Temp work at Nokia Bochum, 2007

Prol-Position on casualisation, work and agency staff at the Bochum Nokia plant in Germany, 2007.

The company
Nokia has been producing mobile phones in Bochum since 1989. In 2005 the plant manufactured 100,000 to 150,000 mobile phones per day for the global market. About 2,500 permanents are employed, over 500 less than four or five years ago. The screen-production was shut down and the complete logistic was outsourced to the company Exel, which now organises the delivery for the production lines and the storage. In addition there are many temp workers from various agencies in the plant (Adecco, Randstad, WIR, Allbecon, Persona).

Like most of the other companies of the sector (see Flextronics) Nokia cut many jobs in 2001 and re-located many jobs within the plant. There have been various 'political' labour court cases, because permanent workers accused the company that they sacked people, when they already knew that temp work would be increased on a constant basis. Left-wing or critical unionists complain about the fact that so far it has not been possible to establish a union or workers group inside the plant which could have an oppositional position against the management. The existing workers' representation usually retreats when attacked or else collaborates with the management. For example the chairman of the works council, Hammer, boasts that the works council tried to win over the Nokia management for Nokia to become the first company which implements the ERA wage scheme. ERA means that each individual work place is re-assessed and assigned to a new wage band. Most of the 'unskilled' production workers would have to put up with wage cuts and at Nokia most of the jobs fall under this category. About the severely controlled and pre-described work organisation and the very flexible working time Hammer says: "The creativity of our product has to be reflected in the creative solutions found for our work conditions".

At the notice board the union group at Nokia informs about re-structuring measures demanded by the management, allegedly necessary in order to secure jobs. Some of them had already been implemented: the number of temp workers agreed on in the collective contract has been increased from 550 to 800 and starting from autumn 2005, to 1,200. This means that more or less every second worker in the production department is a temp. All extra payments that exceed the general collective contract for the metal sector are cut, which is supposed to result in a 20 per cent drop in labour costs.

For a permanent production worker this would mean a monthly wage cut of about 70 to 120 Euros. The total monthly wage before tax is between 1,600 and 2,200 Euros. The working-time is planned to be increased from 33.5 hours to 35 hours, although due to overtime and extra-shifts people usually work longer hours anyway. The works council asks the workers to refuse to cash in holidays: because of the low market activity last year a lot of people have 'minus-hours' in their working time accounts.

The company is asking to compensate these minus-hours with holidays. The management threatens with official negotiations with the metal union about a 40-hours week without wage compensation (five hours longer working-time per week) in case that there will be resistance against further cuts from the local workers representatives. The works council informs that due to its allegedly weak position it will refer to the worse general collective contract, as well, instead of trying to defend the better 'in-house' contract. A very interesting, recent and detailed study on the impact of global mobile phone production on workers and environment can be found here: http://www.somo.nl/html/paginas/pdf/High_Cost_of_Calling_nov_2006_EN.pdf

Hiring Process
The local temp agency WIR advertised that they would hire people for a company assembling locks for the car industry. In the office a lot of Iranian, Pakistani and Syrian students are waiting, the agency has sent them to work at Nokia. At 2pm the temp manager signs your work contract and you can start working at Nokia the same night. When you listen to his phone calls or the conversations of the students you soon find out that a lot of people did not come to work today, that they have difficulties to find replacements. This might be due to the low wages; you get 6.80 Euro per hour before tax and no extra money for travel expenses. Fifteen years ago a helper on the construction site would not have received a lower wage, but general living costs were probably 30 to 40 per cent lower. WIR employs about 80 people per shift at Nokia, in total 240.

The Composition of the (Temp-) Workers
A lot of the permanents are female, in their forties and from eastern European countries. No-one has been made permanent for years. The temp workers are younger and mostly from Turkish backgrounds, or students from even further south. The permanents have a Nokia patch stuck to their working jackets, the temps don't. I would guess that 60 per cent of the production workers are female and 70 per cent with a migrant background. German men mainly drive forklifts. The temp workers have various working experiences: a single mum who worked on the assembly line at Hella (supplier for the automobile industry) before having the baby, or a young bloke whose parents are from Iran and who just finished an apprenticeship as a mechanic in a nearby coal-mine. The permanents refer to 'permanent temp workers', people who work at Nokia for quite a while, but who now are on holiday. The 'temp-temp workers' have to jump in, mainly students on university holiday.

Work organisation
The factory is well guarded. There are special entrance doors for temp workers, where they have to sign for new company ID cards every morning. The management allots them special locker rooms; each temp agency gets a different one. The control when leaving after work is also rigid. People have to queue up in order to return their company ID, some have to open their bags, and every fourth worker is subjected to an airport-like body search. These measures extend the unpaid daily working-time. We have to be at the gates half an hour before shift starts and we wait another half an hour after work to pass the checkpoint.

Inside the plant there are several huge halls. In the departments there are stalls for the various temp-agencies, the managers sit behind them and tell their people where to go. In the production hall the so-called engines are manufactured, the heart-piece of the mobile. The circuit boards have already been assembled somewhere else; the cardboard boxes with plastic parts have Chinese or Taiwanese signs on them. Compared to the assembly and storage hall this hall is nearly empty of people and full of machines. In the assembly hall the so-called SOP (supply operations) take place, there are dozens of production islands, an electrician who works in maintenance says that there are 50 of them. The various elements of the production island (a scanner, an air-pistol, a testing device, an automatic screw-driver, a packaging machine etc.) are fixed on two meters high racks on wheels. These racks are positioned in a square, inside this square - people here call it 'the cell' - we work. Permanents say that the company experiments a lot with the positioning of the racks. They used to have a straightforward assembly line, but in June 2006 the management introduced these production islands. In the company magazine they call it 'pretzel-like production lay-out', maybe because people choke on it, more likely because people run in a pretzel-shaped circle when they shift from work-station to work-station. Usually there are six people working on one production island, three permanents and three temps. Above their heads there is a screen with numbers for the production target, for the already produced mobile phones and the efficiency rate. Most of the time these numbers are on a red background, only rarely on a green one. The production target per island per each seven-and-a-half hours shift is 1,000 assembled mobile phones. The target cannot be achieved without major stress, the ten square meters small pretzel-laid-out cell-structure is supposed to make people generate this stress amongst themselves. Roughly there are about a dozen single work-steps, from single parts to a packaged cardboard parcel with five smaller mobile phone boxes inside.

1) put three small plastic lids onto the 'engine' and the digital camera, check for possible gaps

2) press the created unit onto the key board, check for possible gaps

3) put the joined unit into the automatic screwer and take it out after two seconds

4) put the mobile phone into a testing device and take it out after ten seconds

5) put a label on the mobile and on its plastic bag

6) examine the mobile for scratches, put on the battery cover

7) put the mobile into the plastic bag

8) put batteries, head-set, power-lead into a cardboard box ('inner pulp')

9) put mobile, user manual, two flyers and a CD in the right order into the box

10) scan the label on the mobile phones plastic bag and on the cardboard box

11) weight the box and put another label on it

12) put five boxes into a bigger box and label it.

These work-steps are supposed to be shared out and combined freely amongst the six workers. If you have a short break at your station, go and help out at another one. If the already labeled mobile phones pile up, you are supposed to help packaging. The model looks similar to the work-organisation at McDonald's. The company magazine puts it like this: 'At the end of the day everyone is responsible for the continuity of the process (…) and everyone in the assembly department has to concentrate on the one-piece-flow' (Nokia People, 02/06). And it works, the people stress themselves out. While working together under such conditions with people from different backgrounds, origins and gender I develop an aversion against those people who talk about cognitive or affective work e.g. in call centres opposed to the rather unemotional manual work of the 'Fordist period'. To create human relationships and to maintain ones own emotional balance under such stress is one of the biggest affective challenges I ever managed to fuck up. As a reminder the foreman visits the cell every now and then and checks or complains about the achieved numbers. He also checks the toilet list, which everybody has to sign in and out from, and please only one person a time. If there is a lot of work to do, and there usually is, people are not allowed to have breaks together, only individually, while the others keep on working. Once a month a manager visits the cell, she stands in the middle for half an hour, observes the work-flow and ticks invisible criteria on her sheet. Some people would name this behaviour ('the henchman is snooping around'), others turn it into philosophy: 'Since March Nokia organises regular Kaizen-Events (original in English - Japanese) in the plant in Bochum. The idea originates in the Japanese production philosophy. It is all about avoiding Muda (waste) in the Gemba (place of valorisation)' (Nokia People, 02/06).

In addition to the manual stress of assembling 1,000 mobile per shift there is a lot of stress because of quality checks, re-adjustment of the machines and paper work for the packaging. If you see a little piece of dust under the display or detect a little scratch on a plastic part then you have to replace it. The flyers have to face a certain direction, the manual a different one. You risk an official warning if the label does not correspond with the boxes content. If you get three warnings you are out. It happens regularly that dozens of big parcels are re-opened again, because something 'went wrong', e.g. the CD cover was put in upside down. There are only two electricians/mechanics for 50 production islands. People complain about the fact that they are shifted to a different job in the assembly department without notice, that things change constantly, about the feeling of drowning in the one-piece-flow. After the experience of such stress and of handling such enormous quantities the fetish character of a camera mobile phone turns into scrap plastic. It is not only the work organisation that changes constantly, so does the working time. People are only told on Thursdays if there will be a Saturday shift or not. Two Saturday shifts per month are normal. At the moment there is a constant night shift and an alternating early/late-shift, but the management is debating a new model: two days early, two late, two night, two free. The temp workers are handled even more flexibly. At the beginning of each shift the list of temp workers is checked, if there are too many, more humans than the 'client has ordered', people are sent home again, sometimes in the middle of the night. Or the temp agency phones people in the afternoon, telling them that they do not have to come to the late-shift as planed, but to the early-shift next morning, because necessary parts have not reached the plant.

Kick out
Two female permanent workers were kind of alpha-females of the cell; they were addressed by the foreman as the responsible people. They had the main influence on the pace of work, due to experience and their position. Those temps who worked too slowly or had problems with the quality requirements were told off, always with reference to the general production target or possible formal warnings for quality flaws. A student from Syria was kicked out of the cell only after half an hour. It was not possible to behave according to something like a general workers' standard, e.g. when the target screen changed to green I ask one of the alpha-female who kept on pushing people: 'Is it not time to relax a little bit? Otherwise you will have to produce 1,200 mobiles a shift soon'. 'Whaaat?!', she answers in Bulgarian accent. We keep on arguing a little bit, then I go to the loo. When I come back the Finish manager is already waiting in the cell. 'You think you can ask people to work slower when the target screen is green?'. 'Nope, of course not. But maybe we breath a bit, just for a change'. When the manager is gone I ask the woman if she always tells him about what we say inside our cell. Another little argument. 'We have to make up for the low production numbers of last week'. After the break the temp agency manager arrests me and I have to leave the plant. In the temp agencies' office they offer a kind of penalty job in a small metal workshop somewhere in the fields, about 40 kilometres away. Thanks, but no thanks.

[prol-position news #8 | 4/2007] www.prol-position.net