Short description

Research project „Digitalisation of value chains in the retail sector“ 

Funding: Hans-Böckler-Foundation (Project number P-2022-795-2), 05/2023-14/2025

Project Manager: Prof. Dr. Martina Sproll, HWR Berlin (Berlin School of Economics and Law)

Team: Michael Fütterer, Carmen Mayer, Tatiana López Ayala


Digital restructuring processes are changing the shape of global value chains. The project examines their impact on labour processes, working conditions and the reconfiguration of inequalities in retail value chains, as well as related challenges and strategies for workplace and trade union representation. 


Growing online trade, digital supply-chain-management systems and new production technologies are changing the shape and governance of global retail value chains. This has implications for the relationships between companies at different stages of the value chains as well as their spatial configuration. As digital technologies contribute to a new form of integration of value chains, trade unions and works councils must increasingly adopt a perspective on the entire value chain. Changes on all stages of the value chain (production, logistics and retail) must be examined in order to understand the impact of digital technologies on labour and production processes and the related inequality relations. This points to the need of a fundamental reorganisation of workplace and trade union representation of workers interests on a transnational level in order to shape the digital transformation.

Research Questions:

1. What impact do digital technologies have on the form and governance of value chains and how do they change power relations between companies and regions as well as between capital and labour? 

2. What impact do they have on labour and organisational processes at the different stages of value creation? 

3. What new demands and opportunities for agency arise from this for workers and their interest representation along the value chains of the retail sector and in Germany in particular?

In order to answer the research questions, debates and concepts developed in the fields of labour sociology and economic geography on the change of work and production through digital restructuring will be taken up. These will be linked with theoretical multi-level approaches to global value chains as well as with approaches to the analysis of intersectional inequalities.

Research design:

Following a multi-level approach, labour and production processes at all levels of the value chain (production, logistics, retail) will be examined. Three case companies were selected for the study: Inditex/Zara, H&M and IKEA, which are considered trendsetters in the introduction of (different) digital strategies. Using a qualitative comparative case study design with participatory elements, research results are reflected and further developed in an application-oriented manner. This will be done in close cooperation with workers representatives and trade unions of the case companies and their suppliers at different locations in Europe and South Asia. Methodologically, expert interviews with workers, trade union and company representatives, observations in retail stores, logistics centres and factories, document analysis and participatory research approaches will be applied.