Amazon warehouses come under scrutiny
In the news recently, Amazon had a patent accepted for a cage in which workers would be moved around its warehouses. According to Fortune, who reported the story, “The patent shows a cage built for a human working in robot work zones, a small work station atop a robot trolley like the kind already used in Amazon warehouses to move shelving.”
It’s fair to say that Amazon don’t have a reputation as an entirely ethical business, or one which treats its employees with the fairness and dignity that we might expect in a modern society. There have been a number of recent reports which accuse the company of tax dodging, mistreating workers and even killing high street businesses as the likes of John Lewis struggle and House of Fraser stave off collapse.
Could it be the case, however, that Amazon are unfairly targeted in a modern world which treats people deemed as ‘elites’ with suspicion and anger? Perhaps.
It’s certainly true that in 2018 the trendy political position to take is one where the rich and powerful are all conspirators plotting to steal from the poor and worsen their conditions. John McDonnell, for example, has used euphemism and innuendo to suggest that revolution is in the air.
On a purely anecdotal basis, as our offices are based in Manchester we’re not far from an Amazon sorting centre, and a colleague recounted a friend saying that when he worked at Amazon he was allocated a small red box, marked with tape, in which he was told he could not leave until his shift ended.
There are more reliable stories which can be found, perhaps the most popular being an article that was widely shared and promoted by US Senator Bernie Sanders, who narrowly missed out on the Democratic nomination to run for President in 2016. In a collaboration with a UK journalist there were accusations made, with testimonies, that workers were punished for going to the toilet, that workers often relieved themselves into plastic bottles to avoid this punishment, and that targets were set to be deliberately unachievable.
In an article for Observer.com it was alleged “Workers reportedly have to process a package every nine seconds from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Those who struggle to keep up with the 300-item-an-hour workload sometimes suffer panic attacks that require hospitalisation.”
A separate investigation by The Guardian appeared to back this up, reporting that ambulances were called out to Amazon’s UK warehouses a staggering 600 times in 3 years, indicating that the working conditions were causing medical emergencies for its staff.
The BBC also reported in August, with regards to Amazon’s tax affairs, “Amazon UK Services bill was £4.6m, down from £7.4m a year ago, accounts show.
But the division, which operates the warehouse "fulfilment centres", was able to defer £2.9m.
It meant that the company has paid £1.7m in tax, even though pre-tax profits jumped from £24.3m to £72.3m. Amazon said it paid all the taxes required by UK law.”
Amazon has understandably denied that its workers are forced to endure terrible conditions, saying that Bernie Sanders’ claims about their warehouse’s are inaccurate and misleading. They also said that they had offered Sanders a tour of their facilities but he had yet to take them up on the offer.
In its blog post, Amazon claimed that full-time associates in its fulfilment centres make more than $15-per-hour including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses. There are also plenty of testimonials online from supposed Amazon workers defending the role, and Amazon, against allegations of abuse.
It was then revealed, however, that the waves of positive interactions online all had the same background pictures, layout and extensions to their Twitter handles. "FC ambassadors are employees who have experience working in our fulfilment centres," an Amazon representative told Business Insider. "The most important thing is that they've been here long enough to honestly share the facts based on personal experience.”
Whether Amazon has any truly independent employees who aren’t being paid to promote Amazon is unclear, and working conditions at their warehouses have come under immense scrutiny recently, but what seems clear at this point is that verified experiences of actually working at Amazon have been overwhelmingly negative.