“On the shopfloor” with clothing workers in the 1990s

Publication Date01 April 2003
Date01 April 2003
AuthorJean Jenkins Boggis
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Employee Relations
Vol. 25 No. 2, 2003
pp. 168-181
#MCB UP Limited
DOI 10.1108/01425450310456460
Received April 2002
Revised July 2002
Accepted August 2002
``On the shopfloor'' with
clothing workers in
the 1990s
Jean Jenkins Boggis
European Business Management School, University of Wales,
Swansea, UK
Keywords Clothing industry, Working conditions, Industrial relations, Operational research,
United Kingdom
Abstract This paper undertakes a comparative study of two large UK clothing plants in the
1990s with earlier twentieth century studies of clothing workshops undertaken in the late 1950s
by Cunnison and Lupton, and in the late 1970s by Edwards and Scullion. Traditionally the
clothing industry is identified with a history of low wages and poor conditions of employment.
Though increasingly subject to global market pressures, research findings from this study
illuminate workplaces in the 1990s with much in common with the aforementioned historical
studies, offering working conditions that leave the clothing worker isolated, individualised and
struggling to survive.
This paper undertakes a historical review of clothing workshop studies by
Lupton (1963), Cunnison (1966) and Edwards and Scullion (1982), in order to
illuminate the context for managerial control and worker response in two
clothing workshops studied in the mid-1990s. Research findings indicate that,
at the plants studied, progressive fragmentation of work aided by technological
innovation has constrained skill levels and perfected the isolation of clothing
workers from one another, severely limiting opportunities for sociable relations
between workers and restricting the possibility for the establishment of
collective norms of worker behaviour. Along the ``shifting line'' of the frontier of
workplace relations (Goodrich, 1975, p. 62), the 1990s workshops display
significant increases in the level of direct control of workers and the
curtailment of social interaction, a factor which both Cunnison and Lupton
concluded relieved the tedium of the work itself and defused, or at least
contained, the expression of conflict (Lupton, 1963, pp. 36-7; Cunnison, 1966,
p. 148). Against a background of managerial rhetoric championing the benefits
of ``team spirit'' and human resource management (HRM) (Legge, 1995), the late
twentieth century workshops provide examples of the highest levels of
managerial control of the work process on the shopfloor.
In terms of worker response to these controls the case study plants reported
high levels of individual absence and turnover, in line with research by Lupton,
Cunnison, Edwards and Scullion and more recent findings by Lloyd and
Rawlinson (1992, p. 193). Furthermore, it was found that, in common with the
findings of the historical studies, there was no evidence to suggest that workers
collectively manipulated or ``restricted'' their output. In debating the
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