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Black Friday’s Supply Chain Problems Are Really Labor Problems

When it comes to the workforce that moves those sundries
from ports to warehouses, despite reports of a “truck driver shortage,” there
are actually plenty of licensed drivers around. But the industry has a massive
retention problem because the companies that train and employ them, according
to a recent story in Time
, routinely misrepresent how much those
workers could make. By the end of 2020, per the American Trucking Institute, 9 out of 10 drivers working for large
companies left within the space of a year; as Time reported, some of
those drivers made less than $3 a mile to do a famously dangerous job. Many
take on massive debt to get licensed to drive at all, debt that they’re
unlikely to pay back with wages so low: A
USA Today investigation from 2017
reported one man’s take-home pay
amounted to 67 cents in a week. And squeezing drivers has been a long-term
project: Since the 1980s, according
to E. Tammy Kim
, the network that connects ports and railyards transformed
from a labor pool of employees to a group of independent contractors. Wage
workers became owner-operators paid between $50 and $100 a load, and sometimes not at all
for the time they spend working but not actively moving cargo.

Recently the president of the International Chamber of
Shipping, a trade organization representing a majority of large international
ship owners, published
an op-ed in the New York Times
arguing that the “workers who drive
the trucks, fly the planes, and crew the ships” that move goods across the
globe have been “stretched to the breaking point.” He described crews stuck at
sea, unable to disembark when they arrived at a foreign port, and a lack of
cohesive plans for workers who were unable to get vaccinated in their home
countries. Elsewhere, labor advocates have noted that as many
as 40,000 members of the shipping workforce
have been unable to either leave
their vessels or return home because of travel bans across the world. Many have
been stuck in limbo, working far past their contracts. One German
ship
captain refused to sail until his crew was replaced by another group
of people who hadn’t been so desperately over-extended; it was an issue of
safety, he said.

As with other aspects of economy and society, the pandemic exacerbated
dire scenarios that were barely sustainable before Covid-19 took hold. The
holiday season has always been a nightmare for the massive class of people who
facilitate Americans’ relentless quest for a killer sale. Every year, retail
workers tell horror stories about the Black Fridays they staffed for less than
$15 an hour. Jessica Bruder reported in 2014 on the mostly
elderly migrant labor force
that camped out near warehouses to shelve freight
for $12.25 an hour-during the pre-December rush. Last year, Reveal obtained
Amazon documents that showed warehouse injuries spiked right around Prime
Day
and Cyber Monday, holidays the tech giants created because Black Friday
wasn’t enough for them.

Indeed, the sales-and-specials competition and the pressure
it puts on workers is no longer limited to certain days. When Target announced
it would keep stores permanently closed on Thanksgiving, spinning it as a kind
of community-minded gesture, the Associated Press noted
that it’s worked out very well for retailers to expand “a
weekend shopping blitz into an extended event, with big holiday discounts
beginning as early as October.”

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