The Irish Mail on Sunday
Seven seconds to find an item. Every move filmed. Blistering 12-hour shifts with timed toilet breaks. How your Christmas order turns Amazon’s ‘worker elves’ into...
AMAZON was last night accused of ‘dehumanising’ its staff battling to deliver gifts to millions of customers in time for Christmas. Workers at the internet shopping giant’s distribution centres face disciplinary action if they lose a punishing race against the clock to track down items ordered by online shoppers.
Staff paint a picture of a stressful environment ruled by the bleeps of handheld devices – nicknamed ‘the gun’ – instructing them which items to collect. An undercover investigation by the Mail on Sunday discovered:
They faced relentless time targets, with disciplinary action taken against those who couldn’t keep up;
Workers faced disciplinary action if they were deemed to have taken too long during bathroom breaks;
Workers received £7.35 an hour – just pennies more than the British minimum wage – from a company recently branded the most valuable retailer in the world and valued at $250 billion;
Staff had to work ‘compulsory’ extra days and hours – and were given short notice of shift changes;
There was an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion, with handheld scanners tracking workers’ whereabouts, plus CCTV cameras monitoring the warehouse, and airport-style security checks.
Staff were left with blistered feet after walking up to 22km a day.
The MoS went undercover at one of the firm’s ‘fulfilment centres’ at Gourock, near Glasgow, over the Black Friday period, one of the busiest times for online shopping. Taking a job as a ‘picker’ – one of the thousands of seasonal workers employed to collect items from shelves before they are sent to customers – we worked up to 11-and-a-half hours a day for nine days at one of Amazon’s huge warehouses.
One worker told us: ‘It’s all about being bossed around by a scanner and having no thoughts beyond the next shelf number.’
Another said: ‘You just leave your brains behind when you start working here. You’re just a zombie.’
Last night Amazon defended its working practices, saying: ‘We provide a safe and positive workplace. The safety and wellbeing of our permanent and temporary associates is our number one priority. One of the reasons we’ve been able to attract so many people is we offer great jobs and a positive work environment, with opportunities for growth. Like many companies, for a short period before Christmas we do ask our associates to work additional hours, but there is a clear exceptions process for people who are unable to do so and every request by people not to do an overtime shift at Gourock so far this year has been accepted. We always strive to give good notice to people of any changes.’
But UK Trade Union Congress general Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Staff should be treated like human beings, not machines. Big Brother-style management creates a culture of fear that robs people of their dignity. All workers deserve decent pay, conditions and a voice at work, not surveillance and the threat of a disciplinary if they need to go to the toilet.’
Our revelations follow a string of claims about the ‘draconian’ working conditions and ongoing controversy about the company using its international standing to minimise the amount of tax it pays.
To investigate conditions at the firm, which last year overtook Walmart to become the world’s most valuable retailer, the MoS answered an online advert for pickers at its warehouse in Gourock, 50km west of Glasgow. The advert promised that pickers would be ‘at the heart of what Amazon does’ and part of a ‘world-class warehouse operation’ with ‘great benefits and fantastic incentives’.
After a preliminary interview, our reporter was given five hours training, and invited to start work the following day. Despite the advert asking staff to work four days a week, we were told at training it would be compulsory to work five days, with an extra hour added on to each working day.
The Gourock warehouse covers the area of four football pitches, and is lined with shelves stacked with the tens of thousands of products stocked by Amazon.
It is worlds away from when boss Jeff Bezos started the company as an online bookstore from his garage in Seattle in 1994. Over the past six months alone, shoppers have clicked on to the website 2.3 billion times.
Amazon employs about 1,700 people in Ireland but has no warehouses here. Its jobs here are higher-end, with technicians as well as software engineers and support staff based at offices in Dublin and Cork. Last May it announced that it would be creating another 500 jobs here over the next two years.
While the global company prides itself on delivering customers’ purchases with hyper-efficiency, and has invested in incredibly sophisticated computerised stock control equipment, the system relies on the efforts of its most low-tech resource: its staff.
Upon entering the warehouse, employees must leave all personal possessions, including phones, in lockers. The only exceptions are bottles of water and a see-through bag of cash for buying food at the canteen. Pickers are ruled by the handheld scanners they are issued with at the start of each shift.
The job involves being given a list of up to 230 items, which must be collected in order and within a given time. These are then taken by trolley to the dispatch area where a separate team wrap the products for delivery.
Each time the scanner bleeps, it flashes up the next item to be collected, its location and a target time – sometimes as little as seven seconds – to reach it. The scanner also counts down the items left to be collected before the trolley is full, and the overall time the whole process should take.
A typical run could included collecting books, DVDs, jewellery beauty products and electrical items. The scanner allows managers to monitor where staff are an flags up whenever a packer is moving too slowly or pausing too long.
Although the bathrooms are the only part of the warehouse no
‘A Big Brother-style culture of fear that robs people of their dignity’ Training staff said we could expect to walk 16km to 22km per day
covered by CCTV, staff are warne if they stop packing for just a few minutes to cross the warehouse t go to the lavatory outside thei official rest-break.
On our induction day, trainin staff told us we could expect t walk 16km to 22km a day.
‘I was given a warning for being in the toilet for seven minutes’
The most common complaint among staff on the warehouse floor was sore feet. One told us: ‘I have such bad blisters on my feet. I am so exhausted. I never knew it would be this tough. My boots are falling apart and it’s only been four days.’
For their efforts, pickers are paid £7.35 an hour for the first 40 hours – 15p above the minimum wage.
Workers receive time-and-a-half for working between 40 and 50 hours, and double-time above that.
In the build-up to Black Friday, staff were told they must work a compulsory extra day each week and an extra hour each day.
Shift patterns were also changed with little advance notice, meaning planned days off were cancelled.
Staff are also anxious about the pressures and monitoring.
There is constant pressure for staff to collect items quickly, and for those who can’t keep up there is the threat of disciplinary action. One member of staff, who was recruited several weeks ago, said: ‘I started being monitored by a team leader yesterday because I wasn’t going fast enough. I couldn’t believe it. I am trying my hardest but nothing’s good enough for them.’
Discipline is enforced through a points system – three points earns a worker a formal warning. However, staff believe the points are unfair, claiming they can receive half a point for leaving work early, even if it’s because of an illness, and one point if they call in sick.
They are also disciplined for taking too long to walk back from breaks and time spent in the bathroom. One employee explained how he was given a warning in his second week for taking seven minutes during an unscheduled bathroom break. He said: ‘I have been given two warnings. One was for being in the toilet for seven minutes, and the second was because I never worked a sixth day last week – even though I was never even asked to.
‘Now I’m under extreme pressure and have to pick as much as possible, or they might find another reason to get at me.’
Amazon said: ‘Like most companies, Amazon has a fair and predictable system to record staff attendance and take into account individual circumstances.
‘The scanning devices we use are common across the warehousing and logistics sector, and are designed to assist our people in performing their roles.
‘We do not use GPS to monitor people’s location. We do not monitor how long people spend in the toilet and people are able to make personal calls if they need to do so.
‘Security measures such as cameras are normal procedures in any large logistics centre that houses highly valuable products.’