New Worker Banner

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


In the Amazon jungle

by New Worker correspondent

THE DUNDEE-BASED Sunday Post is Scotland’s most mocked newspaper. It used to claim the world’s highest density circulation and is famous for its long-running cartoons The Broons and Oor Wullie, whose annual volumes are an essential part of Christmas for children aged eight to 88. It also does serious journalism, however. One example of this was the Home affairs editor Stephen Stewart recently taking a temporary second job at the Amazon 93,000 square metre warehouse in Dunfermline, the largest in Britain.

Amazon has two ‘fulfilment centres’, as their warehouse are known in Scotland. Because Amazon was such a hard-up company it was the deserving recipient of a £5.3 million grant from the SNP government to help build the warehouses.

This is not the first time the Dunfermline site has featured in these pages. In 2018 we noted that Amazon declined to pay workers the Real Living Wage, which the SNP said they would insist on as a condition for their grant. At that time workers had to opt out of restrictions on hours to secure a job. Earlier, on 16 December 2016, we reported that a tent city had emerged outside the warehouse occupied by low-paid seasonal workers.

Then the Courier & Advertiser told of the occupant of a tent who said that camping was easier and cheaper than travelling from his home in Perth. A £10.40 single Dundee-to-Dunfermline bus ticket was discovered, perhaps used by one of those agency workers working 60 hours who were only able to afford a weekly journey back home.

To return to the present, to his surprise Stewart speedily passed through Amazon’s brief vetting process that consisted of a few online questionnaires, and a 15-minute video concerned with shoe size and what size of hi-vis vest would fit. This being the Black Friday period of November, Amazon clearly were not fussy, but from the evidence below it is likely that the Dunfermline HR department will now have a vacancy or two after their lapse.

Soon he became an “Associate” of Amazon, obviously not a worker, perhaps because workers can claim rights. New workers were told they were allowed phones on the floor but not allowed to use them. To quote him in full: “If we receive a call from a number suggesting a domestic crisis, we must find a supervisor and ask if we can take the call. It is suggested, in passing, that citing a ‘family emergency’ rather than illness if having to call in sick might help us keep our jobs.” Charles Dickens’s blacking factory was not so bad after all.

returns

Stewart was assigned to Customer Returns, where he examines returned items to see if they can be sold again. This involved spending eight hours per day at a standing workstation for ever grabbing boxes from the conveyor belt, scanning items, repacking them to send to the relevant section by conveyor.

expected

Workers are expected to deal with 350–500 items per shift, failure to do so results in formal disciplinary warnings. Intensive monitoring is in place with literally every action, or lack of them, being recorded. “Supervisors have computers on trolleys that they wheel about checking on who is doing what and where everything is going. Some come over to analyse what I have been scanning and sending on,” he noted. Stewart was berated by a supervisor for low productivity on the day he was having his worst cold for years.

The days of the foreman with a clipboard are over but more intensive means of surveillance are becoming the norm.

Life at Amazon is not all work. On the nightshift they are allowed two half-hour breaks at 10:40pm and 2:10am (one paid, one unpaid), but undergoing “airport-style security” to get into the canteen eats into that. Mobile phones are marked with an Amazon sticker to prove it wasn’t stolen from a shelf.

As an ex-Army man, we can take Stewart’s word that it is stricter than at high-security military bases. Amazon claim they have a serious problem with thefts, citing cases of security workers helping with loading vans of TVs.

Amongst the cases Stewart witnessed was a young woman berated by her supervisor for going to the toilet too much and that of a man in his 60s not allowed to return to his nearby home from his shift to get his glasses. As a result, he ends up with a migraine trying to read the labels on the products he was scanning as well as trying to scrutinise the computer monitor.

minimal

Training was minimal, a hazardous material safety briefing lasted only a few minutes. In his job Stewart had to handle used goods, including a used bidet sprayer. He was issued with two gloves but told only to wear one to deal with the touch-screen monitor.

He also reported that the canteen only sold fried food and energy drinks and no fruit.

For all this Stewart was paid £10.50 per hour plus £1.75 for working nights. He calculated that in the week he earned £490 for his 40 night-hours, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gained an extra £1 billion. Amazon’s basic rate is slightly above the minimum wage but below the voluntary real living wage. Joint pain was the main reward of his mercifully brief period of employment. Others have to walk 10–15 miles per day.

Needless to say, Amazon is sternly anti-union. Attempts at unionising American warehouses were met with dirty tricks by management including compulsory meetings on the evils of trade unionism, only in a single New York warehouse did a ballot secure recognition.

In Britain things are only slightly better. Before Christmas Amazon workers at the Coventry warehouse voted by 98 per cent on a 63 per cent turnout for strike action after rejecting a 50 pence per hour pay offer. They want a £15 hourly minimum.

Amanda Gearing, GMB Senior Organiser, welcomed this, saying: “Amazon workers in Coventry have made history – they will be the first ever in the UK to take part in a formal strike. Amazon can afford to do better. It’s not too late to avoid strike action; get round the table with GMB to improve the pay and conditions of workers.”

Ms Gearing forgets that in August there was a brief sit-in by 1,000 staff under the auspices of Unite at Tilbury over a 35 pence hourly offer. To return to Dunfermline, Unite’s Scottish Secretary Pat Rafferty said Stewart’s experience was the norm, not the exception: “It demonstrates what happens when workers are denied a collective voice and must be addressed.” He hopefully added: “The Scottish Government should also be examining the concerns raised due to the public money Amazon has received and demanding a meeting with management in Dunfermline to demand unions get access to the workforce.”

GMB’s Martin Smith pointed out that working for Amazon in real life is not as nice as it looks on those glossy TV adverts. He pointed out that Amazon “produces average earning figures that shows on average people earning £30,000 but that includes software engineers in, for example, the Gourock site, who are on much higher wages.”

He also complains that Amazon “describes itself as an e-retailer and say wages in fulfilment centres are comparable to the retail sector. But the work is warehouse work and when you compare them to warehouse wages they are at least £3 an hour less than DPD or any other logistics companies.”

Unite has set up a whistle-blower’ helpline to gather data and offer comfort, but perhaps it could put more effort into recruitment and co-operation with GMB in preparation for further battles.