‘Labour on the move’

Logistics work and spatio-legal dynamics in the EU

Andrea Iossa, Lund University

Logistics work is characterised by a broad diversity. Working activities in logistics include a wide set of jobs that ranges from warehouse workers and seafarers to dockworkers, truck drivers and delivery couriers. However, they all share the participation to the processes of circulation of goods and products, i.e. the core of the logistics activity. This feature contributes in creating a close bond between logistics work and space – as also highlighted by studies and research produced in the last decade in critical geography. In this sense, logistics work can be conceptualised as ‘labour on the move’. However, working activities in logistics express different relationships with space. In the case of warehousing, for instance, working activities are spatially bound but they engage with the movement of goods, whereas transport work has an intrinsic mobility that encompasses also the working space, i.e. a truck on a road. In the context of the EU, the relationship of logistics work with space is however challenged by the interplay with the regulatory framework of EU internal market law. The possibility for companies to delocalise and outsource where labour is cheaper and to move goods across national borders under the scope of the EU economic freedoms, produces spatio-legal dynamics that affect working conditions and labour rights of logistics workers. For instance, a warehouse can be re-located in countries where it is more profitable, while transport services can be outsourced to companies established in countries other than those where the services will be performed. Consequently, working and employment conditions of logistics workers undergo a process of determination that challenges the fundamental principle of territoriality in labour law.

In light of the above, this paper explores the relationship between law and space in determining working conditions and labour rights of logistics workers in the EU. By applying a legal geographic perspective, the paper aims at disclosing how working conditions and labour rights of European logistics workers are determined by the interaction between law (including labour law and EU internal market law) and space in the EU internal market. This context is characterised by a mismatch between a uniform regulatory framework concerning the exercise of cross-border company operations such as delocalisation and outsourcing, and the diversity of labour law regimes. Accordingly, the paper discusses the spatio-legal implications of this interplay for logistics work.  The paper addresses this question by exploring the spatial attributes of logistics work, in particular of warehouse workers and truck drivers, and the spatial foundations of EU internal market law in relation with the application of labour law regulation.

The paper is an attempt to address the issues of logistics and logistics work from a labour law perspective. It is part of a postdoctoral research project that investigates working conditions and labour rights of logistics workers and the related legal strategies of trade unions by exploring the tensions between company cross-border operations of delocalisation and outsourcing and the territorial application of labour rules within the EU internal market. The project is designed to complement the analysis of legal sources with semi-structured interviews with legal advisors of European and national trade unions that organise logistics workers. Eventually, this would fill a gap in labour law scholarship. While logistics and logistics work constitute a well-established topic of research in fields such as critical geography, labour studies, and more recently, industrial relations, it is instead still an unexplored topic in the labour law field. Yet the logistics sector includes all the challenges that labour is facing in the contemporary transformation of global economy: the fragmentation of working conditions due to outsourcing and subcontracting, the vulnerability of migrant workers who constitute a major force in logistics labour, and the automation and digitalisation of production, including the issue related to the so-called gig economy, that increase pressures over workers’ productivity, among others. From being a marginal sector in the economy, logistics is now the paradigm of the post-Fordist world of employment and labour relations. Accordingly, logistics work represents a privileged observation point for understanding the current evolution of labour law regulation and its re-spatialisation. Within the EU, the spatial attributes of the working activities in the logistics sector and the spatial connotation of the regulatory framework of EU internal market law have implications for the working conditions and labour rights of the workers and influence the strategies that European trade unions undertaken.