It’s not news that the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses are terrible. Since as far back as 2011 – when 15 workers collapsed at an overheated Pennsylvania site – mounting evidence has veered from the grotesque (workers peeing in bottles because they’re too afraid to take breaks) to the downright devastating (13 people have died in US warehouses since 2013).
Last month, employees in Essex compared their jobs to modern slavery, while in September 48-year-old Billy Foister became the latest addition to the Amazon fulfilment centre death toll, suffering a heart attack in an Ohio warehouse, where his body was allegedly left on the floor for 20 minutes while colleagues were told to get back to work (Amazon said they responded “within minutes”).
As such, it was surprising when I was recently brought face-to-face with a string of Amazon warehouse workers wearing smiles straight out of a hostage video as they assured me that, really, honestly, working at the company is so, so fun.
Meet Sean: a really horrible dancer! And Lisa, who loves hiking. Then there’s Jackie, who hugs each package as it’s sent out for delivery. The adverts said I could meet people just like these zany, relatable characters (and definitely not paid actors) by signing up for a tour of an Amazon Fulfilment Centre. In a bid to counteract the annoying death stats, Amazon has this year held tours at more of its Fulfilment Centres than ever before, deploying the aforementioned multi-million pound ad campaign to get people hyped about the experience.
So, one rainy Saturday morning, I get out of bed and trek to a nondescript industrial park in Peterborough, for the pleasure of spending my precious free time being herded through a gigantic warehouse.
Within five seconds of stepping foot on Amazon soil, I’m approached by a security guard asking if I’m there for the tour. For the next two hours, my every move is monitored by a guide. We cannot take photos and are instructed to wear high-vis vests so they can find us if we get lost. “And we will find you,” our lead tour guide, a tattooed girl in her late twenties, says with a smile.
In a group of 15 people that seems to be otherwise comprised of logistics geeks and parents who’ve clearly exhausted every other means of children’s entertainment in a 50-mile radius, the tour plays out as a sort of “Good Employer” amusement park ride. We’re ushered past a highlights reel of strategically placed attractions while our guide sends a series of pre-cooked zingers down a microphone that’s tuned into our headphones.
The walls leading to the main warehouse floor are lined with pictures from events held for children with cancer, or school trips who have visited the Fulfilment Centre. There’s also a blackboard announcing “Recycling Week”, which is designed to help employees do their bit for the environment. Because Susan throwing that crisp packet in the right bin is definitely going to offset Amazon’s 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
From there, we pass the “HR pod” and a series of notice boards – one proclaims that workers are allowed to work “no more than 6 days a week, no more than 11 hours a day”, while another assures us that it’s been “227 days since the last recordable incident”.
I’m not sure what “incident” means, exactly. Maybe it refers to ambulance calls, of which there were more than 600 over the course of three years coming from Amazon UK warehouses (more than one every other day). Or perhaps it’s specifically referring to calls made to emergency services for suicide attempts and mental health episodes, of which there were 189 from US warehouses between 2013 and 2018.
Although Amazon is keen to point out in statements that this is a good track record when compared to other transportation and warehousing businesses, Mick Rix, a national officer for the GMB union, assures me it’s far from normal. “To see this many people with broken bones or knocked unconscious, and being taken to hospital… this does not happen in any other industry,” he explains. Mick has negotiated with similar corporate behemoths, like Hermes and ASDA Walmart, but Amazon stands apart as the one company that consistently refuses to engage with trade unions, even creating training videos for managers on how to spot and stop unionisation.
Back in the warehouse, any attempt to talk to an actual employee is futile. Apart from our three designated watchdogs, we can only see other workers from afar as we’re led from the shipping station to the inbound area.
Finally, we arrive at the main attraction, an endless maze of shelves, laden with anything you could ever want, including enough protein powder to feed an army.
This is the part of the process that generates the most complaints. To compile your Amazon package, those working as “pickers” need to scour these shelves for each item in your order.
Pickers have a certain quota they need to hit. The guide won’t give me a specific number – saying it’s determined by Amazon’s omnipotent algorithm – but accounts vary from the low hundreds up to 320 products per hour, every hour, for ten hours a day.
Out of their two half-hour breaks per day, only one is paid. Outside of these designated times, workers are not allowed to sit at any point. If they fall below their picking quota, the system will mark them for possible termination. At one point, around 300 associates were fired over the course of a year in a single warehouse in Baltimore for failing to meet productivity quotas.
According to Mick, testimonies from workers say they sometimes walk up to 20 miles per day. In a survey of Amazon workers, carried out by GMB, 87 percent said they were in some form of constant pain during their work every day.
“People can’t even talk to each other,” Mick explains, “because if they do, the team leaders will tell them off for not working hard and fast enough.” (In the past, Amazon has said the company “provides a safe and positive workplace for thousands of people across the UK” and focuses on “ensuring we provide a great environment for all our employees”.)
Of course, none of this is mentioned during the tour. Instead, we stand in single file for half an hour as our guide explains in excruciating detail how the categorisation system works. When the tour finally continues, we’re led past a banner that reads “work hard, have fun, make history” and a comically large Monopoly board, placed conspicuously in the path of the tour. “Oh, you noticed that?” our guide says.
She explains that every week during the team meeting, a lucky worker gets to roll the giant fluffy dice in the hopes of winning amazing prices such as “an extra break” or – better yet – “swaggies”. This, it turns out, is Amazon’s internal currency, which employees can spend in a special Amazon shop full of everything from hoodies to GoPros and shower speakers – all emblazoned with the Amazon logo.
Other perks of the job, we are told, include days where people can come to work wearing onesies or pyjamas. “I didn’t know I had a boss that owned a Spongebob onesie, but I sure found out that day,” the guide jokes in a tone that suggests she’s delivered that line a hundred times before. There are also special pins rewarding good behaviour in what is essentially the grown-up equivalent of cub scout badges. Because who needs decent working conditions when you’ve got a lanyard full of patronising pins?
At the last stop, the packing stations, we dive deep into the minutiae of how, exactly, Amazon parcels are put together, before everyone is invited to build their own cardboard box to take home as a souvenir – sort of like build-a-bear, but infinitely more bleak.
After a quick Q&A session in which no one asks a single difficult question, I am ejected on to the Peterborough dual carriageway. I leave with nothing but an empty cardboard box and the impression of a company that would rather invest the money it saves by paying barely any tax into a dumb propaganda campaign than it would making its warehouses bearable places to work.
“What they could actually do is sit down with our union,” suggests Mick, “which has worked with lots of companies to make sure there are safe systems of work in place, that pick rates are monitored and measured. And their efficiency and productivity has increased, because at the heart of those changes was the inclusion of workers. There is a fundamental problem at the heart of this company, and it’s that it does not respect workers.”