- Several Amazon staff members from across the world have described to Business Insider the intense pressure of working in a warehouse, where they pick and pack items for delivery.
- One US worker described an “awful smell” coming from warehouse trash cans, saying coworkers would urinate in them for fear of missing their targets because they took too much time to go to the bathroom.
- Others said their short, timed breaks were reduced further as they waited in lines to go through security.
- Amazon pushed back on the accounts of warehouse working conditions, saying thousands of people want jobs picking and packing because of competitive pay and benefits.
- The company says that it has abolished penalties for taking time off and that it doesn’t time employees’ bathroom breaks.
A former Amazon warehouse worker described being stopped in his tracks by an “awful smell” emanating from the trash cans. The stench, he said, was “unmistakable” and led him to one conclusion: His coworkers were so worried about taking too long on a bathroom break that they had resorted to urinating in the bin.
“I never witnessed anyone in the act but have witnessed the aftermath,” the US staffer told Business Insider. “In three instances I had noticed an awful smell, pinpointed the location – trash bins that are scattered throughout the multitiered mezzanine – and reported it. From what I heard afterward, camera evidence got these associates fired.”
His story echoes an investigation by the journalist James Bloodworth, who went undercover as a worker in an Amazon warehouse in the UK in 2016 for a book on low-wage jobs.
Bloodworth told Business Insider he once found a bottle of urine on a shelf, saying people would do so because they feared that a bathroom break would take too long and would cause them to miss their strict targets.
Since publishing Bloodworth’s story last month, more than 30 people who said they worked for Amazon in the US, UK, and Germany contacted Business Insider with stories of working in an Amazon warehouse. Business Insider verified some of their accounts through employment documentation and interviews.
The warehouse employees’ stories paint a picture of constant surveillance and a crippling fear of missing targets.
Many people view Amazon as a near-magical entity that delivers online shopping with amazing speed, sometimes within the hour.
That’s achievable largely because of Amazon’s focus on efficiency at its warehouses, the beating heart of its operation. The company has 16 in the UK alone, where thousands of employees pick products off shelves, pack them into the right boxes, and get them out to customers.
But that efficiency comes at a cost, employees say.
Amazon “pickers” move around the warehouse on a predetermined route to collect items for delivery, scanning each one with a handheld scanner, which times the length between scans, employees said.
They say pickers must hit a certain number of scans per hour, and if they miss their targets, a manager will show up to see what they’re doing.
Employees say that things like spending time talking to coworkers, going to get a drink, or even taking too long to find a package are billed as “time off task,” too much of which leads to penalty points for an employee. Get enough of those, and you’re fired.
That – combined with security cameras dotting Amazon’s warehouses, its airport-style security checks, and short breaks – makes employees feel like “robots,” they said. And it’s all in the service of getting those parcels out faster.
Amazon pushed back on the employees’ portrayals of working at its warehouses.
In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman said: “Amazon provides a safe and positive workplace for thousands of people across the UK with competitive pay and benefits from day one. We are committed to treating every one of our associates with dignity and respect. We don’t recognise these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.”
Airport-style security and breaks cut short by waiting in line
One employee who worked in an Amazon warehouse in Germany described what it was like to go to work.
She said employees had to put their wallets, phones, and other possessions into small lockers. But while there were plenty of security cameras around the warehouse, there were no staff members watching employees’ possessions, she said. Thefts were frequent, she added.
After stowing their possessions, employees get in line to walk through a metal detector. If someone brought something they shouldn’t have, they’re sent back to the lockers and made to wait again, the employee said.
“I once got stuck in the metal detector – I forgot I had my purse in my back pocket – so I naturally came in too late and had to explain why in front of 80 people,” she said. “Great start to the day.”
This employee was tasked with restocking, putting 15 to 20 carts’ worth of new products onto Amazon’s shelves.
“It was doable with zero breaks and no chatting with coworkers,” she said. “It was not allowed to stand and talk with your coworkers. If you got caught doing that, you would have to listen to a monologue about how important it is to do your job.
“If you got caught too many times chatting, you would get a point on your scorecard. After five points, you would have to talk to your supervisor about your poor performance. Three of these talks meant that you got a report. Three reports and you are fired.”
Even the breaks were stressful, she said.
“Lunchtime was just as stressful as everything prior,” the employee said. “You would rush to the metal detector, stand in line, wait, grab a smoke or something to eat – there wasn’t enough time for both – sit down for a few moments, and rush back to the detector.
“The breaks lasted maybe 10 minutes,” she added. “The other 20 minutes you spent standing in line.”
An Amazon spokeswoman said that most employees didn’t have to wait in line for long periods and that there were break rooms available inside the warehouse so people wouldn’t have to go through security.
“It is important to us that all people working at Amazon receive their full break,” the spokeswoman said. “If a break involves leaving the building, we carefully monitor the length of time it takes people to go through the screening process and ensure it does not take longer than between 30 to 60 seconds on average. We have also extended and improved our canteen facilities to ensure people are able to collect and pay for their food locally.”
There is now CCTV near the lockers at the German warehouse, added at the request of employees.
“Security measures such as cameras and security gates are normal procedure in any large logistics centre that houses highly valuable product inventory,” the spokeswoman said.
About 30 current and former warehouse staff members who contacted Business Insider echoed the German employee’s account.
“Water consumption is a concern because leaving [your task] to go to the toilet might take 10 to 15 minutes,” one said. “These time-off-task events are tracked, and warnings are issued.
“Then there is ‘pick to pick’ – this means an employee has a 15-minute break between picks,” the employee added. “But essentially, your two 15-minute breaks in a standard 10-hour shift are actually two 10-minute breaks because the time to get to a break room or a toilet eats up at least five minutes.”
Amazon says it doesn’t time employees’ bathroom breaks and that it’s a short walk for most people.
“Amazon ensures all of its associates have easy access to toilet facilities which are just a short walk from where they are working,” a spokeswoman said. “Associates are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed.”
One worker says he had an asthma attack while working a night shift
Bloodworth told Business Insider he was penalised for taking a sick day. Another former staffer accused Amazon of having disregard for employees’ health.
The staff member, who worked for Amazon in the UK last year and provided his Amazon badge to Business Insider, described struggling with the physical work because he has asthma.
He started as a picker, moving around the warehouse to retrieve items for packaging. He said that after having an asthma attack during a night shift that put him in the hospital, he was moved to packing – still a physical job, but with less running around. Then, he said, he was moved back.
“I was feeling much better, but after a day or two, they told me they didn’t have enough pickers and put me back out,” he said. “After explaining that I was moved due to my asthma, they told me that due to the fact I was trained on both, I didn’t really have a choice of what I got to do – I did whatever was needed.”
Amazon sometimes moves employees who are not hitting targets to different roles in an attempt to improve their performance.
Amazon declined to comment on the employee’s account.
Amazon says it abolished its points-based attendance system, but some staffers say it’s still in place
Amazon has repeatedly told Business Insider that it no longer uses a points system to track employees’ attendance.
Here’s what it said in its most recent statement (emphasis added):
“Like most companies, Amazon has a fair and predictable system to record staff attendance and take into account individual circumstances. This is clearly communicated to associates during their orientation.
“Amazon has a range of initiatives to support our people if they become ill at home or at work and we recently extended these to include improved on-site support. We recognise that there are times someone cannot come to work, even if they want to. If someone is ill, we want to help them get back to work when they are fit to do so.
“We no longer have a points-based attendance policy – we changed it following feedback from our associates. If someone is sick, we will have a conversation with them to understand their own individual circumstances. We completely support our people, and use proper discretion when applying our absence policy.”
In the US, the points system was removed for permanent full-time staff members, but several employees told Business Insider it still applied to other workers.
“Since I currently work for Amazon in the US, I can tell you that is simply not true: They have always and continue to use that points-based system,” one US worker said.
“As for bathrooms being a short distance from anyone in the fulfillment center, that’s just not true,” the employee added. “There aren’t enough of them, and they are always a good distance from you.”
Others expressed frustration that daily warehouse pressures had helped Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos become the richest man in the world.
“The metrics are brutally aggressive, and most of my colleagues are in a state of constant anxiety that we could be fired at any moment for not meeting metrics,” one current US employee said.
The employee added: “Amazon needs union representation globally. It is modern slavery. Jeff Bezos has become the richest man in the world off the backs of people so desperate for work that we tolerate the abuse.”
The employee praised her colleagues in Germany who in a union-organised demonstration last week protested Amazon’s record of paying little tax and its treatment of workers.
The protest took place outside the Berlin headquarters of the German publisher Axel Springer, where Bezos was receiving an award. (Axel Springer is Business Insider’s parent company.)
In an interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, Bezos responded to the issues the people were protesting.
“I am very proud of our working conditions, and I am very proud of the wages that we pay,” Bezos said. (Read a rundown of his remarks here.)
One worker feels good about his job – but says it isn’t for the faint-hearted
Though Amazon doesn’t disclose how many staff members work in its warehouses, it has said it has about 566,000 worldwide, more than 24,000 of whom are in the UK. A large portion work in fulfillment centres, and the company often hires temporary employees during busy periods like holidays.
John Ritland, who has worked as a picker and packer for the past six years at Amazon’s warehouse in Chattanooga, Tennessee, described the job as “labour-intensive” but said the monitoring and targets didn’t bother him.
“I keep pretty busy,” he told Business Insider. “It only bothers me when they create a barrier to path,” or the algorithmically determined route Amazon gives a worker to get move around the warehouse.
The most efficient path will include multiple items to collect along the way. Others might send you through several aisles, Ritland said.
Ritland acknowledged that some people in his warehouse didn’t feel as if they have enough time to take a break. But he said that’s not something that affects him.
“People will take breaks in between breaks, and they will get a personal visit [from a manager] because of time off task,” he said. “It ultimately comes down to making the requirements per hours, and if you’re gone a lot, you need to have a good excuse. If it’s an acceptable rate, they will accept it.
“I’m on the ball, even though I’m in my 60s,” he said. “Since I’m not off-task all the time, I don’t feel the pressure.”
A big draw for Ritland is insurance benefits.
“I made twice as much last year in insurance billing as I made in salary,” he said. “As people age, the insurance increases. So that’s a big draw for older individuals.”
A spokeswoman said: “Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs in the last year alone. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay and full benefits. One of the reasons we’ve been able to attract so many people to join us is that our number one priority is to ensure a positive and safe working environment.
“We use our connections program to ask associates a question every day about how we can make things even better, we develop new processes and technology to make the roles in our facilities more ergonomic and comfortable for our associates, and we investigate any allegation we are made aware of and fix things that are wrong.”