basis of workers’ lived experiences. In the conclusion I will discuss what the perspective of a sociotechnical assemblage brings to analysing the field of distribution logistics and examine the future of the utopia of

efficiency in the field. Through the critique of the current labour conditions of the

workers, I discuss the possibilities for a systemic change and a different way forward by fostering collaboration and awareness by recalibrating the accountable actants in the logistics chain.




The Rhythm of “The System”



“In logistics, time is everything”, Amir told me when he was talking about his job at a distribution centre. Time, in this field, is always present, and influences the work in many different ways. Distribution chains are often designed with the Just-in-time principle.

Just-in-time (JIT) logistics, refers to the idea of only receiving parts when needed, cutting inventory costs and maintaining a constant flow of goods. JIT started out as a production technique but has spread to distribution logistics; enabled by infrastructural innovations, new systems for inventory control and warehouse management,

containerisation and “the global factory floor”, it has risen in popularity over the last four decades (Harvey, 1989; Appel et al., 2018; Cowen, 2014). As, writer (and poet)

focussing on workplace culture and management theory, Jasper Bernes (2016) explains:

JIT is a circulationist production philosophy, oriented around a concept of

“continuous flow” that views everything not in motion as a form of waste (muda), a drag on profits. JIT aims to submit all production to the condition of circulation, pushing its velocity as far toward the light-speed of information transmission as possible (p. 26).

In Just-in-time logistics, it is not just speed, but timing that matters. Picnic prides themselves in the fact that products move through their distribution system in less than 12 hours—what is picked in the morning is delivered that same day at a scheduled delivery time. All delivery corporations I studied, work with scheduled timeslots for delivery. For parcels to arrive on the doorstep of the customers just-in-time, the logistics chain is designed much like a clockwork. With extreme regularity, multiple parts are designed to function together in sync. Whereas a clock is dependent on a mainspring to move all of its parts in unison, the operational workers in these chains depend on a cluster of digital systems that maintain an overview over multiple and complex logistics chains of distribution.

These digital systems are highly dependent on calculations of time and speed:

the expected time it will take the machines and workers to move, pick, sort, send and deliver the parcels from receiver to sender. Let me explain how this looks in the fulfilment centre where Ruben worked:

The whole fulfilment process is neatly organised. It all starts with a bagger loading totes on the line-shaft conveyor that moves the totes through a bagging machine.

The bagging machine hangs three plastic bags in each tote. On the other end of the conveyor, another bagger takes the totes from the belt and places them on an Electric Picking Cart (EPC). When filled, the bagger parks the EPC right where the shoppers start their round of picking, placing items in the plastic bags. During the shift, workers tasked with flow and receiving, make sure the aisles are

stocked and relatively clean and so that the shoppers can go through their round without disruptions. When the shoppers are finished, they hand over their EPC to



a dispatcher. Dispatchers remove the filled totes from the EPCs and place them in larger frames, that once filled, will be loaded in trucks that will bring them to the local depots. The emptied EPCs are brought to the baggers, for the cycle to start again.6F6F7

In this design, it is vital to know how long it will take baggers to load the totes on the EPVs, the shoppers to pick the goods and dispatchers to place the totes in the frames.

Without a certain control of the speed and time, they are not able to schedule the departure of the trucks, nor the just-in-time delivery of the products at the doorstep of the customers. Hence, in distribution logistics, time, speed and timing are of vital importance.

Power-chronography and temporal regimes

The labour of distribution logistics is built up out of many linked micro-tasks that are micromanaged for a smooth transition from link to link. It would be too simple, however, to see this efficient design as the reality of the operation. This narrative of efficient logistics obfuscates the messy operational reality of the chains. As a more-than-human assemblage of hardware, software, materials, infrastructures and people—all efficacious and entangled—there are many rhythms at play. Within the polyphonic entanglements, there are many different “temporal itineraries that constitute social space …” (Sharma, 2014, p. 5).

Even when we look at one of the standard measures of time in logistics,

measured by the chronometer, in practice, it is a lot more fussy. As a concept, time is plural, multifaceted and done in different ways (Fabian, 1983). While in logistics, time might be seen as something absolute and mechanical, something “out there” that exists independent from human experience, even the time measured by a chronometer is not a stable fact. As Demetrios Matsakis, the head of the US Naval Observatory Time Service Department said: every clock “has their own opinion of the time”, clocks need to be constantly kept in check (Falk, 2008, p. 54). Based on the idea that even technical clocks are not stable, uniform tellers of time, Sarah Sharma (2014) uses the

chronograph—a specific type of watch that is both a display watch and stopwatch—to think about the plurality within the experience of time and elucidate how all forms of time are social and embedded in fields of power. Apart from the main mechanism of the clock, a chronograph has an independent sweep second hand and a sub-dial, that can be started, stopped and reset without interfering with the “main clock”. Thus, a

chronograph is able to measure times in multiple ways at the same time (Sharma, 2014, p. 155). With the metaphor of several notions of time overlapping, Sharma introduces the concept of “power-chronography”, where there are only “subdials of time control”

(p. 155). She uses this concept to attune to the micropolitics of individual lived-time—

7 The jargon used in this piece is further explained in the glossary in the appendix.



time as lived experience, “time from below” (p. 137). As she explains:

The social fabric is composed of a chronography of power, where individuals’ and social groups’ sense of time and possibility are shaped by a differential economy, limited or expanded by the ways and means that they find themselves in and out of time. (p. 9).

To Sharma, time is always political, power-laden and is experienced at the “intersections of inequity” (p. 14). To define lived-time, both of individuals and groups, she uses the term temporal, which both refers to the experience of time as well as the ways it is

“structured in specific political and economic contexts” (Sharma, 2016, p. 132).

The Iived-time of these workers are structured by the just-in-time delivery companies strive towards. In other words, the temporal experience of operational workers in distribution logistics is shaped by the political and economic context of the globalised world. In my field, the utopian ideal of efficiency propels to a temporal regime of efficiency. By temporal regime, in line with the French historian François Hartog (2003), I refer to how time produced, ordered through technologies, hierarchies and systems of power. In the field of distribution—occupied with making sure things are at the right place in the right time—the many links in the chain are temporally ordered, to follow a calculated rhythm that is constantly monitored and managed.

This following illustration depicts the layers of time of the handheld itself.7F7F8

8 A larger version of this illustration can be found in appendix II.

Figure 7: Layers of time.



In this illustration, I used the schedule of Jade, a delivery driver in the last mile as an example. Jade works with a strict schedule based on three layers of time: customers are communicated a 2 hour time slot for delivery, drivers themselves get a 15 minute

timeslot for each delivery and the PDA time refers to the time they get for the act of delivery itself (one or two minutes). Though there are multiple temporalities and rhythms, coalescing and dissolving, the lived-time of these workers is constantly influenced by the temporal regime of the logistics chain. In this chain, though time and speed is lived in various ways, it seems like there is one “subdial” in the experience of time that is more dominant than others: the time of “The System”. For these workers, it is “The System”

that sets the pace and dictates the rhythm of their work.8F8F9 I contend, in this field “The System” is the timekeeper.

“The system” as the timekeeper

When I was driving along with Marlene the extent in which “The System” dominated in the temporal mangle started to dawn on me. For context, Marlene takes care of the more time sensitive (small) transport activities of a major mail and parcel company. She collects parcels from the first mile or for returns and empties public mailboxes every afternoon. The following vignette describes a situation we encountered during this task:

Marlene told me that according to regulations mailboxes are only allowed to be emptied after 4 o’clock. By the time we parked besides the first mailbox, Marlene looked at her handheld and told me we had to wait a bit. Looking back and forth to the clock on the dashboard and Marlene, I undoubtedly looked confused. We had been keeping up a high pace and rushed the whole day to keep to the tight schedule, why stop now? Besides, according to the clock on the dashboard we seemed to be right on time to empty the mailbox. Responding to my confusion, Marlene showed me the time on her handheld. Though the dashboard clock said it was 16:00 o’clock, Marlene said “The System” said it was 15:59. If we would empty the mailbox now, she would get in trouble for emptying the mailbox too early. So we waited a minute, keeping our eye fixated on the time indicated on the handheld. As soon as the numbers changed into 16:00 we jumped out of the van and went ahead to empty the mailbox, just-in-time.

In this situation, the indication of time on the dashboard did not matter, it was the time on the handheld, the artefact of “The System” that counted. In just-in-time labour, it is the time of “The System” that counts.

9 Some of my interlocutors stated it the temporality of their work also bled in to their social lives. Pepijn stated he “took home” the rhythm of the work: his whole day became routinised and followed a pace: as he stated ”from waking up to going to bed, the work schedule impacts your whole day.”



It is not the handheld in itself that establishes this dominance, it is its place in the whole sociotechnical assemblage that imbues the handheld with this power. The

company Marlene works for keeps track of their drivers’ movement and speed in a control room. Whenever drivers scan a parcel, the handheld sends the data to the control room, including their geo-location, the time and the item they scanned. With this information, the control room is able to see if the drivers are following the planning.

When the drivers miss the timeframe—both when lagging behind or working ahead schedule—Marlene said she gets in trouble: she receives a red dot behind their name, is called by the control room immediately and gets reprimanded by a supervisor the next day or after their shift. This is also what would have happened when we had scanned the mailbox before the handheld changed to 16:00, because in Just-in-time logistics

workers cannot be late, but also not too early. Olivia, who worked in the last mile of a grocery delivery company, is kept to the timeframes in a different way. She was simply unable to work outside of the given timeframe: her handheld would give her the

information of which bags she should take out of her van for each clients and she only got this information when the timeframe started. Besides, the handheld would refuse a scan after this timeframe.

There was another way “The System” functions as the timekeeper and the temporal regime of efficiency is

enforced. When drivers return to the depot after a shift, they receive an overview of their “results” of that day and a

performance score. This performance score will be discussed in more detail in the third chapter, but what is important to note here is that the most important rubric is “timeliness”. For this score, it does not matter if the worker is just one minute early or one hour late, it all counts the same.

Similar to the drivers, in the warehouses the performance scores are based on their average speed. When I wanted to keep my job at the fulfilment centre, I needed to make the targets: picking 265 orders per hour (±13 seconds per order). If I would not make this target after 10 shifts, I would not pass the trial period set in my contract.

Through the targets, time becomes a normative truth—all other ways of experiencing time are filtered out.

Figure 8: An impression of a handheld with the timeliness scores.



“The System” is installed to propel the speed of movement and sync these workers to the capitalist rhythm of efficiency. The affordances of the handheld, the infrastructure of surveillance and the management techniques make “The System”, in the experience of these workers, the timekeeper. “The System” lays a generic beat over all these rhythms, it is a constant that overrules other temporal itineraries. Whereas reality might be polyphonic, “The System” assumes and demands harmony.

Juggling Rhythms

Creating harmony in a polyphonic world is a burden the workers themselves have to carry. In his study on truck drivers’ relation to time, Sociologist Ben Snyder (2019) makes a similar observation; he states that when the drivers move from place to place, they “juggle the rhythms of thousands of small processes” (p. 707). Often, these various rhythms coalesce and clash with the temporal order of “The System”. A vital, yet

unofficial and often unrecognised, part of the labour of the workers in these chains is managing these rhythms in and around them, by recalibrating, redirecting but also by utilising the rhythms to fit to the rhythm of “The System” or when all else fails:

compensate for them.


One of the things closest to the workers that they can alter or supress, is their own rhythm, the circadian rhythm of their bodies. Most workers I spoke to, had trained their bladders to fit to the limited—often scheduled—slots for bathroom breaks (during breaks, between shifts or at specific addresses). To do so, they learn how to hold their pee for the hours on end, when they are driving or working in the warehouse. During my participant observations, to my own discomfort, I was made aware this “bathroom schedule” did not match the circadian rhythm of my bladder. During the interview, both Jade and Marlene had told me there is no time for “spontaneous bathroom breaks”

during their shifts. When I arrived at the depot for the drive along with Marlene—my first drive-along—I recounted this. Thinking my need for alertness and concentration during the observation outweighed the risk of needing to pee, I decided to drink one cup of coffee before the shift. Wrong choice. Two hours after departure, I felt the pressing urge to pee. As I wanted to make sure I did not disrupt the tight schedule Marlene had to follow, I tried to hold it as long as possible.9F9F10 After an hour, wiggling back and forth and trying to ignore the urge, there was finally an opportunity to go to the toilet. In between our first and second round, we had 5 minutes at the depot to hand over our full roll containers and place empty roll containers in the back of our van. If we did this quickly, Marlene told me, we would have some time to go to the toilet. As we jumped back into the car for the second shift, Marlene warned me that this round it would take even

10I did not want to become a burden as another rhythm Marlene needed to juggle.




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