Inside Logistics: Organization, Work, Distinctions


This inter­view was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Com­mon­ware on Sep­tem­ber 10, 2013.

Com­mon­ware: Let us begin with the sit­u­a­tion in the logis­tics indus­try in Italy. You have high­light­ed a few times how Ital­ian busi­ness­es invest lit­tle in inno­va­tion, infor­ma­tion sys­tems, auto­mat­ic stor­age sys­tems and net­works, and rely instead on the hyper-exploita­tion of low-skill labor, or those paid as though they were low-skill even if they have medi­um or high­er lev­els of edu­ca­tion (think of many migrants) – to give a snap­shot of the par­a­dig­mat­ic traits of Ital­ian busi­ness. How do things stand now in the logis­tics sec­tor in Italy? What is chang­ing in terms of inno­va­tion in this sec­tor?

Ser­gio Bologna: I do not think that any­thing has changed, notwith­stand­ing some expan­sion, in some parts of the coun­try, of ware­hous­es and logis­tics plat­forms.1 The expan­sion is often illu­so­ry because it is often a mat­ter of mov­ing from pre-exist­ing loca­tions. In the last three years, logis­tics com­pa­nies that had their ware­hous­es out­side an inter­port, or were pre­vi­ous­ly in an inter­port but left because it was cheap­er else­where, have trans­ferred to the Bologna and Pad­ua inter­ports, for exam­ple.2

Today the prices of ware­hous­es of excel­lent qual­i­ty, for sale or rent, are some­times equal to or even low­er than the prices in the less mod­ern ware­hous­es of a few years ago. The cri­sis is real­ly about the unwill­ing­ness of man­agers or buy­ers to accept cer­tain prices, and in par­tic­u­lar the unwill­ing­ness to enter into long-term con­tracts, so that the own­ers of the prop­er­ty live with the anx­i­ety of see­ing the ware­house emp­ty after a year, forced to go in search of a new ten­ant. There­fore, the open­ing of new plat­forms or new ware­hous­es often coin­cides with the clos­ing of oth­ers, aban­doned because they are obso­lete. The ware­hous­es of class A, class B, or C cor­re­spond to dif­fer­ent mar­kets. In addi­tion, you need to keep in mind the dif­fer­ent roles of the key fig­ures of this mar­ket, in par­tic­u­lar the so-called “devel­op­ers,” who rep­re­sent a cru­cial link between land­ed prop­er­ty or real estate and the actu­al user, the one who man­ages the inven­to­ry on behalf of the com­pa­ny or on behalf of third par­ties. In this sit­u­a­tion, although the mar­ket is not as sta­ble as in cer­tain indus­tri­al sec­tors, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that the lessee or pur­chas­er of a ware­house would make the cost­ly invest­ments in advanced tech­nolo­gies – except for some mar­ket seg­ments, such as phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and auto­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ing, where it is inevitable. So con­tin­ues the inten­sive exploita­tion of the work­force.

Logis­tics is an indus­try with a high­ly com­plex orga­ni­za­tion of pro­duc­tion and labor. Bear­ing in mind the extreme dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of what we call the logis­tics sys­tem, what are the main forms of labor that keep it run­ning? In which nodes and par­tic­u­lar links in the chain is val­oriza­tion con­cen­trat­ed?

Before we talk about work, you must have a basic idea of ​​which sec­tors we call logis­tics. First of all, we should dis­tin­guish indus­tri­al logis­tics from dis­tri­b­u­tion logis­tics. Ger­many is the world leader, because it has devel­oped indus­tri­al logis­tics to the utmost, with indus­tri­al qual­i­ty stan­dards, thus requir­ing ade­quate invest­ment and sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­nol­o­gy. It pro­vides sup­port in the choice of pro­duc­tion plan­ning, mar­ket­ing, and loca­tion of pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties; it pro­vides sup­port in the selec­tion of sup­pli­ers, and some­times get to have its say in the design of the prod­uct.

The oth­er thing is dis­tri­b­u­tion logis­tics, in turn divid­ed into high-end dis­tri­b­u­tion and low-lev­el dis­tri­b­u­tion, which con­sists essen­tial­ly in bring­ing goods to stores accord­ing to a log­ic and para­me­ters set by the own­er of the goods or the man­u­fac­tur­er. There may be mul­ti-client dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­nies that have a finan­cial pow­er much high­er than that of their clients, and thus are able to orga­nize dis­tri­b­u­tion, with oth­er val­ue-added ser­vices attached, in con­junc­tion with the client, and some­times accord­ing to their own cri­te­ria. But there are also dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­nies that sim­ply col­lect the car­tons or pal­lets and deliv­er them to the point of sale. Logis­tics can nev­er be under­stood from out­side the ware­house, only by com­ing inside and look­ing at the tech­niques employed, the equip­ment and the orga­ni­za­tion of work does one under­stand if we find our­selves faced with some­thing that belongs to the new econ­o­my, in the real sense of the term, or that resem­bles the sweat­shops of Bangladesh.3 There is there­fore no orga­ni­za­tion of stan­dard­ized labor with spe­cif­ic fig­ures, because every com­mod­i­ty sec­tor has its speci­fici­ty in indus­tri­al logis­tics, and because in dis­tri­b­u­tion logis­tics, not all goods are sub­ject to the same treat­ment (think only of per­ish­able prod­ucts, the cold chain4 or dan­ger­ous and tox­ic prod­ucts). Speak­ing in the gener­ic sense of “logis­tics” does not lead us any­where. We have to start with the fun­da­men­tal dis­tinc­tion between dis­tri­b­u­tion logis­tics and indus­tri­al logis­tics, we have to iden­ti­fy the dif­fer­ent indus­tri­al sec­tors that require a spe­cif­ic logis­tics, being care­ful to dis­tin­guish the inter­nal­ly orga­nized phas­es of the cycle and those that are out­sourced, assigned through out­sourc­ing to a spe­cial­ist. Then you have to deal with dis­tri­b­u­tion logis­tics with its char­ac­ter­is­tics for spe­cif­ic prod­ucts, always remem­ber­ing that the three basic com­po­nents of a logis­tics cycle are: the man­age­ment of orders, ware­hous­ing, trans­porta­tion, with the last two cov­er­ing at least 50% of the total cost. It should be a labor of in-depth inves­ti­ga­tion. Out of 40 or 50 logis­tics com­pa­nies estab­lished in an inter­port as big as Bologna you can also find 40 or 50 dif­fer­ent mod­els.

The last few years, espe­cial­ly the last one, have wit­nessed in Italy what can be defined as a cycle of strug­gles of logis­tics work­ers, in par­tic­u­lar migrants. They fight against the coop­er­a­tive sys­tem, which – as you’ve point­ed out – con­sti­tute a sys­tem of black­mail and hyper-exploita­tion, and are born and die quick­ly and in a fraud­u­lent way. These coop­er­a­tives are often per­me­at­ed by or use parts of orga­nized crime and the Mafia. What weight do you think these strug­gles have?

I do not know if you can speak of a cycle of strug­gles yet. How­ev­er, they were very impor­tant because for the first time they unveiled this sec­tor which is lit­tle-known and much dis­cussed (almost always inap­pro­pri­ate­ly). What they have achieved, I don’t know. In some places they haven’t moved any­thing – with this absurd idol­a­try of the mar­ket ele­ments of inci­vil­i­ty have root­ed them­selves so deeply, even in some union­ized quar­ters, that one part, small I hope, of the diverse world of the coun­ter­par­ty sees the solu­tion only in vio­lent repres­sion. One part, which is the major­i­ty, thinks it can get away with dec­la­ra­tions of intent, mem­o­ran­da of under­stand­ing and con­fer­ences; anoth­er side – aware even before the strikes of hav­ing tak­en things too far – sees that it has to change its tune. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the gen­er­al back­ground con­di­tions are not favor­able. The Let­ta gov­ern­ment is a real dis­as­ter from this point of view, worse than the Mon­ti-Fornero gov­ern­ment, not only because he lives under the black­mail of Berlus­coni and is appar­ent­ly even hap­py to endure this black­mail, but because in this way he can make reac­tionary pol­i­cy, which is now in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s blood. But why does he con­tin­ue to think that only flex­i­bil­i­ty at entry rais­es employ­ment, repeat­ing the mis­take made by all gov­ern­ments from the Treu Law onwards.6 He there­fore legit­i­mates the exploita­tion of the labor force and does not open his mouth on the issue of legal­i­ty. As for the logis­tics inter­ests in the gov­ern­ing par­ty, about which he talks plen­ty, it is clear from the unfor­tu­nate choice of the Munic­i­pal­i­ty and the Province of Bologna to sell their con­trol­ling inter­est in the Bologna inter­port com­pa­ny, a pub­lic com­pa­ny that was use­ful and which will be sold for a pit­tance to an on-call real estate adven­tur­er. The prof­its were not rein­vest­ed; they pre­ferred to fall back on being indebt­ed to the bank (to make some banker friend hap­py?). Thus, the inter­port finds itself with an expo­sure that eats all the prof­its, with inter­est. A clear­er dis­play of the igno­rance of a local rul­ing class is hard to find. There­fore, the strug­gles in this key area will raise the bar, will have to involve the world of trans­port, will have to cre­ate a wide front, oth­er­wise they will end up being crushed.

– Trans­lat­ed by Salar Mohan­desi. The trans­la­tor would like to thank Asad Haider, Evan Calder Williams, and Anna Cur­cio for check­ing the draft.

  1. Translator’s note: a plat­form can be defined as an “area with­in which all activ­i­ties relat­ing to trans­port, logis­tics and the dis­tri­b­u­tion of goods, both for nation­al and inter­na­tion­al tran­sit, are car­ried out by var­i­ous oper­a­tors. It is run by a sin­gle body, either pub­lic or pri­vate, and is equipped with all the pub­lic facil­i­ties to car­ry out the above men­tioned oper­a­tions,” Euro­pean Asso­ci­a­tion of Freight Vil­lages EUROPLATFORMS, quot­ed by Erick Leal and Gabriel Pérez Salas in “Logis­tic plat­forms: con­cep­tu­al ele­ments and the role of the pub­lic sec­tor,” FAL Bul­letin 274, no. 6 (2009). The authors also add their own, sim­pler def­i­n­i­tion: “a logis­tic plat­form can be defined as a spe­cialised area with the infra­struc­ture and ser­vices required for co-modal trans­porta­tion and added val­ue ser­vices, where dif­fer­ent agents coor­di­nate their activ­i­ties to ben­e­fit the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the prod­ucts mak­ing use of the infra­struc­ture.” 

  2. Translator’s note: an inter­port can be defined as “a com­mon user facil­i­ty locat­ed in the hin­ter­land of one or sev­er­al sea­ports where ser­vices are avail­able to car­ri­ers and ship­pers such as trans­ship­ping, cus­toms clear­ance and inspec­tion, tem­po­rary stor­age, tag­ging, and sort­ing,” Sten Thore and Fedele Ian­none, “The Inter­port: A Logis­tics Mod­el and an Appli­ca­tion to the Dis­tri­b­u­tion of Mar­itime Con­tain­ers,” Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Infor­ma­tion Sys­tems and Sup­ply Chain Man­age­ment 4, no. 4 (2012). 

  3. Translator’s note: “new econ­o­my” and “sweat­shops” are in Eng­lish in the orig­i­nal. 

  4. Translator’s note: a cold chain is a sup­ply chain of stor­age and dis­tri­b­u­tion which main­tains a giv­en tem­per­a­ture range, there­by pre­serv­ing those com­modi­ties, like frozen foods, which require a con­trolled tem­per­a­ture. 

  5. Translator’s note: a form of sub­con­tract­ing in Italy, in which work­ers are employed as “asso­ciates” and there­fore are not pro­tect­ed by labor reg­u­la­tions. 

  6. Translator’s note: the “Treu Law” of 1997 intro­duced tem­po­rary con­tracts and altered the rules for fixed-term con­tracts in Italy, includ­ing “appren­tice­ships” for young work­ers first enter­ing the labor mar­ket, with the goal of reduc­ing unem­ploy­ment. 

Author of the article

participated in Potere Operaio and Primo Maggio. He now works as a freelance consultant on transportation and logistics.