Blog, Comment, Politics

Relentless.com: life as a cog in Amazon’s e-tail machine

When Jeff Bezos was brainstorming names for his new venture in 1994, Relentless was the banner that came closest to making the cut. On sounding out his friends, Bezos was warned it sounded sinister, and Amazon was ultimately chosen to become the history-making name. But something about Relentless spoke to Bezos, so much so that he even registered a domain with it – type Relentless.com into a search bar today and you will still be redirected to Amazon’s website. I spent six months at Amazon’s Hemel Hempstead warehouse, and discovered the reality for the workers behind the trillion-dollar brand.

Mention Amazon to those who work at its warehouses, and cheap books, free delivery and the A-Z smile are unlikely to be what springs to mind. I worked for Amazon for six months in 2013. When someone mentions it to me, my mind flashes to the headlines from my time there: 60-hour weeks, backbreaking targets, swingeing redundancies, illness, depression. Relentless, the word lurking behind the consumer-facing infrastructure, is the reality for Amazon’s workers.

Like many who end up in an Amazon warehouse, the job dropped in my lap through an agency. Fresh out of an English degree, overdrawn, burnt out and unsure what I should be doing next, I had struggled to get a job. With nothing to show for my summer except a couple of ghastly interviews, I adjusted my ambitions and signed up with a recruiter hoping for some admin work.

I received a call from a company called Transline within a week. There was no interview, just a screening to attend where I would have to sign some forms and partake in a drugs test. I was told that if I’d smoked weed at any time in the last six months they would know and wouldn’t hire me. I had been looking for a job for three months at this point, and was ready to take anything I could get. Having spent the previous three years struggling to grapple with poetic metres and critical theory, I quite fancied the contrast – dumping the books to work at the coalface of the industry. A working class job. I had graduated exhausted and unsure of myself, worried I had become estranged from regular people; I immediately began to romanticise the idea. My dad worked in a factory. I hadn’t seen him in a while.

I was part of an intake of some 30 people on my first day. The induction was brisk. One of the line managers, a flat-voiced Polish woman, led us across the warehouse floor pointing out which of the machines could take our hands. The warehouse was a multiplex of greys – from ash to gunmetal, to graphite from dust. Vast rows of packing stations flanked conveyer belts of plastic yellow totes bundled with tat. As we passed the lines, the contraction and expansion of repeating geometric shapes, like Soviet-era futurist prints. One behind another, Amazonians at their stations with just their busy hands visible in the gap between desk and shelves. Concluding the tour, we were sat down in a conference room upstairs to watch a video, which in summary said that Amazon has a ‘customer obsession’ and that while it’s your right to join a union, it’s our preference that you don’t. Then we were put to work.

Amazon’s warehouses are called Fulfilment Centres, with no apparent appreciation for irony. Items start in arrivals, where they are unloaded in bulk and transported to The Cage, a vast mesh tower that catalogues Amazon’s products, where runners pick out orders and scan them into totes. The totes then make their way onto a conveyer belt that trundles them to the packers on the main floor, who then box up each order and pop them back onto another conveyer belt to slide down to departures. Every item, tote and box is barcoded and tracked through each stage of the process.

I was posted in packing. The bare bones of the job are this: your shift is a 10.5 hour day with three breaks throughout, two 15 minute breaks and one half hour. The rest of the day you stand at your workstation and pack. To start I was put on medium and small-sized single item orders: DVDs and CDs into cardboard wallets and boxes into bigger boxes. You have everything you need at your desk. A computer monitor, printer and scanner dictates what needs to be packed in what and prints the labels. Your station is stacked with a range of flat packed boxes; includes a tape, roller, knife. Sitting is prohibited unless you have a medical complaint; you will work faster if you have the full span of your waist and arms. Runners tend to your line with fresh boxes when you run out and divvy out totes of more items should the conveyor belt alongside you break down. You have no reason to leave your workstation.

The rhythm of this work is relentless. Every stage of the process has been optimised, cutting no slack, sparing zero downtime. In menial work it is often in the interstices between tasks that little acts of rebellion can be seized. Amazon knows better than to accommodate this. There is no respite to claim between decisions or transitions because the job is one-dimensional and singular. You pack. (Anything else, you can pack it in.)

Amazon was basically making us work extra hard to ‘make up’ for our statutory right to a rest.

Data is absolutely central to this efficiency. Amazon’s current iteration gathers information on virtually everything its workers do – from their pack rate to downtime – then pits them against each other on the basis of these metrics. The company is always looking for ways to gather more information – for example, Amazon recently acquired a patent for wrist-watching technology. The detailed profile Amazon keeps on its workers, coupled with a rank and yank philosophy that means only the exceptional survive, ensures that its workforce is continually evolving. One former employee called this culture purposeful Darwinism. 

The Amazon handbook boasts that it holds its employees to standards that are ‘unreasonably high‘. In my area, the target to meet was nominally 104 packages per hour. In truth it was more like 120 packages an hour, because the live rate on my monitor would be consistently below what Transline, my agency, recorded for me. Amazon has several temping agencies posted in-house on the warehouse floor, who ‘look after’ staff by coming round with a clipboard to tell you whether you’re meeting your targets. Presumably, Amazon likes to have even its recruiters compete with one another. Drop your pace and your agency will soon let you know.

After a month in the job I think I figured out what was bringing my numbers down. A day at Amazon consists of two 15 minute paid breaks and one 30 minute unpaid lunch break. Your workstation computer connects to Amazon’s product database when you scan items to dictate what kind of box is required, print the post label, and monitor your pack rate based on the number of items you scan per hour. There are different codes to log out for each kind of break, paid and unpaid. Whereas I initially thought the discrepancy between our computer and agency pack rates could be explained by Transline simply underrepresenting our numbers for their own ends, what actually happened was that logging out for the paid break on Amazon’s system left our pack rates recording, bringing our numbers down. Amazon was basically making us work extra hard to ‘make up’ for our statutory right to a rest. And at 104 packages an hour, you are already forced to work at a rapid pace – this in a process in which you must pick up a tote of items, pick your item, scan it to bring up the details, print its label, pick its correct packaging, assemble the box, put the item in with its receipt and fill it with dunnage so that nothing is loose, tape it closed, stick on its postal label, and then place it on the conveyor belt to travel to its next destination. At 120 items per hour you have roughly 30 seconds to do all this. (Transline, incidentally, went into administration not long after I left Amazon after it was revealed it had been supplying staff to Sports Direct’s warehouses that were getting paid less than the minimum wage.)

It will be no surprise if Amazon becomes the first business to fully automate. A company that resents even its workers’ basic right to a break will only find people a frustration to its aims. Amazonians that left their workstation to go to the bathroom would be promptly hounded by seniors. Stories abound of workers afraid to stop, pissing into bottles at their desk. Your tracker, after all, is recording. As such, everything you need to do must be done on your breaks, yet because of the size of the warehouse, and the fact that to get in and out of it you must go through airport-level security (belts off in a tray, metal detectors, pat downs by security guards), it tends to take 3-4 minutes to just make it back to the canteen. If you get a full five minutes to sit down you’ve done well.

If targets were not being met, he would make veiled threats. ‘If you’d rather be stacking shelves at Tesco…,’ he’d taunt, as if any sane person’s response to that kind of condescension isn’t ‘I fucking would.’

The suspicion with which Amazon regards its staff is reproduced at every level of the operation – from the frisking that accompanies every exit and entry from the warehouse, to the generally cold manner in which management address their inferiors. Joining in 2013, I couldn’t help but see a link between the disdain for its unskilled staff and the Conservative Party’s strivers vs. skivers rhetoric. It was as if you were expected to be grateful just to have been given a waged job, and work in full apprehension that, on a zero-hours contract, that privilege is not a right.

My area manager was a guy called Rich.* He was one of those short-fused people you occasionally meet in life whose disposition could shift like a switch, in a moment from chipper to downright menacing. He would greet me cheerily as Callum when he needed something, and I never dared correct him. In our morning briefings he would relay to us the statistics of the previous day, a rabble of some 40 or 50 staff circling him. If targets were not being met, he would make veiled threats. ‘If you’d rather be stacking shelves at Tesco…,’ he’d taunt, as if any sane person’s response to that kind of condescension isn’t ‘I fucking would.’ The idea that working at Tesco was a worse lot reeked of delusion. My guess was that he was a working class guy done good who had ended up becoming dogmatically invested in the cut and thrust he read as meritocracy. We all have our illusions.

In hindsight I wonder how I put up with it. I was one of 15,000 staff Amazon brings on each year to cater for Christmas. In off-season Amazonians work 40 hours a week split across four 10-hour days. During peak, Amazon makes 55 hours work a week compulsory. It encourages its employees to work the legal maximum of 60 – unless of course it completes its orders and then sends its surplus zero-hours staff home. Joining in the autumn, I was waking before dawn, hiving myself in a dim warehouse during daylight hours and returning home in the dark again. At the end of each day I would run a hot bath to sear away the day’s aggregate muck. I’d lower myself in, feeling my pores emptying, the oil and dust rising to the water’s surface to swirl like a storm seen from space. I’d inspect the damage: burst blood vessels in the backs of my knees, my finger tips greyed and eerily smooth, as if my finger prints had worn away. The dirt and sweat of the warehouse was exacerbating my eczema meaning I was suffering through recurring skin infections. The lack of daylight and off-time was making me depressed.

Yet every week that I avoided the chop was a small source of satisfaction. The turnover of staff is staggering. I’d estimate that 50% of the packers around me were either laid off or left every three weeks, to be supplanted by a whole new intake; the ability to hit Amazon’s targets is an aberration, not the norm. For this reason, the Fulfilment Centre is a difficult place to make friends. Familiar faces soon vanish without a trace. As a survivor of the churn, you are acutely aware of the precarity of your position, and internalise the competition. Amazon revels in its brutal culture because it banks on most people being stubborn enough to push back against those odds, even when success in Amazon’s terms is as trivial as keeping your job. Under this regime, workers ultimately have nowhere to turn but against one another – hoarding easier totes, nabbing the best stations. Staying ahead of the pack feels like a zero-sum game.

The obsessive culture of competition is driven into Amazon from head to toe. Looking back it’s clear to me that the management I despised were probably under the same pressure as us – so when it came to things like gaming our packing statistics this was borne out of competition with the other warehouses dotted around the UK. No one has it easy. An NYT exposé from head office revealed a toxic working culture even there, with reports of staff regularly crying at their desks. However, in this account the narrative is balanced by the thrill of being able to create, not to say the goldmine of Amazon stock. There is no such payoff for the blue collar Amazonian on a zero-hours contract.

I knew if I didn’t hit my numbers I would lose my job.

Starting in September at the beginning of peak season, I had seen the warehouse workforce treble in my time, up until a week into January, when Amazon began to make swingeing cutbacks to its temporary staff. I was stupidly proud that I had lasted so long. By this point I had moved from packing to picking, although not by choice. Picking is the worst job in the warehouse, and management knew it. When they learnt that picking was short-staffed, my area manager literally drew names out of a hat to decide who of us in packing was moved. I was gutted. I had worked so hard to make it this far and suddenly I was back to square one: on trial working up to new targets just to keep my job.

Picking is situated in The Cage, a dim, strip-lit mesh wire multi-story library of Amazon’s smaller products. Pickers take a trolley perched with two totes, and a scanner that displays item locations and a countdown for how long you’re expected to take on each one – one countdown for how long it should take you to walk there and one for how long the item should take to scan and stow, timed to within a second. The brutality of this job was exposed most effectively by Panorama, which secretly filmed an agent scurrying down these corridors to the incessant beep of his console. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to beat the timer without racing from location to location, like you are trapped in some Kafkaesque game of Supermarket Sweep. This surely contravenes health and safety rules, but with Amazon scything away its temporary staff at Christmas, I knew if I didn’t hit my numbers I would lose my job.

An FT article from 2013 asserted pickers could walk up to 15 miles a day. Other outlets claimed pickers could run the equivalent of a marathon over a shift. Yet even as I struggled to meet my targets, this wasn’t the worst part of the job for me. The Cage is filthy. Most boxes were coated in a film of muck, showering you with dust whenever you’d pull one from overhead. I left work each day with my hands blackened. This made my already bad eczema worse. I was virtually living on antibiotics because the infections I’d been getting had spread all over my body. My skin was so dried out it was cracking and weeping, so that it stung to move my joints. I would have slipped ointment into the warehouse with me but my hands got so dirty I couldn’t apply it. I tunneled through the shelves after item after item like a termite in its nest.

What else could I do? Due to Amazon’s three-strike rule on unscheduled time off, I was essentially forbidden from being sick. Although this rule has since been rescinded, the abnormal rate of poor health among the company’s employees persists. An FOI request by GMB recently discovered that 600 ambulances had been called out to Amazon’s UK Fulfilment Centres in just three years. Its Rugeley site saw 115 callouts alone, compared to just eight at a similar-sized Tesco warehouse over the same period. The GMB trade union has represented heavily pregnant staff who have been refused permission to briefly sit down during an 11-hour shift, seen staff who have started to develop musculoskeletal problems with the repetitive nature of the work. Nearly 90% of the Amazon workers GMB represents say they experience constant pain at work. A few years ago a temp died of heart failure in a warehouse in Virginia, raising questions about whether the company was pushing people too far. Mike Roth, Vice President of North American Operations, said Amazon’s metrics are safe, fair and attainable.

Amazon pushes up against the limits of, and thus exposes, what is acceptable within our current economic model.

For all this, when I made it through Christmas I felt a pride I hadn’t experienced since school. As January trudged towards February, peak season operations were winding down and 40-hour weeks resumed. In the weeks since New Year, I had seen the warehouse workforce shrink by half. Management had even congratulated those of us who had made it. It looked like I might be on for a proper contract.

For so long I had been driven to work by the fear of losing it, I had forgotten how to let myself relax. In mid-January I put in a request for a day off in the last weekend of the month, meaning I had an actual weekend to myself for the first time in five months, three full days in succession. I’d been invited to Norwich by my friend Beth, who had got us tickets to see a band on tour over from the States, I can’t remember who. I can’t remember because I drank so much whisky before going out that I blacked out on the way to the venue and came to after only two songs, thinking the clapping meant the gig had finished and leaving again at only 9pm. Still, to see a friend again was a great relief (I had worked over Christmas and missed my mates’ celebrations for New Year). It felt like I had been in a dark place for a long time, but here was the reward for that sacrifice – a promise that things might be easier from now on.

I was made redundant that weekend, getting a call from my Transline rep as I made my way back from Norwich. Because I was on a zero-hours contract there was nothing I needed to do – I simply didn’t have to turn up to work in the morning and my P45 would be in the post. I crumpled into a corner in Liverpool Street station and cried.

~

In the five years since I worked there, Amazon’s market cap has increased by $800bn dollars. It has just posted a profit for the 13th straight quarter. Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in history. He is worth $150bn alone.

Amazon has grown so powerful with such reach that the legal scholar Frank Pasquale has described it as acquiring ‘functional sovereignty’. The company doesn’t just monopolise publishing but controls the primary platform for the entire industry; its Web Services division accounts for 44% of the world’s cloud computing capacity. The consequence of this is that smaller companies are forced to ride the rails of their biggest competitor to get to market, handing away valuable data. As such, while Amazon keeps prices low for consumers, it presses its dominance in other arenas. As Lina Khan has argued, while its business model keeps its users happy, the unchecked structural power it amasses becomes a concern for us as citizens, workers and entrepreneurs. In its singular ambition of becoming the world’s most powerful company, Amazon pushes up against the limits of, and thus exposes, what is acceptable within our current economic model.

Amazonians deserve a say on their work conditions, rather than having to wait for their employer to weigh in the PR value of their well-being.

The news today that Amazon has ‘listened to its critics’ and upped its minimum wage from £8 to £9.50 an hour is a massively welcome step, making a significant difference to the lives of tens of thousands of workers in the UK alone. Congratulations should go to the journalists who have exposed Amazon’s practices over the years and in particular to the GMB union for working to organise in Amazon’s warehouses in the face of fierce opposition. The hope is that with Amazon setting a precedent, more people can add their voices to the chorus of workers asking for a better deal.

However, it is important that wins like this, while rightly celebrated, are not allowed to stand as testament to a system that is working fine. For Amazon to now call for a higher minimum wage, having built its empire on a low one, is a self-interested move in that it raises the price of admission for other companies to compete. It was never in question that Amazon could afford to. Its wager is that soon enough the law will change anyway and it will pay its workers the minimum it can get away with once again. The company has notably not made any long-term commitments to adjust for inflation, by signing up to the Living Wage Foundation, for example. And it is important to bear in mind how exploitative the company remains in myriad other ways. Irrespective of today’s announcement, Amazon must be made to recognise unions as an absolute priority. Amazonians deserve a say on their work conditions, rather than having to wait for their employer to weigh in the PR value of their well-being.

In a sense, Amazon is only a tick in the ear of our dysfunctional economy. Yet, as it amasses more and more power, it also sets a grim precedent for many more workers should we not alter course. To supplement the hard work unions like GMB are doing, IPPR’s Prosperity and Justice report is a welcome contribution to the debate on how things could change. As well as proposing common sense policies such as greater support for unions and an extra boost to the wage of workers on zero-hours contracts, it also recognises the deeper issues – of monopolisation and unproductive accumulation – that mega-corporations like Amazon pose. Labour’s proposals to give workers shares so as to better influence how their workplace is run is another promising idea.

Naïve as I was when I joined Amazon, I assumed my duty was to accept the misery it had to offer. Five years on, I am still angry that the practices I witnessed there have not seen redress. While today’s announcement is an undoubtedly huge moment for thousands of people, there is still plenty else that needs to change at firms like Amazon. As more legions of packers are recruited ahead of Christmas and Black Friday, we should continue to think outside the box.

 

*name changed

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