Danish Truck Drivers and Globalization

Danish Truck Drivers and Globalization

von Sisse Grøn

Introduction and methods

In order to study safety culture and safety practice in the transport sector, I spent six months driving with 16 employees of a medium sized transport company - The Best Haulage Contactor. Certain aspects of the truck drivers work life made a strong impression on me, even though they were not directly linked to safety; their irregular working hours, the use of various forms of employment and the absence of drivers with immigrant backgrounds. I became interested in examining these aspects, suspecting that they are not limited to one company, but symptomatic of truck drivers work conditions in general, forming a structural pattern. I have examined my material empirically; and will briefly account for my interpretation in this paper. I argue that flexibility and fragmentation are the structures that characterize the truck drivers´ work conditions and eventually compare my account to the work on globalization done by Jonathan Friedman and Manuel Castells.

Data and results

The company is as flexible as possible towards customers. They hire outsourcers to meet the customers' demands in order to be able to accept any order offered irrespective of size and notice.

Flexibility on a wide front is also expected of the drivers; working hours are not fixed, the tasks unpredictable, a working day's agenda is rarely known in advance and few work procedures are outlined. As a result the drivers face various unforeseen incidents and circumstances that need solving, during a work day.

Such flexibility is possible due to a tradition of fiddling; with schedules, regulations, competences etc., which also helps to make the drivers more accepting of the idea that they can be lent to other companies, work overtime, or undertake tasks they have no idea how to carry out - since fiddling is considered to be standard.

A result of the drivers´ work conditions is, that it (to a large extent) ends up being their own responsibility to care for their health, safety and family life, since they are not stopped from working overtime and taking risks, but encouraged or perhaps even pressured to do so.

I encountered a narrative of a community of border- crossing drivers who took pride in knowing how to manage in any European country, combined with a negative attitude towards immigrants. Some also suspected immigrants of stealing goods from their trucks. It was a puzzling experience.

The terms "flexibility" and "fragmentation" serves to describe the structures of the truck drivers work life. Flexibility covers flexibility as a strategy and a demand as well as the fiddling tradition, while fragmentation covers the suspicion towards immigrants and the individualized responsibility.

Discussion

The two tendencies I have recognised in my data; flexibility and fragmentation, are crucial in the globalization discourse.

The anthropologist Jonathan Friedman describes the tendencies, others call "globalization", in a framework of a global system approach. He argues that phenomena such as globalization, cosmopolitan elites and regional minorities are structural features of the nation state system. According to Friedman the growing capitalization and commercialization of our North Western societies, leads to increased individualization. This is parallel to my observation of individualized responsibility and fragmentation in the truck drivers work conditions. In times of globalization, as Friedman describes it, collectiveness declines while individualization increase and a number of possible identities appear; migrant, regional, native, national etc. in a sort of reversed assimilation process. I find that a tendency of reversed assimilation explains (some) truck drivers´ negative perspective on immigrants. Thus I argue that the reversed assimilation process means that people are focused on ethnic identity in the constitution of the self, while earlier they might have defined themselves in terms of class or nationality or gender perhaps.

In contrast to Friedman, the sociologist Manuel Castells thinks that globalization is a brand new phenomenon that transforms our conditions fundamentally. He focuses on the empirical conditions for- and consequences of globalization. Castells predicts that self-employment and mixed modes of employment will mount as networks and flexibility will come to characterize the new trade organisations. The more globalization the more intertwined and border crossing the production and management networks will become. Accordingly the similarity in the workforce's conditions between states with different level of wages and social security grows as well as the similarity in qualification and technology level. This means new opportunities for the companies´ workforce strategy: 1) downsizing, 2) outsourcing 3) the use of temporary contracts, part-timers or suppliers from the informal economy, 4) automation and 5) the possibility of making the workforce accept tighter conditions in order to keep their jobs.

The image given by Castells corresponds with my account of the transport sector: flexibility strategy, many self-employed, mixed employment forms and outsourcing.

But my data does not indicate that the transport companies are organised in the networking way Castells describes.

Castells also argues that we are witnessing a profound transformation of work since the new forms of organisation segment work and fragment societies, leading to individualisation of the work process. This individualisation has four main characteristics:

• The working hours expand 35 - 40 hours a week
• Project directed work without future commitment reduces job stability.
• Localization is affected by the growing number of employees working outside the workplace
• Modified social contact between employer and employee.

This characterization seems to fit my description well. Castells talks of new kinds of sectors, with finance and IT in front, sectors that are very different from a service sector like transportation. But in spite of the differences in organisational constitution, the transport company I came to know resemble the new sectors, described by Castells, in their work patterns.

Castells considers globalization to be almost entirely new and here to stay. Whereas Friedman outlines a wave that might pass, while the nation state system and its structures will last.

I have argued that the phenomena I was confronted with among truck drivers are structural and symptomatic of the globalization's work patterns. But the fact that something is structural does not imply that it cannot be changed, if we keep the classic discussion of structure versus agency in mind. A structure is a representation of reality and also our knowledge of reality, but not constancy.

Literature

  • Castells M. Netværkssamfundet og dets opståen. København: Hans Reitzels forlag, 2003.
  • Friedman J. Cultural Identity & Global Process. Sage Publications, 1994.
  • Friedman J. "Ch. 12: Globalization." Ed. Nugent D and Vincent J. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2004. 179-97.