Between Individuality and Shift Work: Photographs of Workers at their Workplace. Industrial Companies in Vorarlberg in 2016

Rudolf Sagmeister

Growing up in the factory yard of a small family-owned food-processing business I got to know first-hand about the rapidly changing working conditions brought on by automated production. During the holidays I would work at my parents’ company, on the production line, in the freight-forward department, and in the warehouse. Once I’d got my HGV licence, I also worked as a delivery man.

My interest in the world of work continued during my art history studies with my choice of subsidiary subjects, namely social and economic history as well as psychology. In fact, the subject of my diploma thesis in social and economic history focused on food production and how it has changed as a result of industrialisation. I then worked on several planning concepts for an industrial museum commissioned by the federal province of Vorarlberg.

As curator of contemporary art at the Kunsthaus Bregenz my main duties over the past twenty years or so have included developing and producing new artworks through joint ventures between the artists and local and international industrial firms and cottage industries. A close-knit network has emerged as a result with companies that operate in all kinds of sectors such as glass, timber, plastics, textiles, paints, chemicals, etc.

In the exhibition sector, light plays a crucial role. In Vorarlberg we are fortunate to have a global player in Zumtobel, a company that is able not only to realise the special ideas of the artists, but also to have acted as a partner and sponsor of the Kunsthaus Bregenz from the very outset. Realising artists’ visions often requires completely new products and manufacturing techniques, ones that have never been implemented before. So the visits we made with artists to local industrial firms were extremely fruitful for all those involved. Financially and in terms of working methods, many of the projects that have since been realised were made possible only through co-operation with apprentices and training departments.

The photographs shot at these industrial firms were taken after consultation with the management and the works council, and with the written consent of any employee photographed at their workplace. The companies selected for the project were characteristic of the food, metal, lighting and textile industries.

It takes constant innovation, a highly skilled and motivated workforce, continuous on-the-job training, and dedicated entrepreneurs to safeguard jobs in the industrial sector of so-called high-wage countries. Productivity and efficiency are predicated on largely automated, computer-controlled, continuous shift work and a 24-hour capacity utilisation of expensive machinery and production shops. Hard physical labour has now been replaced by machines, and perfectly tuned logistics have dispensed with the need for breaks and downtimes. In these clean, brightly lit, air-conditioned workplaces maximum concentration prevails. Dirty and/or dangerous tasks with a potentially deleterious effect on health and working days of ten hours or more have since been (and still are) offloaded onto developing countries. There, hundreds of millions of people now live and work under the sort of precarious conditions that existed in the so-called ‘first world’ in the 19th century, crammed together in workers’ barracks and dilapidated sweatshops built as cheaply as possible. Poverty forces migrant workers to leave their villages and home countries to try and eke out a living as cheap labour around the world.

For centuries Vorarlberg, too, was unable to sustain its population through farming alone. Men, women and children undertook long journeys to secure a livelihood abroad, to seek food and work there and then send the money back home to their loved ones.

Over the last few decades productivity and efficiency have increased steadily as a result of automation, the use of robots, new plants, etc., so companies are able to compete at the international level. All the plants we visited operate around the clock
in shift work to optimise the use of their means of production, the capital invested, the energy resources, and the workforce. Break rooms have disappeared by and large, with canteens controlled or replaced by automatic vending machines. Individually designed, ‘personalised’ workstations no longer exist, with every workstation now continually occupied by other people: no room here for personal items. At food processing plants, workers are required to keep their hair, beards, etc., tucked away under nets, and all jewellery has to be removed for reasons of hygiene. The widespread display of body art in the form of tattoos is one outlet that remains for expressing individuality.

Globalisation itself is reflected in the international background of the workforce employed in Vorarlberg’s industry, which comprises workers from all over Europe, Africa and Asia.

The family-run business Julius Blum GmbH produces furniture fittings for international distribution at seven factories across Vorarlberg, employing a workforce of 5,300 people. Other production sites are located in Poland, Brazil and the US, with another 28 subsidiaries and agencies worldwide.

Wolford AG has been manufacturing premium-priced textiles at its site in Bregenz since 1949, specialising in hosiery, bodysuits and lingerie. The company employs around 1,120 people around the world, with around 680 employees in Vorarlberg itself.

The Zumtobel Group domiciled in Dornbirn specialises in the design, manufacture and marketing of lighting technology. The company provides lighting solutions, light fittings, lamps & luminaires, lighting management and lighting components for interior and exterior applications. Zumtobel is the European market leader in professional lighting systems and the No. 2 in Europe for lighting components. The Group operates production facilities in Europe, Asia, North America and Australia as well as distribution companies and partner companies in more than 70 countries. It has a total workforce of around 7,200 employees, 2,100 of them in Vorarlberg.

The family-run bakery business Rudolf Ölz Meisterbäcker GmbH und Co KG was established in Dornbirn in 1938 and is the market leader in Austria; it now has an export share of around 47.7 per cent. The company employs some 920 people, 553 of them in Vorarlberg itself.

The family-run business Rupp AG founded in 1908 is Austria’s largest privately owned cheese processing company. Well known brands include Rupp and Alma; Rupp Cheese Innovation manufactures products for the convenience sector and the food industry, with 90 per cent of production earmarked for export. Rupp AG employs around 400 people at its Hörbranz site in Vorarlberg, out of a total workforce of some 570 employees.

Rudolf Sagmeister is curator at the Kunsthaus Bregenz and photographs since the 1980ies.