The Relentless Misery of Working Inside an Amazon Warehouse

[Social-Justice – This article reminds me of the time I worked at the Eureka vacuum cleaner plant in Bloomington, Illinois for several months while I was going to graduate school in the late ’70s-early ’80s. This was just before they closed the plant and moved all the jobs to Mexico.

I started on the assembly line for upright vacuum cleaners. Workers were in the Machinist Union which I understood at the time to be one of the better unions. (I should note that this Machinist local was pretty weak.) The work was stultifying! I would grab an assembled base off the assembly line, slap it on a jig, use a pair of t-handled tools to adjust the front wheels, and whip the unit back onto the conveyor belt, just in time to grab the next one. Total elapsed time, something under 10 seconds.

I remember an afternoon when, in a daze, I turned around and flung a base down the line behind me, shouting “Im bored!” No one batted an eye or said a thing. The bases just continued coming down the conveyor belt. Pull another one off, adjust the wheels, back on the belt, grab another one …..

I really needed the job when I took it, but as bad as the work was, I had a way out, and the plant closure had no effect on me. But for most of the others, it was a calamity, I’m sure. Most had few alternatives, and probably none that paid “union” wages. That experience seems little different from what is described here at a British Amazon warehouse. Shades of the supposedly debunked Taylorism, or scientific management theories of the early 20th century, with all their time and motion studies that maximized the efficiency and simplicity of the work process and paved the way for automation. Apparently, Taylorism isn’t dead, and neither is the inherent alienation of capitalist production. And then there’s the concept of monopoly capital ….. ]

OneZero

Cameron Brady-Turner
https://goo.gl/BGcEcj

Life as a cog in Amazon’s retail machine

Valued at nearly $1 trillion, Amazon is one of the most powerful companies in the world. The Seattle-based retail giant employs over 600,000 people and operates 100 sortation and fulfillment centers in North America, sometimes sending out as many as 1 million items per day to customers. But Amazon does more than just retail. Amazon publishes its own books and comics, finances TV shows and movies, operates a Texas wind farm, builds robots, streams music, delivers prescription medications, and operates web services for everyone from Medium to the CIA. And that’s not even counting its high-profile acquisitions, which include Twitch, IMDB, Zappos, and Whole Foods, among countless others.

Nearly all of us use Amazon, one way or another. But what is it like working inside the beast? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you stories from workers at every level of the Amazon empire to find out.

Welcome to The Amazon Diaries.

When Jeff Bezos was brainstorming names for his new venture in 1994, Relentless was the banner that came closest to making the cut. Friends warned Bezos that it sounded sinister, and Amazon was ultimately chosen to become the history-making name. But something about Relentless spoke to Bezos — so much so that he even registered a domain for the name. Type Relentless.com into a search bar today, and you will be redirected to Amazon’s website. Back in 2013, I spent six months at Amazon’s Hemel Hempstead warehouse and discovered the relentless reality for the workers behind the trillion-dollar brand.

Mention Amazon to those who work at its warehouses, and cheap books, one-click delivery, and the A-to-Z smile are unlikely to be what springs to mind. I worked for Amazon for six months in 2013. When someone mentions it to me, my mind flashes to the headlines from my time there: 60-hour weeks, backbreaking efficiency targets, draconian redundancies, illness, depression. Relentless, the word lurking behind the consumer-facing infrastructure, is the reality for Amazon’s workers.

Like many people who end up in an Amazon warehouse, the job dropped in my lap through an agency. Fresh out of college with an English degree, feeling overdrawn, burnt out, and unsure what I should be doing next, I had struggled to get a job. With nothing to show for my summer except a couple ghastly interviews, I adjusted my ambitions and signed up with a recruiter, hoping for some administrative work.

I received a call from a company called Transline within a week. There was no interview, just a screening to attend, where I would have to sign some forms and take a drug test. I was told that if I had smoked weed at any time in the past six months, they would know and wouldn’t hire me. I had been looking for a job for three months at this point and was ready to take anything I could get. Having spent the previous three years struggling to grapple with poetic meters and critical theory, I quite fancied the contrast — dumping the books to work at the furnace of the industry. A real working-class job. I had graduated exhausted and unsure of myself, worried I had become estranged from regular people. I immediately began to romanticize the idea. My dad worked in a factory. I hadn’t seen him in a while.

I was part of an intake of some 30 people on my first day. The induction was brisk. One of the line managers, a flat-voiced Polish woman, led us across the warehouse floor as she pointed out which of the machines could take our hands. The warehouse was a multiplex of grays — from ash to gunmetal to graphite to dust. Vast rows of packing stations flanked conveyor belts filled with canary yellow totes bundled with kitsch. One behind another, Amazonians stood at their stations with just their busy hands visible in the gap between desk and shelves. At the tour’s conclusion, we were sat down in a conference room upstairs to watch a video, which, in summary, said that Amazon has a “customer obsession,” and that while it’s your right to join a union, it’s our preference that you don’t. Then we were put to work.

Amazon’s warehouses are called fulfillment centers, with no apparent appreciation for irony. Items start in arrivals, where they are unloaded in bulk and transported to “the cage,” a vast mesh tower that catalogs Amazon’s products and where runners pick out orders and scan them into totes. The totes then make their way onto a conveyor belt that trundles them to the packers on the main floor, who then box up each order and pop them back onto another conveyor belt to slide down to departures. Every item, tote, and box is bar-coded and tracked through each stage of the process.

I was posted in packing. The bare bones of the job are this: Your shift is a 10.5-hour day with three breaks throughout (two 15-minute breaks and one half-hour break). The rest of the day, you stand at your workstation and pack. To start, I was put on medium- and small-sized single-item orders: DVDs and CDs into cardboard wallets, and boxes into bigger boxes. You have everything you need at your desk. A computer monitor, printer, and scanner dictate what needs to be packed into what and prints the labels. Your station is stacked with a range of flat-packed boxes and includes tape, a roller, and a knife. Sitting is prohibited unless you have a medical complaint; you will work faster if you have the full span of your waist and arms. Runners tend to your line with fresh boxes when you run out and divvy out totes of more items should the conveyor belt alongside you break down. You have no reason to leave your workstation.

The rhythm of this work is relentless. Every stage of the process has been optimized, cutting no slack, sparing zero downtime. In menial work, it is often in the interstices between tasks where little acts of rebellion can be seized. Amazon knows better than to accommodate this. There is no respite to claim between decisions or transitions, because the job is one-dimensional and singular. You pack. (Anything else, and you can pack it in.)

Data is absolutely central to this efficiency. Amazon gathers information on virtually everything its workers do — from their pack rate to downtime — then pits workers against each other on the basis of these metrics. The company is always looking for ways to gather more information — Amazon recently acquired a patent for employee-tracking wristbands that could monitor workers’ movements and vibrate to nudge them when it thinks they’re slacking off. The detailed profile Amazon keeps on its workers, coupled with a “rank and yank” philosophy — where companies rate employees against each other and cull the lowest performers — ensures that its workforce is continually evolving. According to a 2015 New York Times investigation, one former Amazon human resources director called this culture “purposeful Darwinism.”

The Amazon handbook boasts that it holds its employees to standards that are considered “unreasonably high.” In my area, the target to meet was nominally 104 packages per hour. In truth, the target was more like 120 packages per hour, as Transline, my agency, would consistently record a lower average for me than the real-time packing rate I raced against on my monitor. Amazon has several temping agencies posted in-house on the warehouse floor, who “look after” staff by coming around with a clipboard to tell you whether you’re meeting your targets. Drop your pace, and your agency will soon let you know.

After a month in the job, I figured out what was bringing my numbers down. Remember that a workday at Amazon included two 15-minute paid breaks and one 30-minute unpaid lunch break. Your workstation computer connects to Amazon’s product database when you scan items, which dictates what kind of box is required, prints the post label, and monitors your pack rate, calculated based on the number of items you scan per hour. There are different codes to log out for each kind of break, paid and unpaid. While I initially thought the discrepancy between our computer and agency pack rates could be explained by Transline simply underrepresenting our numbers for their own ends, what actually happened was that logging out for the paid break on Amazon’s system left our pack rates recording, bringing our numbers down. Amazon was basically making us work extra hard to “make up” for our statutory right to a rest.

At 104 packages an hour, you are already forced to work at a rapid pace — this in a process where you must pick up a collection of items, pick your item, scan it to bring up the details, print its label, pick its correct packaging, assemble the box, put the item in with its receipt and fill it with dunnage so nothing is loose, tape it closed, stick on its postal label, and then place the package on the conveyor belt to travel to its next destination. At 120 items per hour, you have roughly 30 seconds to do all this. (Transline, incidentally, went into administration — a step before insolvency — not long after I left Amazon, after it was revealed that the staff it had been supplying to warehouses of U.K. sporting goods retailer Sports Direct were getting paid less than the minimum wage.)

It will be no surprise if Amazon becomes the first business to fully automate. A company that resents even its workers’ basic right to a break will only find people a frustration to its aims. Amazonians who left their workstation to go to the bathroom would be promptly hounded by senior employees. Stories abound of workers afraid to stop, pissing into bottles at their desk. Your tracker, after all, is recording. As such, everything you need to do must be done on your breaks. But given the size of the warehouse — and the fact that to get in and out of it, you must go through airport-level security — it tends to take three to four minutes to just make it back to the canteen. If you get a full five minutes to sit down, you’ve done well.

The suspicion with which Amazon regards its staff is reproduced at every level of the operation — from the frisking that accompanies every exit and entry from the warehouse to the generally cold manner in which management addresses their inferiors. I couldn’t help but see the class politics at play. It was as if you were expected to be grateful just to have been given a waged job and work in full apprehension that, on a zero-hours contract, that privilege is not a right.

My area manager was a guy called Rich*. He was one of those short-fused people you occasionally meet in life whose disposition could shift like a switch from chipper to downright menacing. He would greet me cheerily as Callum when he needed something, and I never dared correct him. In our morning briefings, Rich would relay to us the statistics of the previous day, with a rabble of some 40 or 50 staff circling him. If targets were not being met, he would make veiled threats. “If you’d rather be stacking shelves at Tesco…,” he’d taunt, as if any sane person’s response to that kind of condescension wouldn’t be “I fucking would!” The idea that working at Tesco was a worse lot reeked of delusion. My guess was that Rich was a working-class guy who had worked his way up and became dogmatically invested in the cut and thrust he read as meritocracy. We all have our illusions.

I had been driven to work by the fear of losing my job for so long that I had forgotten how to let myself relax.

In hindsight, I wonder how I put up with it. I was one of 15,000 workers Amazon brings on each year around Christmas. In the off-season, Amazonians work 40 hours a week, split across four 10-hour days. During peak season, according to a 2017 report in the Independent, Amazon makes 55-hour workweeks compulsory. It encourages its employees to work the legal maximum of 60 hours — unless, of course, Amazon completes its orders early and sends its surplus zero-hours staff home.

Even as a fit young man with no other responsibilities, I found this work exhausting. Joining the company in autumn, I was waking before dawn, secluding myself in a dim warehouse during daylight hours, and returning home in the dark again. At the end of each day, I would run a hot bath to sear away the day’s aggregate muck. I’d lower myself in, feeling my pores emptying, the oil and dust rising to the water’s surface to swirl like a storm seen from space. I’d inspect the damage: burst blood vessels in the backs of my knees, my fingertips grayed and eerily smooth, as if my fingerprints had worn away. The dirt and sweat of the warehouse was exacerbating my eczema, meaning I was suffering through recurring skin infections. The lack of daylight and time off was making me depressed.

Yet every week that I avoided the chop was a small source of satisfaction. The staff turnover is staggering. I’d estimate that 50 percent of the packers around me either were laid off or left every three weeks, to be supplanted by a whole new intake; the ability to hit Amazon’s targets is an aberration, not the norm. For this reason, the fulfillment center is a difficult place to make friends. Familiar faces soon vanish without a trace. As a survivor of the churn, you are acutely aware of the precarity of your position and internalize the competition. Amazon revels in its brutal culture because it banks on most people being stubborn enough to push back against those odds, even when success on Amazon’s terms is as trivial as keeping your job. Under this regime, workers ultimately have nowhere to turn but against one another — hoarding easier totes, nabbing the best stations. Staying ahead of the pack feels like a zero-sum game.

The obsessive culture of competition is driven into Amazon from head to toe. Looking back, it’s clear to me that the managers I despised were probably under the same pressure as us — so when it came to things like gaming our packing statistics, this was likely borne out of competition with the other warehouses dotted around the U.K.. No one has it easy. A New York Times exposé on Amazon’s Seattle headquarters revealed a toxic working culture even there, with reports of staff regularly crying at their desks. In this account, however, the narrative is balanced by the thrill of being able to create, not to mention the gold mine of Amazon stock. There is no such payoff for the blue-collar Amazonian on a zero-hours contract.

Starting in September at the beginning of peak season, I saw the warehouse workforce triple in my time, up until a week into January, when Amazon began to make drastic cutbacks to its temporary staff. I was stupidly proud that I had lasted so long. By this point, I had moved from packing to picking, although not by choice. Picking is the worst job in the warehouse, and management knew it. When they learned that picking was short-staffed, my area manager literally drew names out of a hat to decide which of us in packing would move. I was gutted. I had worked so hard to make it this far, and suddenly I was back to square one: on trial, working up to new targets just to keep my job.

Picking is situated in the cage, a dim, strip-lit, mesh-wire multistory library of Amazon’s smaller products. Pickers take a trolley perched with two totes, plus a scanner that displays item locations and a countdown for how long you’re expected to take collecting each item. There’s one countdown for how long it should take you to reach the shelf and another for how long the item should take to scan and stow, timed to within a second. The brutality of this job was exposed most effectively by the BBC show Panorama, which secretly filmed an agent scurrying down these corridors to the incessant beep of his console. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to beat the timer without racing from location to location, like you are trapped in some Kafkaesque game of Supermarket Sweep.

A Financial Times article from 2013 asserted that pickers could walk up to 15 miles a day. The Independent claimed pickers could run the equivalent of a marathon during a shift. Yet even as I struggled to meet my targets, this wasn’t the worst part of the job for me. The cage is filthy. Most boxes were coated in a film of muck, showering you with dust whenever you’d pull one from overhead. I left work each day with my hands blackened. This made my already bad eczema worse. I was virtually living on antibiotics, because the infections I’d been getting had spread all over my body. My skin was so dried out that it was cracking and weeping to the point where it stung to move my joints. I would have slipped ointment into the warehouse with me, but my hands would get so dirty that I couldn’t apply it. I tunneled through the shelves for item after item like a termite in its nest.

What else could I do? Amazon exercised a points system where absences, even through illness, earned a strike, and three strikes in three months meant dismissal. I was essentially forbidden from being sick. Although this rule has since been rescinded, the abnormal rate of poor health among the company’s employees persists. A Freedom of Information request by the GMB trade union in 2018 discovered that 600 ambulances had been called out to Amazon’s U.K. fulfillment centers in just three years. Amazon’s Rugeley site saw 115 callouts alone, compared to just eight at a similar-sized Tesco warehouse over the same period. The GMB has represented a heavily pregnant woman who was refused permission to briefly sit down during her shift and has seen staff who have started to develop musculoskeletal problems from the repetitive nature of the work. Nearly 90 percent of the Amazon workers GMB represents say they experience constant pain at work. A few years ago, HuffPost reported that a temp died of heart failure in a Virginia warehouse, raising questions about whether the company was pushing people too far. In response Mike Roth, vice president of North American operations, said Amazon’s metrics are safe, fair, and attainable.

Despite all this, when I made it through Christmas, I felt a pride I hadn’t experienced since school. As January trudged toward February, peak-season operations were winding down and 40-hour weeks resumed. In the weeks after New Year’s Day, I saw the warehouse workforce shrink by half. Management even congratulated those of us who made it. It looked like I might be on for a proper contract.

I had been driven to work by the fear of losing my job for so long that I had forgotten how to let myself relax. In mid-January, I put in a request for a day off on the last weekend of the month, which meant I had an actual weekend — three full days in succession — to myself for the first time in five months. I’d been invited to Norwich by my friend Beth, who had gotten us tickets to see a band on tour over from the States — though I can’t remember who. That’s because I drank so much whiskey before going out that I blacked out on the way to the venue and came to after only two songs, thinking the clapping meant the gig had finished and leaving at just 9 p.m. So desperate was I to enjoy myself that I’d clearly overdone it — I had worked over Christmas and missed my mates’ celebrations for New Year’s Eve — but it was a great relief to see a friend. It felt like I had been in a dark place for a long time, but here was some reward for that sacrifice — a promise that things might be easier from now on.

I was made redundant that weekend, getting a call from my Transline rep as I made my way back from Norwich. Because I was on a zero-hours contract, there was nothing I needed to do — I simply didn’t have to turn up to work in the morning, and my pink slip would be in the post. I crumpled into a corner in Liverpool Street station and cried.

In the five years since I worked there, Amazon’s market cap has increased by $650 billion. It has just posted a profit for the 15th straight quarter. Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in modern history. He is worth $135 billion alone.

Amazon has grown so powerful and has such reach that the legal scholar Frank Pasquale has described it as acquiring “functional sovereignty.” The company doesn’t just monopolize publishing—it controls the primary platform for the entire industry. Its Web Services division accounts for 44 percent of the world’s cloud computing capacity. As a result, smaller companies are forced to ride the rails of their biggest competitor to get to market, handing away valuable data. While Amazon keeps prices low for consumers, it presses its dominance in other arenas. As jurist Lina Khan has argued, while Amazon’s business model keeps its users happy, the unchecked structural power it amasses becomes a concern for us as citizens, workers, and entrepreneurs. In its singular ambition of becoming the world’s most powerful company, Amazon pushes up against the limits of, and thus exposes, what is acceptable within our current economic system.

While its wages announcement is a huge moment for thousands of people, there is still much that needs to change.

The recent news that Amazon has “listened to its critics” and upped its minimum wage, from £8 to £9.50 per hour in the U.K. and to $15 per hour in the United States, is a massively welcome step, making a significant difference to the lives of tens of thousands of workers in the U.K. alone. Congratulations should go to the journalists who have exposed Amazon’s practices over the years, and in particular to GMB union for working to organize in Amazon’s warehouses in the face of fierce opposition. The hope is that with Amazon setting a precedent, more people can add their voices to the chorus of workers asking for a better deal.

It is important, however, to realize that wins like this, while rightly celebrated, do not mean the system is working fine. For Amazon to now call for a higher minimum wage, having built its empire on a low one, is to try to raise the drawbridge behind it, hiking the price of admission for other companies to compete. It was never in question whether Amazon could afford to raise its wages. And it is important to bear in mind how exploitative the company remains in myriad other ways. Irrespective of this announcement, Amazon must be made to recognize unions as an absolute priority. Amazonians deserve a say on their working conditions, rather than having to wait for their employer to weigh the PR value of their well-being.

In a sense, Amazon is only a tick in the ear of our dysfunctional economy. Yet as it amasses more and more power, it also sets a grim precedent for many more workers should we not alter course. To supplement the hard work that activists and unions like GMB are doing, the Institute for Public Policy Research’s “Prosperity and Justice” report is a welcome contribution to the debate on how things could change. As well as proposing commonsense policies, such as greater support for unions and an extra boost to the wage of workers on zero-hours contracts, it also recognizes the deeper issues — of monopolization and unproductive accumulation — that megacorporations like Amazon pose. The Labour Party’s proposals to give workers shares so as to better influence how their workplace is run is another promising idea.

Naive as I was when I joined Amazon, I assumed my duty was to accept the misery it had to offer. Five years on, I am still angry that the practices I witnessed there have not seen redress. While its wages announcement is a huge moment for thousands of people, there is still much that needs to change. As movements from Europe to New York rise up to challenge Amazon, we should continue to think outside the box.

 

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