As a technological feat, Amazon is brilliant. Over the last couple of decades, Jeff Bezos’ company has revolutionised the shopping experience. Thanks to Amazon’s unparalleled ability to match suppliers with people who want stuff, you know that whatever you need the chances are you can just type it into the website or app, and have it reliably delivered within 24 hours, or even on the same day. And for much cheaper than it would cost you in a brick-and-mortar store. It’s an experience that simply can’t be beaten.
But… wait a minute. While Amazon’s success has been great for users, what about the people at the other end? Here at Gizmodo UK, we’re perhaps a little bit too dazzled by the shiny and new technologies, at the expense of more human considerations. So what about the people who work inside the Amazon warehouse - or fulfilment centres, as the company calls them - who are making sure that you can get that HDMI cable by tomorrow lunchtime?
This is what writer and journalist James Bloodworth wanted to find out. In his new book Hired: Six Months Undercover In Low Wage Britain, he finds out what life is like on the front lines of the digital revolution, by taking a job at an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, as well as an Uber driver in London, a stint as a call centre worker in Wales, and as a care worker in Blackpool.
His book has hit the headlines in the last couple of weeks after the tabloids picked up on some of the more lurid aspects of what he discovered at Amazon - such as warehouse staff being forced to urinate in bottles out of fear of being penalised for time wasted.
So what did he see, and what can be done? Brilliantly, James was happy to sit down with us and tell us a bit more about what he has learned. So I started by asking him if he could sketch out what it was like to actually work in an Amazon warehouse.
“It felt like what I imagine the atmosphere at a prison would feel like”, he says. “Every time you went to the toilet, every time you finished a shift, every time you went on your break, you had to pass out through giant airport-style security scanners, [and] queue for those. You know, remove your belt, remove your watch and everything in your pockets.”
“You carried around with you this hand-held electronic device which would monitor whereabouts you were in the warehouse. It was also a countdown timer, so as soon as you collected your item, because you spend most of your day scanning items and putting them in baskets, as soon as you scan an item the timer would flip and it would be counting down”, he explains. According to James, employees had to follow this timer all day. It’s the sort of gamification that Amazon would never want to see streamed on Twitch.
This is all part of what James describes in the book as Amazon’s strike system, where each employee earns a strike for all sorts of minor infractions - and if you hit six, you get sacked. What makes this particularly draconian - and hence the alleged peeing in bottles - is that these infractions can be incredibly minor, such as turning up 30 seconds late for work, or even (as James experienced in the book) calling in sick.
We asked Amazon about this, and the company said “We are committed to treating every one of our associates with dignity and respect” - and also that it has since suspended its points-based attendance policy, following feedback from employees. And on the the toilet issue in particular, Amazon says that it “ensures all of its associates have easy access to toilet facilities which are just a short walk from where they are working”, and that “Associates are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed. We do not monitor toilet breaks.”
In any case though, working in the warehouse is hard work. And another example is in terms of distances travelled: humans are essentially filling in the gaps between the automated parts of the warehouse, which includes the “picking” - traversing the building, which is the size of ten football pitches. This meant that in a normal 10.5 hour shift, employees could end up walking some huge distances - James says he walked around 10 miles a day, but it wouldn’t be unusual to walk up to 15. When you click that checkout button and lazily Prime yourself something for arrival the next day, you could be inadvertently making someone you’ll never meet rack up some serious distance.
It also sounds frustrating on an interpersonal level, and it was hard for James to get to know his colleagues. This wasn’t because - as you might think - his colleagues were different nationalities (particularly Romanian, he says), but because Amazon’s rules made it hard to socialise.
“The job is so atomised that you’re just on your own in this warehouse all day [and] and you get told off”, he says. “I got told off for talking, I saw other people get told off for talking - good workers - and it’s such a transitory workforce. So many people are coming in and leaving quite soon after. I mean, all the contracts we were on were nine-month contracts so you don’t know the people a lot of the time.”
The upshot of this isn’t just that it makes the job less fulfilling (“fulfilment centre” indeed, haha!) - but that the lack of what James calls “comradeship” means it is harder for the workers to work together as they may have done in previous generations and, say, form trade unions that could help protect the workers.
Exploring The Amazon
So why is working at the coalface in an Amazon warehouse such a grind? And who should we blame? Is this just capitalism doing what capitalism does, or is there something unique in the ideology of silicon valley causing it?
“I think it’s a general capitalism thing but I think in its most potent form at the moment emanating from Silicon Valley”, says James. “It’s exploitation dressed up as emancipation.”
One perversely amusing example of this is in terms of language. “The first thing I learned when I got the job at Amazon was you’re not allowed to call this place you’re in a warehouse, you have to call it a ‘fulfilment centre’. Ok, fine, that doesn’t seem too weird”, says James. “But after that it was, you know, I’m not a worker or an employee, I’m an associate. And [Billionaire CEO] Jeff Bezos is also an associate.”
“It’s language to blur the distinction between boss and worker, between top and bottom, you’re all associates... they said to us, ‘It’s all like one big happy family’.”
James also explains that at Amazon, you’re not fired, you’re “released”.
Similarly, in the book and speaking to me, James described how the warehouse would contain posters extolling the virtues of working for Amazon.
“In the warehouse first there was a cardboard cut-out of a woman supposedly called Bez. [...] There was a speech bubble coming from her head which said, ‘We love coming to work and we miss it when we’re not here.’”
James says that he didn’t see any of his colleagues express this sort of sentiment.
“Silicon Valley’s the big exponent of this kind of rhetoric and [...] it’s similar to Taylorism, the theories of Frederick Taylor”, explains James, referring to the mechanical engineer who wrote the 1911 work which turned out to be almost the definitive book on “scientific management”.
It’s about “turning human beings into perfect units of production [...] it’s like putting everything into scientific units of production where everything you do in the day maximises production”, says James.
“So the fact that you go to the toilet, you get told off because as they said to us at Amazon: If you go to the toilet you’re clocking up too much idle time. You’re not being productive.”
James likens its to the Victorian era. “You have a similar view of progress where we’re advancing as a society on the backs of a layer of people [and] we have to create this ideology where they don’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter what becomes of the people in the Amazon warehouse, it doesn’t really matter - [like] what happens to the Uber driver, it’s all about disruption, it’s all about the future, it’s all about progress.”
Amazon, in its statement to us after we spoke to James, offered a very long explanation of how it measures performance and supports people - as well as helps employees pay for adult education (apparently paying up to 95% of fees up to £8,000 in some cases).
Clearly though, James sees Amazon’s approach to managing people very differently. “It’s a very old ideology but it comes with different window dressing every time”, he says.
Alexa, Should I Buy Stuff From Amazon?
Needless to say, by this point in the interview I was feeling intensely guilty about how trigger happy I am when it comes to Amazon - not to mention the other modern conveniences James tries out in his book, including bicycle courier and Uber.
So what should I do? What should you do? If we’re to create a more just society, which doesn’t treat people in low-wage, precarious employment as an underclass that is here to serve us, do the middle classes need to take a hit in their lifestyle? Is it possible to retain the benefits these new tools bring, while removing the dehumanising aspects of the work?
“I think if you look at the wealth someone like [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos has, this is quite a crude way to put it, but [...] I don’t think it’s a huge thing to ask to hope that that money could be shared out a bit more equitably”, James says.
“I think I mean there’s money already in the system, if that makes sense. But it’s because the power is so much in the hands of the employer over the worker, a typical worker has little way of kind of wresting any kind of control or any kind of shares of the product.”
“Those of us who can afford to pay more should shop ethically,” James says - likening the choice to use alternatives as similar to choosing to buy Fair Trade goods, “But I wouldn’t lecture people who are struggling that they need to pay more - if you’re struggling I think it’s different”, he adds.
“But those of us who can have some responsibility to shop ethically.”