Algorithmic assembly lines

Digitalization and resistance in the retail sector

Janina Hirth and Markus Rhein

This essay is part of TNI’s Digital Futures series on Technology, Power and Emancipation’ organised in collaboration with ROAR magazine
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Maram rushes across the floor of Frankfurt’s Zara store, carrying an armload of shirts. “I am their assistant […], it gets me running”, she explains. “It” is her iPad, which is connected with the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that tracks every item in the store in real time. The system sends messages to the mobile devices, telling sales assistants where to put the clothes, how many and by when. The ERP system did not arrive overnight. First came the new till software, starting in 2016, then RFID-tags were introduced — tiny radio transponders sewn into the products to identify inventory automatically without having to scan each piece — and finally, there was the new ERP system, enabling a real-time-tracking of the clothes. “The new technologies were introduced gradually and we didn’t see the bigger picture in the beginning,” explains Maram. 

Zara claims that the digital technology will only simplify stock management and provide new customer services like “click and collect.” However, “One day, our boss called us and asked why we still haven’t put away the merchandise,” another sales assistant told us. “How would he know? All because of the RFID-tags!” 

Retail companies have gradually adopted a complex system of digital technologies that fundamentally change the organization of labor in the sector. Inditex, Zara’s parent company, has been at the forefront of digitalization, but is being  followed by other garment retail brands, such as Esprit, H&M and Primark. The introduction of digital technology is radically altering the type of work, existing command structures, working relations as well as the entire production chain.

In response, a global grassroots network of union and non-union activists called “transnationals information exchange” (tie) has been collecting information to better understand these changes. For over ten years, we have been working with garment retail workers in the ExChains network and members of the German service-sector trade union ver.di to develop a collective strategy to respond to these technological changes and fight for improved working conditions along value chains. 

Industrialization of service work

We started with interviewing members of works councils — shop-floor organizations made up of elected shop stewards that are independent from unions and are common across Europe — from various clothing retail companies to find out more about what is going on. We then discussed our first findings in seminars and meetings. One sales assistant shared how the chip was initially promoted as a way to stop theft, but then ended up changing much more, including how they worked. Many workers noted how their job felt more and more like working on an assembly line, capturing the fundamental changes in how sales assistants interact with customers and how tech shapes that

When asked about what they used to like most about their jobs, many workers described the creative freedom in presenting the merchandise, the sense of achievement they got from a satisfied customer happy with their advice on fashion or fabrics, and the camaraderie from teamwork. However, these qualified and emotional aspects of their jobs are being replaced by uninspired and repetitive tasks that remove any autonomy. Changes in the nature and organization of their work has led to a kind of digital Taylorism, which applies the logic of industrial labor to the retail sector, forcing sales assistants to follow orders dictated by technological devices and corporate-coded algorithms. It is in essence the industrialization of service work.

Digitalization is not a neutral nor predetermined process. So, digitalization within the retail sector is nothing we just “have to cope with.” Rather, for the workers in the clothing retail sector digitalization is a political process that affects their interests at multiple levels. It is a fight over control at the workplace, over the introduction of new technologies and outsourcing of certain tasks. It is about streamlining processes and staff retrenchment, deskilling and the intensification of labor that affects workers’ self-perception and health.

Online and offline shopping: changing customers and work

Key to the reorganization of the clothing retail sector has been the introduction of omni- or multi-channel options for consumers, linking online and conventional “bricks and mortar” stores. Retail brands’ advertising and distribution channels now include physical stores, online platforms, mail order and social media. Despite rumors to the contrary, clothing brands do not want to close all their physical stores, but rather to combine online and offline shopping in what is promoted as the convenience of “click and collect” – where people can order online and pick up in person. 

All these strategies to implement an increasingly digitalized shopping experience change not only customer behavior, but also city architecture as the larger brands build new stores and showrooms offering a broader range of shopping options to the customer, crowding out smaller independent shops in the process. 

The underlying concept is that customers should basically make their own choices and no longer draw on a shop assistant’s advice, relying on algorithms instead. One worker called it “digital outsourcing,” but another corrected this: “It is not outsourced to technology, no. The technology is just the means to outsource it to our customers!” Whether using an app to choose an item of clothing, an Augmented Reality Mirror (AR), or paying at a self-checkout, customers now do all this themselves. The flipside is that sales assistants, whose most valued task had been to provide a rewarding customer service, have seen this taken away — if they even retained their job. 

The customers are often forced to use the new technology because staff is reduced and busier with quantifiable tasks such as stock management rather than customer service. So, it’s not necessarily the intention or wish of the customers to engage in digitalized shopping, but often is the only option offered by big retail stores. 

Less service, more movement: streamlining and de-skilling

Given that retail work was previously labour-intensive, workers hoped that digitalization would make their jobs less stressful. But the reality proved otherwise: “Of course [we] thought it was great at the beginning. Because it was also [presented] like that, that it makes the work easier, and I mean it does. Meanwhile [we] see there has been a reduction in staff, my work has become monotonous and the workload is increasing. The goods rotate much faster in the store. This is only due to the technology,” Lidya, another sales clerk, tells us.

As well as speeding up routine tasks, workers also have to correct technical errors, such as wrong orders or inventory mistakes. Companies seem to assume that their technology functions perfectly, and avoids human error. However digital errors place even more stress on workers. Incorrect pricing or stock information in ZARA’s own mobile-shopping-App  upsets some customers whothen blame the sales staff, who have no influence on the information. This creates conflict between customers and shop assistants,  changing the relationship from a normally rewarding one to a negative one.

Workers taking initiatives or showing creativity is out of the question: everything is determined by a small team of designers at headquarters assisted by algorithms. Maram shows us her device: “You see, there is table X, and item Y is missing, which is at location Z. Now you can go there, pick it up and put it there.” And indeed, it is as easy as that: there is no need to know the locations, or even how to read. “And this takes away the fun in the job,” Maram explains. “Being creative, thinking about presenting the merchandise, all this is done automatically. We are just here to stow away the merchandise.” As another worker at Esprit put it: “So basically, the most important aspect of your work falls away. The sad part is, you don’t need to know anything anymore.” This reduces the sales assistants’ role to being “a better mailman” or “a clean-up person for shirts.” Digitalization, streamlining and de-skilling go hand in hand.

In some stores, customers are able to browse the entire store’s collection in digitalized changing rooms, using a touchscreen inside the mirror. They can order items of clothing in different sizes or colors and look for matching accessories. These are then delivered by the sales assistants. This technology  requires either more employees to find and put these items aside, or it results in more work for existing staff — it is not hard to guess which. “It’s Chevy and stress, it’s like a rat race,” one worker tells us. Some employees are afraid to take a toilet break because they might be paged up to three times.

The volume of work has also increased. As management sees it, by outsourcing certain tasks to technology, there is more time for workers to perform other assignments. But as the introduction of technology came hand in hand with a decrease in the workforce and the introduction of new activities, the workload in fact increased rather than decreased. RFID and the new ERP systems, for example, show more precisely which clothes sell best where, allowing for much more targeted stock allocation. This increases the volume of merchandise at particular sites, with the expectation of increasing revenues. In addition, the merchandise management system requires clothes now to be rearranged on a daily basis, whereas before it was more often done fortnightly. If the merchandise sells better in another branch  or is ordered online, this also has to be prepared for dispatch by the store employees.

Staff end up carrying stacks of clothes through the store every day following the latest algorithmic instructions. They do have physical assistance systems such as mobile clothes rails, but as one sales clerk noted “with a certain work intensity, you think twice: will you do it this slow, correct way, or do you feel that it needs to be done, so I just do it.” In other words, they do not use the physical assistance systems in order to keep up with the speed of so-called ‘digital assistance’. Clearly, technical devices and algorithmic tools are not about assisting the employees.

The result has been a rising sickness rate among workers. “It’s a never-ending story of cleaning up, but it is never clean. I carry away clothes but there is always more piling up in front of the changing rooms. This is not  good  for the psyche,” Lidya explains. Digitalization has become not “just an incredible physical, but also a psychological burden,” a Zara works council reported.

Digital control and power relations

The earlier example of a manager keeping check of the workers from afar hints at new forms of surveillance and control. RFID and ERP systems enable managers not only to monitor the stock, but also to track workers’ movements in real time. In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation and labor legislation make it illegal to track and use personal data. But these regulations do not cover aggregate data on the movement of merchandise, which enables a (real time) comparison of how fast tasks are accomplished and services provided at different hours or shifts in a single store or across branches. This pitches staff and branches against each other in a race to the bottom without needing to have data on individual speed and behavoir.

“We are constantly drilled: it’s always just ‘quick, quick, quick, faster, even faster… who is fastest?’ That way, we are competing against each other,” Maram says. The mere fact that all movements can be tracked creates an atmosphere of pressure, self-policing and mutual control among the workers. This may not show on the surface, but is deeply internalized in how staff think and behave in a situation wherein digital control becomes increasingly normalized.

Digitalization has also opened the door to new forms of precarity. Who is or is not formally employed becomes blurred under German labor law, which has led to some tasks given to contractors with worse working conditions than formal employees. The remaining staff are also pressured to be more flexible and to work the hours the company’s algorithms calculate are most efficient. In January 2021, H&M announced it would fire 800 staff in Germany in its attempts to speed up the digitalization process, getting rid of mainly less flexible single parents and disabled employees.

All this leads to conflicts over working hours, and divisions among workers as permanent staff regard outsourced workers as inferior, making it harder to build solidarity. One worker comments: “When you know that they might be gone after a week or so, you don’t memorize their face or name. It’s just someone who annoys you, because they don’t know how to do their work properly.”

Work places become increasingly competitive, with workers competing with each other, controlling and sanctioning each others’ behavior and even snitching to management to avoid being being punished themselves. “It’s not the store managers who do that, and it’s not the managers. It’s the colleagues themselves who do it, and that’s the hard part,” one worker tells us.

This process leads to isolation and individualization at the workplace at a moment when collective organization is more critical than ever. The staff is no longer a homogeneous community, but rather is split into core staff, contract workers and temp workers. According to older staff, there was a much better team spirit and a sense of unity between the workers 10 or 20 years ago. That solidarity led at the time to the formation of strong works councils.

The pandemic speeding up digitalization

Government measures following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 pushed a lot of work into the digital realm. Digitalization is now the name of the game. Any concerns about online shopping or the dissolution of work–life boundaries have been silenced for the sake of keeping up production during the pandemic.

Companies that already had a strong online presence have reaped the benefits. The garment retail sector — along with most others — lost much of its normal trade as many countries imposed lockdowns, but digital leader Zara enjoyed a healthy turnover via its online stores. Conversely, with no online presence, Primark had no revenue. This has increased the power differentials among competing brands. It has also led to a big digitalization push across  retail and other sectors.

The changes are not limited to the streamlining of physical stores or the technological upgrading of the retail sector. Zara aims to develop the IT architecture to integrate online and offline sales as well as to increase control of the entire value chain, from choosing suppliers for certain items or collections, to organising logistics, to deciding on the items to be sold in which stores. New products are advertised in advance, and algorithms try to predict the demand, so that productioncan respond more quickly to demand. This is supposed to lead to greater efficiency. The downside, of course, is that workers along the supply chain will be expected to work more flexibly, leading to more precarity and new challenges for organizing in the workplace. On the flip side, it could also bring people along the production chain closer together and facilitate cross-border collective action.

Loss of autonomy and the quest to regain it

Everything described above reduces workers’ autonomy on the shop floor. This is the subjective part of the industrialization process:  Autonomy, creativity and agency have disappeared, leading to an experience of severe alienation among the workers.

A first step to (re)gain autonomy in the workplace is to politicize these issues and see them as contestable rather than unstoppable developments.  To help facilitate this, we visited workers’ assemblies — meetings initiated by the work councils to discuss important issues with the entire workforce — in stores all over Germany to exchange experiences and to mobilize workers. We illustrated our understanding of the digitalization process with short videos, including footage of some of the interviews we conducted, which helped open up discussions about working conditions and how to shape digitalization according to workers’ own interests.

It was crucial for us to engage all the employees and not just the works councils. A council officer enjoys legal rights like better job protection and paid leave for political work, but they sometimes lack strong links with other staff, while in order to put pressure on the company the entire workforce needs to be mobilized. The companies have no interest in allowing this, so for workers to be proactive means insisting on having a say.

Digitalization, health and the quality of life

One arena that engaged workers was in discussion of working conditions and health. To encourage retail workers to discuss the links, we used a tool called “body mapping.” We adapted it from our counterparts in Brazil and Columbia who developed tools that start with subjective experiences of workers and connect them with both their working conditions and exploitation in general. Using those tools, they had been able to identify certain health issues among workers on orange plantations in Brazil caused directly by the work, then drafted specific demands for improvements and put pressure on the management to achieve the first collective labor contract with one of the big producers of orange juice. 

During such a body mapping, workers come to realize that their health problems are not the result of individual inadequacies, but are a collective issue. They see that it is their work that makes them sick, debunking the discourse that staying healthy is a personal responsibility. When workers understand health issues stem from the way work is organized, it becomes clear that doing more sports in your spare time or being given an apple at work will neither address the problems nor relieve the burdens. Understanding this sets the basis for a common practice and culture of solidarity.

Workers in the retail sector report for example frequent headaches and sore eyes because of the dry air and the screens behind the cash points, tendinitis and herniated disks from repeatedly carrying too many clothes at once, or painful feet from standing for long periods and bladder infections from not being able to take a break. They also identify psychological issues, like stress, lethargy andeven depression owing to the constant multitasking, lack of time and commands from their technical “assistants”, poor management, aggressive customers, and colleagues not showing any solidarity. Digitalization intensifies the issues: “The sickness rate is rising, because it is both physically and psychologically extremely burdensome”, a Zara works council reports.

Health and the workplace

A second step involves the mapping of the working environment, in which all the tasks and processes the workers have to perform are collected and analyzed. This highlights the volume and the pace of the work in order to track the specific connections between working processes, organizational structures, technical devices and health issues. For example, the works council at a Zara store decided to focus on all the associated tasks with managing the changing rooms, from counting the items of clothes each customer is trying on to keeping the changing rooms clean, which brought home how many simultaneous tasks were being carried out by only one or two sales assistants. 

Armed with this analysis, some workers confronted the management, which hugely raised their self-esteem, illustrating how rank-and-file pressure is built collectively in the workplace. Emancipation depends on rank-and-file workers becoming active subjects, which is also important for an effective strategy to shape digitalization processes in the workers’ own interest. Indeed, without their pro-active participation, workers are unlikely to have any say in the decision-making processes at all. Workplace mapping also helps formulate demands that can be taken to the management or integrated into collective bargaining.

Intensification due to the pandemic

Inevitably, the COVID-19-pandemic changed everything. Without meeting in person, it was impossible to fully discuss the implications of our initial research, much less mobilize the workforce. When some shops re-opened temporarily in Spring 2020, health issues were paramount to workers. Employers merely sought to implement government-imposed measures: mandatory face masks, provision of hand sanitizer, physical distancing and a maximum number of customers allowed in the shop. Other measures like air filters were considered too expensive. Some workers at H&Mreported that their employers wrapped a bit of cling wrap around the counter and did not provide workers with face masks. 

It became obvious that the management often cares little about staff health. Works councils are therefore pushing for proactive pro-worker action. In early 2020 tie began to facilitate online video conferences for workers, although discussions were more limited compared to the pre-COVID in-person gatherings. Issues of mental and physical health in relation to digital restructuring made way to narrower discussions about COVID-19 and safety.  At the time of writing, in March 2021, we have resumed physical or hybrid meetings and restarted structured mapping processes. Workers have also  designed comic strips to gain attention for their situation and are sharing their demands with other workers across Europe. Slowly, mobilization starts again.

New forms of trade unionism and engagement with digitalization

From the beginning of our discussions on digitalization and worker health in the retail sector, we have observed a change in the demeanor of both shop-floor workers and trade unions. While most of the larger unions in all sectors have typically discussed digitalization of the workplace in terms of job losses, national competitiveness and data protection, we wanted to examine the fundamental restructuring of retail work. We included ver.di officials as well as shop stewards, and had exchanges with colleagues from Zara from Austria, France, Italy and Spain who have similar experiences. 

The process led the retail section of ver.di to adopt a different approach. They agree that traditional collective bargaining focusing on the quantitative aspects of work — a cornerstone of (German) trade unionism — is inadequate to tackle mental and physical health issues and the impacts of digitalization. As a result, they began to adopt a more qualitative approach and opened up spaces for the tie network to engage with more colleagues and strengthen its international work.

Broaden the international movement and shape a human-centered digital future

Together with ver.di, we hope to extend the mapping process to many more workers assemblies in garment retail stores across Germany. We want to strengthen collective bargaining from the store to the sector level. The goal is to establish a common process along the value chain on health and new technologies.

Through our research and discussions with workers we are developing worker-based criteria for companies who wish to introduce algorithmic IT systems. So far, we have established five key questions that are crucial to understand the intended implementation of technologies from a workers’ perspective:

  1. (qualifications/de-skilling)?
  2. 1.What are the effects on work intensity and definitions of performance?
  3. 2.What are the effects on working hours (location, duration, delimitation)?
  4. 3.What are the effects on the type of employment (precarity, outsourcing, etc.)?
  5. and third-party control, indirect control, work pressure, leadership, psychological pressure)?

With these questions and the help of the above-described tools, we want to further understand the companies’ plans in as much detail as possible and influence the process in our interest. For example, H&M is pushing the works councils to accept large-scale introduction of digital tools. Based on the experience of digitalization processes at Zara, workers are warned to take the matter very seriously and not simply to agree. Zara, as part of their digitalization strategy, is closing 1,200 stores worldwide not because they are unprofitable, but because they do not align with the new corporate concept, which focus on big flagship stores and greater integration of online and offline shopping, turning other stores into distribution centers. Zara’s overarching project is the creation of an Inditex Open Platform that is supposed to integrate inventory, purchasing, distribution and orders worldwide in real-time. This will give management even more digital control over every step of their value chain.  

Within Europe, we intend to work with our counterparts in Austria, France and Spain to develop a common position on store closures, digitalization and health. We also want to intensify the collaboration along the entire production chain, since this digital system will also impact sites of production, transportation and distribution everywhere. With factory closures at the beginning of the pandemic, restructuring in South Asia has already started. Many garment workers were laid off in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, intensifying the workload of the remaining employees. In Bangalore, mostly female workers and our partner unions GATWU and NTUI have been struggling to re-open a site of Gokaldas Exports, a supplier for H&M, for almost a year and finally 1257 workers have won back their jobs and as well as union recognition with the support of workers from H&M in Austria, Germany and other countries.

The production process in Asia is also undergoing  digitalization. Our aim is thus to use our international network to facilitate knowledge exchange, dialogue and solidarity to support more international union action and bargaining power around these changes.


The experience of the German retail sector shows that “digitalization” is more than just the implementation of technological innovations, it is also the reorganization of the labour process, with increasing precarization, automation and data analysis. Digitalization has to be understood as an instrument of power and domination that we either have to seize or contest wherever we can. That way, we can decide what we need from technology to make our lives better not worse, our work easier not more stressful, and our relationships more relevant and not more alienated. By bringing the issues of digitalization back to our physical world, by referring to ourselves and our health, rather than only our income we might have a way to engage in this process, starting at the workplace but also going beyond it. 

Once we have started there we can also start to address wider questions including: How do we address the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry? How will the rise of online shopping — which has exploded during the pandemic and is likely to continue as overall working patterns change — further affect city centers? What will happen to public spaces then? How might the experience of the pandemic  – particularly, for the hundreds of thousands who lost their job or livelihood, or faced reduced hours, redundancy or bankruptcy – point to the need for a new way tostructure how we produce and distribute products and value socially for the good of all.

À propos des auteurs

Janina Hirth and Markus Rhein are members of the tie network (transnationals information exchange), a global grassroots network of workers active in workplaces and communities.