Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Strawberry Picking

Have found an interesting paper on Adjusting to Technological Change in Strawberry Harvest Work (pdf) by Howard R. Rosenberg. A version published in Choices Magazine, May 2004

Strawberry picking is a highly skilled and labour-intensive activity, which amounts to some 40% of the total production costs of strawberries. The machine discussed by Rosenberg doesn't remove the skilled elements of the work, but it does remove some of the back-breaking elements.

This innovation cannot be evaluated in purely technical terms. Instead, we must look at the machine as it is embedded in a given set of working practices. We call this Technology-In-Use, or Enacted Technology.

As Rosenberg puts it: "Costs, benefits and ultimate success of the transition to machine-aided strawberry harvest depend on synchronizing the use of the machine with the attributes of the people whose labor remains the most essential factor of production."  

Here are some of the further issues Rosenberg identifies: 

Crew Configuration and Membership Does work in a machine crew require a different orientation or set of abilities than in conventional crews? Will employee recruitment, selection and assignment be designed to create crews who tend to work at a similar pace? Will crew members rotate through the stacker and machine operator jobs? 

Speed of the Machine How fast will the machine creep down the field? More importantly, who decides? 

New Pay Rates What share of efficiency gains will be allocated to compensate for the increased volume of berry handling and to raise individual worker earnings? How much will pay be based on time and how much on output? What is a fair relationship between old and new piece rates? 

Scheduling, Rest Breaks and Safety Training Are any adjustments needed to explain or alleviate possible ergonomic risks of increased picking time? 

Introduction of the New System Itself When and how will workers be informed about the machine system and the changes around it? Will they have a choice of working in a traditional or a machine-aided crew?  

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