‘Disposable labour’: Amazon workers describe life at the depot

Serious questions are being raised about working conditions in Amazon warehouses

SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Insecure terms, unpaid wages and cancelled shifts are among the problems facing some of the low-paid workers at Amazon’s Croydon depots, as CLARA MURRAY reports

A nationwide investigation into working conditions at Amazon warehouses, including two in Croydon, has found the tech giant and its agencies use flexible contracts to treat workers “like disposable labour”.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism spoke to warehouse workers across the country and found many of them struggling to make ends meet due to unpaid wages and cancelled shifts.

Others are on zero-hour contracts, with no guarantee of minimum pay each week – in contradiction of Amazon’s own policies. Many said it was impossible to get in touch with their recruitment agency to have these complaints addressed.

Allegations like these are not new for Amazon, but they are significant against the backdrop of its success during the pandemic. In the run-up to Christmas, Amazon hired more than 20,000 seasonal workers, many through outsourcing agencies.

Amazon recruited for 150 seasonal jobs at its two Croydon hubs, both on the Purley Way, to cope with festive demand last year. In a borough where 1-in-20 people are unemployed, and with 13 per cent of Croydon workers furloughed due to covid-19, this sounds like a boon.

But employees there have complained of similar exploitative working practices.

John (not his real name, which has been withheld to protect his identity) is employed by PMP Recruitment as a warehouse associate in the larger Croydon depot. He earns £11.80 per hour for 30 hours’ work per week – reduced from an initial 40-hour full-time contract.

At first, he was told he would be working morning or hybrid shifts. But this was “scrapped” by management and John was put on to night shifts.

Day-to-day, shift changes are often communicated at the last minute, giving workers “little time to prepare and make a decision whether they want to stay or leave”. The warehouse is understaffed, John told Inside Croydon, leaving many workers there feeling “exhausted”.

Meanwhile, workers are often let go – or “released” in Amazon’s jargon – “without warning or proper notice”.

John said, “There’s a very selfish culture among the workforce… everyone knows their job is constantly on the line.”

Online reviews, although they cannot be verified, paint a similar picture.

Mid-morning at Croydon’s Amazon distribution depot. Dozens of white vans routinely park up on nearby streets each day as they way for their collection times

“It’s clear to see the warehouse ‘supervisors’ favouring their own,” reads an anonymous one-star review placed on Indeed from a former worker based in Croydon.

“They know we do night shifts, yet contact us around 6pm to confirm we are coming for the next shift. Literally got home from previous shifts at 12.30pm, get to sleep by 2pm. Which means we have to break our sleep, and not get the required rest time between shifts (8 hours). You either have to give your phone to someone who lives with you to reply or you have to get up and reply. Or you miss your shift.”

Another review, by a “part-time university student”, described how, after working at a Croydon warehouse for two weeks, they were told not to come back the next day: “No notice or no transfer options and when we tried to ask why we were being dropped out our manager acted irritated and said she will call when she have work, kind of chased us out of there.

“Since then she doesn’t even answer our calls when I tried to call to ask about my pay slip.”

Others complained of 15-minute lunch breaks, a lack of training and being expected to “work like a machine”.

More positive reviews compliment the friendly people and the opportunities to learn about logistics and warehouse tools.

John said that covid-19 safety measures at the Croydon depot worked well and he felt safe there.

Amazon workers in other countries, including Germany and Poland, have held strikes and protests against their conditions.

Croydon Solidarity Network, a local workers’ group, have been in contact with Amazon drivers and warehouse workers for some time. Many have complained of increasing workloads, squeezed hours and unsafe conditions – but attempts to organise have yet to result in any collective action.

TUC’s Frances O’Grady: workers at Amazon depots are treated like ‘disposable labour’

Trade unionists, politicians and campaigners have condemned the findings about Amazon’s working practices in this country.

Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary, said, “Amazon workers have played a key role during this pandemic. But many are treated like disposable labour while the company registers enormous profits off the back of their hard work. That’s not right.”

Mick Rix, GMB national officer, told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: “Amazon for years have exploited the use of temporary labour, by hiring and firing at will. Temporary agency work can be one of the worst forms of exploitative employment methods… Amazon basically fires the vast majority of its agency labour it takes on prior to seasonal peak, and does so without notice.”

PMP Recruitment and Amazon have denied the findings of the Bureau’s investigation. PMP told the Bureau: “We recognise the importance of ensuring our workers are paid correctly first time, every time, and work tirelessly in achieving this goal – we have robust procedures in place to ensure that if pay queries do occur they are resolved swiftly.”

Amazon said: “Our agency terms are explicit that Amazon does not engage individuals on zero-hour contracts. Associates on temporary assignments at Amazon, who are employed by agencies, work a range of shifts from full-time to part-time, however in the majority of cases, a 40-hour week is offered.”

Are you an Amazon worker in Croydon? Share your experiences with us by emailing inside.croydon@btinternet.com

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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4 Responses to ‘Disposable labour’: Amazon workers describe life at the depot

  1. There are plenty of reasons to boycott Amazon.

    In 2015, Amazon said that it would start to book retail sales made in the UK through its UK subsidiary, meaning that it would pay tax in proportion to the sales made in the country. Yet, in 2020, the company continued to register its UK sales in Luxembourg, known to be a tax haven.

    The Ethical Consumer Research Association estimate that in 2017, Amazon’s tax avoidance from profit shifting alone cost the UK £52million.

    In 2020, Amazon announced that its key UK business paid just £14.46 million in tax in 2019 – a 3% increase from the previous year, despite pre-tax profits growing by more than 35%.

    Amazon’s Luxembourg subsidiary currently makes a loss, meaning that it not only doesn’t pay tax but “is generating enormous tax reliefs that can be used in the future to ensure that little or no tax continues to be paid,” according to Paul Monaghan, CEO of the Fair Tax Mark.

    Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is renowned for treating his employees like dirt. The US journalist Brad Stone revealed in his book The Everything Store, Bezos insults to his staff include “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”, “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”, and “Why are you ruining my life?”.

    Last year while the coronavirus pandemic was raging, Bezos added more than $70bn to his net worth taking it to $185bn. On average, his workers at Amazon got a $0.99-an-hour pay bump compared to his Bezos’s hourly wealth increase of $11.7m. People who protest or try to organise union membership get fired.

    A digital sales tax would ensure that Amazon and the other tax dodgers support the rebuilding of our public services – on which they also rely – while making UK sales. The Conservatives are said to be mulling this over, but the longer Rishi Sunak dithers, the more damage is done to our economy, high street shops and public services.

    It’s not just about the money. In 2019, Bette Midler tweeted that Amazon’s annual carbon footprint is 44.4 million metric tons, and that it donates to climate-change denying politicians. The company did not respond. But tweet about Amazon and invariably some troll will pop up to say how lovely they are. Amazon’s TV adverts aim to portray the company as trustworthy, environmentally friendly and a great place to work. It is anything but.

    Ethical online alternatives to Amazon include Ethical Shop, Amberoot, Amnesty, Oxfam, Shared Earth, Traidcraft, Veo.world and John Lewis.

    • Chris Flynn says:

      Absolutely agree with the sentiment of personal boycotts. But unfortunately not everyone can afford to pay a premium to buy elsewhere now, or afford to turn down a job from them – in a pandemic recession, feeding a family will come above the relative luxury of ethics. Which is why I agree Government intervention is absolutely required here. Maybe we could paint those numbers on a bus and drive it pass Boris’s house?

  2. Clive says:

    I agree with above statement that Amazon exploits its workers it also makes you work hard and for van drivers you start work at 10:15am and by 11am you’re out on the road working you go into the dead of evening so could be out working till 21:00 still out on the road delivering 179 stops 330 parcels you’ll be going over the same stops so you have gone to one house or one building and you might have to go back there three or 4 times in one night.

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