What it’s really like working for Amazon in Bristol

Amazon warehouse in Maryland, US
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Amazon is currently in the news for not paying any corporation tax on its operations in Europe. Its CEO – Jeff Bezos –  is currently the richest person on Earth.

The Canary spoke with two Amazon workers in Bristol. They described precarious zero-hour working conditions and an atmosphere where they felt as if they might lose their jobs at any moment. Both workers said they were pushed to work faster to meet unrealistic targets. And the speed they were being asked to work at meant that they were unable to to take basic health and safety precautions.

This first interview is with Dave, who works at Amazon’s Fulfilment Centre in Avonmouth.

Hiring workers on zero-hour contracts

Amazon has a stated commitment to not employing any workers – including agency workers – on zero-hour contracts. However, the company was called out this year for hiring agency workers who had responded to adverts for full-time jobs that were in fact zero-hour contracts.

Dave (not his real name) works at Amazon’s Fulfilment Centre at Avonmouth. He’s an agency worker for Adecco. Dave told us that he had applied for a full-time 30 hours a week position. But his contract didn’t guarantee him any work at all:

Adecco advertise their jobs as full or part time. Like mine was supposed to be a 30 hour contract. But in reality it is a zero hours contract because they don’t necessarily have to give you any hours. I am not offered 30 hours a week

Adecco was the largest employment agency in the world in 2020, with revenues of almost €23.5bn in 2019.

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Dave estimated that about half the staff working at Avonmouth were agency staff working for Adecco. And they didn’t have all the same benefits as Amazon workers. Dave thinks this is unfair:

I definitely think that the agency staff should have the same rights and perks as the regular Amazon employees.

There’s also no union representation that Dave is aware of at Avonmouth, despite the fact that over 1,000 people work at the facility.

According to Dave, agency workers who’ve been working at Avonmouth for less than two months can be dismissed at the drop of a hat. People who’ve worked more than two months are entitled to two weeks’ notice.

Dave describes how precarious his job feels, and how Adecco can get rid of workers just for raising an issue about working conditions.

I’ve heard that people have gone to talk to the Adecco about an issue like missing pay, or holiday or something like that and then have just been told to leave, just because [the agency] happen to be looking for someone to let go. As demand creeps down they’re often on the look out for staff to get rid of. Sometimes that boils down to if you happen to be the first person they talk to that day.

Dave says that he feels like raising issues with Adecco representatives at Avonmouth could cost workers their jobs:

Adecco representatives on site aren’t really seen as helpful, I think mentioning issues to Adecco representatives on site could be a way of getting yourself fired basically, from what I’ve heard from other people.

The ‘most depressing’ job I’ve ever had

Dave describes his working day at the Amazon Fulfilment centre:

Its not the most difficult job I’ve had. But I find that it’s the most depressing…

When you arrive at work you queue up, clock in with one of the shift managers who has a laptop and a scanner who scans your badge and something comes up on an Excel document telling you what job you’ve been assigned for the day. That’s either scanning, feeding or cart moving

Scanning involves waiting in front of a conveyor belt for your number to come up. And then you scan the box and put it in a crate behind you. Scanning is the most boring, because you can be assigned a number that doesn’t show up … If you get landed with a number for something going up North you can be standing there in front of the conveyor belt waiting for half an hour or an hour.

Feeding is putting stuff from boxes onto the conveyor belt for other people to scan, and then cart moving is moving the full crates that people have sorted stuff into to the docks to be loaded onto lorries.

Another really robotic job is one where you just look for a number, and then slide it to the right when you see it.

Rushed to meet targets

Dave describes how it’s difficult to follow Amazon’s manual handling procedures when you’re being rushed to work quicker:

[The most difficult job] is dealing with heavy, bulky things like fridges, TVs etc and loading it onto the conveyor belt.That’s quite physically demanding

They do provide manual handling training, but I think when people are being rushed to move stuff I don’t think they really follow [the training]. If you are trying to maintain your arch, and move with your legs I think you could end up being quite slow at moving microwaves – so people do tend to just move in the quickest way they can, regardless of what it’s doing to their joints.

Workers are encouraged to compete with each other, with monitors showing how fast people are working:

They put stats up on various screens showing who is scanning the quickest, who’s moving the most carts and stuff. They try to put an element of competition in there. They supposedly offer free extra half an hour breaks for being the best at cart moving.

Phoney friendliness

Dave describes the US managerial style at Avonmouth, which is marked by a phoney friendliness:

There’s a kind of weird American managerial style which seems to have steeped into the Amazon work environment. For example every day when I’m leaving, there’s a supervisor thanking everyone as they’re leaving. Saying ‘Thank you for your time’, ‘Thank you’.

A lot of this Adecco style has come from American management practices.

So this thing of thanking people when they’re leaving, it’s not coming from the goodness of their hearts. It’s come from upstairs.

Sacked for petty reasons

Dave describes how workers have been let go for the most tiny things, including spending too long in the toilet:

people have been given written warnings for having headphones in, someone was fired for spending too long in the toilet once.

I’ve had a warning from some Amazon guy, saying ‘if you go to the toilet make sure you don’t take too long.’ I didn’t know what he meant, I thought ‘are there not enough cubicles?’ – but no its literally that they are watching you.

Amazon response

The Canary contacted Amazon and Adecco for a comment. Adecco did not respond. An Amazon spokesperson said:

At Amazon we are proud to offer excellent pay, excellent benefits and excellent opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment. Our competitive wages start at £10.80 per hour in Bristol. We are proud that over 40,000 people have chosen Amazon as their employer in the UK and recommend Amazon as an excellent workplace to their family and friends.

However, as an agency worker, Dave isn’t paid Amazon’s “competitive wages”. He only gets £9.80 an hour.

Solidarity is strength

Amazon is infamous for its global union-busting activities, and you can see why. The company is running scared that workers will get sick of working in terrible conditions in order to make the richest person in the world even richer. Amazon has tripled its profits this year, profiting from the labour of workers like Dave.

There is real potential for workers to organise at places like Amazon’s Avonmouth Fulfilment Centre, and everything to win. Those of us who want to build a truly free and just society need to support organising by Amazon workers and the building of workers’ power in Amazon’s facilities.

Tom Anderson is part of the Shoal Collective, a co-operative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Twitter: @ShoalCollective

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons Maryland GovPicsAmazon Tour

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Get involved

  • Check out the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union for all workers.
  • Take a look at the Angry Workers of the World website.
  • Read about the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain’s (IWGB) organising with Amazon workers.

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