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Dave Beans

Working In An Amazon Warehouse - The Human Drones

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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2520401/My-week-Amazons-HUMAN-drones-Doing-Christmas-shopping-online-This-extraordinary-undercover-dispatch-reveals-really-like-work-giant-warehouse-Santas-grotto-aint.html

Amazon’s Swansea warehouse is a quarter of a mile long from end to end and occupies 800,000 square feet. It is, in what is Amazon’s standard unit of measurement, the size of 11 football pitches (the company’s Dunfermline warehouse, the UK’s largest, is 14 football pitches). The warehouses — there are eight — need to be vast because there are more than 100 million items on Amazon’s UK website.

If you can possibly imagine it, Amazon sells it: a One Direction charm bracelet, a dog onesie, a cat scratching post designed to look like a DJ’s record deck, a banana slicer, a fake twig. In the past two weeks, Amazon has taken on an extra 15,000 agency staff in Britain. And it expects to double the number of warehouses here in the next three years. I was hired through an employment agency to work in the Swansea warehouse for a week as a temp, hand-picking items ordered by customers and delivering them to the packers.

My shift starts at 7.45am and ends at 6.15pm. Lunch — unpaid — is from 1.15pm to 1.45pm. There are two 15-minute breaks. I work mostly in the outsize ‘non-conveyable’ section, the home of diabetic dog food, and bio-organic vegetarian dog food, and obese dog food; of 52in TVs, and six-packs of water shipped in from Fiji, and sex toys. I carry a hand-held computer which tells me where to go and what to pick, and measures my workrate.

On my second day, the manager tells us we have picked and packed 155,000 items in the past 24 hours. On December 2 — the busiest online shopping day of the year — that figure was closer to 450,000. Amazon took 3.5 million orders on a single day last year.

The company — one of the most powerful multi-nationals on the planet — is successful for a reason. It is brilliant at what it does. ‘It mastered the chaos of storing tens of millions of products and figuring out how to get them to people, on time, without fail, and no one else has come even close,’ says Brad Stone, author of a new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos And The Age Of Amazon. To work in a ‘fulfilment centre’ is to be a tiny cog in a global distribution machine. It’s an industrialised process, on a truly massive scale, made possible by new technology.

The place might look like it’s been stocked at 2am by a drunk shelf-filler: a typical shelf might have a set of razor blades, a packet of condoms and a My Little Pony DVD. Yet everything is systemised. It’s what makes it all the more unlikely that at the heart of the operation, shuffling items from stowing to picking to packing to shipping, are those not-always-reliable, prone-to-malfunctioning things we know as people. At the interview — a form-filling, drug-and alcohol-testing, general-checking-you-can-read session — we were shown a video. The process was explained and a selection of people interviewed.

‘Like you, I started as an agency worker over Christmas,’ said one man in the video. ‘But I quickly got a permanent job and was then promoted and now, two years later, I’m an area manager.’

Amazon will be taking people on permanently after Christmas, we were told. That’s what the majority of people in my induction group are after. I train with Pete, a care worker, who has been unemployed for the past three years. His partner, Susan, an unemployed IT repair technician, has also just started. It took them more than an hour to get to work.

‘We had to get the kids up at five,’ Pete says. After a ten-and-a-half-hour shift, and about another hour’s drive back, before picking up the children from Pete’s parents, they got home at 9pm.

The next day, they did the same, but Susan twisted her ankle on the first shift. She phones in, but she will receive a ‘point’. Three points mean she will be ‘released’ — sacked.

And then there’s one of our trainers, Les, who is in his 60s. He’s worked at the warehouse for more than a year and goes at twice the rate I manage. He lost two stone in the first two months he worked there from all the walking. We were told when we applied for the jobs that we might walk up to 15 miles a shift. Les had been a senior manager in the same firm for 32 years before he was made redundant. How long was it before you got a permanent job, I ask him. ‘I haven’t,’ he says, holding up his green ID badge. Permanent employees have blue ones, a better hourly rate, and, after two years, share options.

Why haven’t they given you a proper job, I ask Les, and he shrugs his head, but elsewhere people mutter: it’s friends of the managers who get the jobs. It’s HR picking names at random. When I put the question to Amazon, it responded: ‘A small number of seasonal associates have been with us for an extended period of time, and we are keen to retain those individuals in order that we can provide them with a permanent role when one becomes available.

‘We were able to create 2,300 full-time permanent positions for seasonal associates in 2013 by taking advantage of Christmas seasonality to find great permanent employees but, unfortunately, we simply cannot retain 15,000 seasonal employees.’

On its policy relating to sickness, Amazon says: ‘Like many companies, we employ a system to record employee attendance.

'We consider and review all personal circumstances in relation to any attendance issues, and we would not dismiss anyone for being ill. The current system used to record employee attendance is fair and predictable and has resulted in dismissals of 11 permanent employees out of a workforce of over 5,000 permanent employees in 2013.’

It’s worth noting that agency workers are not Amazon employees.

As an agency worker, you’re paid 19p an hour over the minimum wage — £6.50 — and the shifts are 10½ hours long. There is a sense that everything is pared to the absolute bone — from the cheapest of the cheap plastic safety boots employees are offered, to the sack-you-if-you’re-sick policy, to the 15-minute break that starts wherever you happen to be in the warehouse. On my third morning, at my lowest point, when my energy has run out, it takes me six minutes to walk to the airport-style scanners everyone has to pass through when leaving the shop floor, where I spend a minute being frisked to make sure I haven’t stolen anything.

I queue a minute for the loos, get a banana out of my locker, sit down for 30 seconds, and then I get up and walk the six minutes back to my station. To work at Amazon is to witness our lust for ‘stuff’. This year’s stuff includes great piles of Xboxes and Kindles and this season’s Jamie Oliver cookbook, Save With Jamie, Paul Hollywood’s Pies & Puds, and Rick Stein’s India. It’s the Barbie Doll girl’s Christmas advent calendar, however, that nearly breaks me.

I traipse back and forth to section F, where I slice open a box, take out another Barbie advent calendar, unpick the box and put it on the recycling pile, put the calendar, which has been shipped from China — passed from the container port to a third-party distributor, and from there to the Amazon warehouse — onto my trolley and pass it to the packers.

There it will be repackaged and dispatched to bring joy to a small child’s heart. Because nothing captures the magic of Christmas more than a picture of a pneumatic blonde carrying multiple shopping bags. You can’t put a price on that (£9.23 with free delivery).

At the working men’s club down the road, one of the staff tells me that Amazon is ‘the employer of last resort’. It’s where you get a job if you can’t get a job anywhere else.

What did you do before, I ask people. They were builders, IT technicians, carpenters, electricians. They had skilled jobs, or professional jobs, or just better-paying jobs. And now they work for Amazon, earning minimum wage, and most of them are grateful.

And there is no end to Amazon’s appetite. ‘It’s expanding in every conceivable direction,’ author Brad Stone tells me. 'It’s why I called my book The Everything Store. Their ambition is to sell everything. They already have their digital services and their enterprise services. 'They’ve just started selling art. Apparel is still very immature and is set for expansion. Groceries are the next big thing. They’re going very strongly after that because it will cut down costs elsewhere.

‘If they can start running their own trucks in major metro areas, they can cut down the costs of third-party shippers.’

In the UK, I point out, everyone already delivers groceries: Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s. ‘I suspect they’ll acquire,’ Stone says.

And everywhere it kills jobs. Shops employ 47 people for every $10 million (£6 million) in sales, according to research done by a company called ILSR. Amazon employs only 14 people per $10 million of revenue. In Britain, it turned more than £4.2 billion last year, which is a net loss of 23,000 jobs. And even the remaining jobs, the hard, badly-paid jobs in Amazon’s warehouses, are hardly future-proof. Amazon has just bought an automated sorting system called Kiva for $775 million (£479 million). How many retail jobs, of any description, will there be left in ten years’ time?

It is taxes, of course, that pay for the roads on which Amazon’s delivery trucks drive, and the schools in which its employees are educated. Taxes that all its workers pay, and that, it emerged in 2012, Amazon tends not to pay. On UK sales of £4.2 billion in 2012, it paid £3.2 million in corporation tax. In 2006, it transferred its UK business to Luxembourg and reclassified its UK operation as simply an ‘order fulfilment’ business.

The Luxembourg office employs 380 people. The UK operation employs 21,000. You do the sums. Brad Stone tells me that tax avoidance is built into the company’s DNA. From the very beginning it has been ‘constitutionally oriented to securing every possible advantage for its customers, setting the lowest possible prices, taking advantage of every known tax loophole or creating new ones’. In Swansea I chat to someone called Martin for a while. It’s Saturday, the sun is shining and the warehouse has gone quiet. The orders have been turned off like a tap.

‘It’s the weather,’ he says. ‘When it rains, it can suddenly go mental.’ We clear away boxes and the tax issue comes up.

‘There was a lot of anger here,’ he says. ‘People were very bitter about it. But I’d always say to them: “If someone told you that you could pay less tax, do you honestly think you would volunteer to pay more?”’

He’s right. And the people who were angry were also right. It’s an unignorable fact of modern life that, as Stuart Roper of Manchester Business School tells me, ‘some of these big brands are more powerful than governments. They’re wealthier. If they were countries, they would be pretty large economies.

‘They’re multinational and the global financial situation allows them to ship money all over the world. And the Government is so desperate for jobs that it has given away large elements of control.’

MPs like to attack Amazon and Starbucks and Google for not paying their taxes, but they’ve yet to actually create legislation compelling them to do so. On the last break of my last day, I chat with Pete and Susan. Susan still wants a permanent job, but her ankle is still swollen. Her pick rate has been low. We’ve been told that next week, the hours will increase by an hour a day and there will be an extra day of compulsory overtime. It will mean getting their children up by 4.30am, and Pete is worried about finding a baby-sitter at three days’ notice. There have always been awful jobs, with the same sort of employment practices that Amazon has. Restaurants and kebab shops have done the same sort of thing for years.

But Amazon is not a kebab shop. It’s the future; being an Amazon ‘associate’ in an Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’ is the future of work; and Amazon’s payment of minimal tax in any jurisdiction is the future of global business. A future in which multi-national corporations wield more power than governments. Which may be something to think about as you click ‘add to basket’.

Names have been changed.

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Oh dear

Efficiency destroys jobs

And isn't it awful that paradoxically they've given people - previously well paid care workers and plumbers no less - err, jobs

Evil I tell thee

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being an Amazon ‘associate’ in an Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’ is the future of work

I doubt it, these fulfilment centres are going to end up being almost completely automated. Being a security guard who drives around the outside of an Amazon fulfilment centre in a golf cart is the future of work.

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I doubt it, these fulfilment centres are going to end up being almost completely automated. Being a security guard who drives around the outside of an Amazon fulfilment centre in a golf cart is the future of work.

I still think that's too much responsibility for some people.

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I still think that's too much responsibility for some people.

Don't worry, the golf cart will be driven by a computer.

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Swnasea. Amazon wages. London house prices. What can go wrong?

I thought people with fine arts degrees worked on public sector management in Swansea on 40k?

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With all of this automation that's happened over the last few decades, and will no doubt happen over the next few decades, we can all just work shorter hours since everything's being done more efficiently....

....right? That's how it's gonna work, yeah? ;)

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With all of this automation that's happened over the last few decades, and will no doubt happen over the next few decades, we can all just work shorter hours since everything's being done more efficiently....

....right? That's how it's gonna work, yeah? ;)

Yeah, I remember all that guff about more leisure time in the 80s...it was BS then and it's BS now. Eventually I guess most manual jobs will go away but I'm personally optimistic that we'll find new things for people to do. Not that I'd want to work in one, but call centres didn't exist in the 70s and now employ a shed load of people. There's no reason to think that new industries won't appear in the same way.

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What is "hard work"? How would you define it?

walking 15 miles in a 11 hour day sounds pretty hard.

A mate of mine ( now in his 70s) was a miner in his working life...he is today so fit its unbeleivable..hard work to him would probably put me in hospital...

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walking 15 miles in a 11 hour day sounds pretty hard.

A mate of mine ( now in his 70s) was a miner in his working life...he is today so fit its unbeleivable..hard work to him would probably put me in hospital...

For me, it can be either physical (such as labouring), mental (office based) or a mixture of both (such as retail)....All jobs have their attributes...I wouldn't necessary label physical work as the only taxing work you can do...

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What is "hard work"? How would you define it?

I did a lot of farm work when I was a teenager and some of that seemed pretty tough at the time. Picking potatoes by hand in the p1ssing rain in one of the freezing cold autumns we used to get in the 70s and early 80s was probably the hardest. However, I did a couple of weeks labouring on a building site whilst I was a student and it damn near killed me. I have no idea how anyone can survive more than a few years of that.

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walking 15 miles in a 11 hour day sounds pretty hard.

A mate of mine ( now in his 70s) was a miner in his working life...he is today so fit its unbeleivable..hard work to him would probably put me in hospital...

How many of his collegues have had trouble in their 40's,50's,60's with knacked lungs?

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How many of his collegues have had trouble in their 40's,50's,60's with knacked lungs?

I dont know, but he did have a cancer scare a couple of years ago...beat that too!

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