The working conditions inside an Amazon warehouse are pretty miserable, according to a big FT report by Sarah O’Conner.She dug into the impact of a new Amazon fulfillment centre on the small British town of Rugeley. Her conclusion is that Amazon’s warehouses, though they employee hundreds of people, aren’t necessarily all that great for the local economy.
Amazon employs people at minimum wages. It’s also not terribly committed to a large workforce. It uses hiring agencies to bring in temporary employees. As a result, the effect on the local economy is not what people were expecting. People were expecting a boom in retail and housing, but instead it’s been pretty much the same as before the warehouse opened.
“Our definition of a good employer is someone who takes on people and provides them with sustainable employment week in week out, not somebody who takes on workers one week and gets rid of them the next,” a member of the district council told O’Conner.
More surprising than Amazon’s limited effect on the local economy is the work itself. The people of Rugeley are not happy. One local said, “The feedback we’re getting is it’s like being in a slave camp.”
Employees are complaining that the safety boots Amazon gives them to wear either don’t fit, or are just uncomfortable. A former shop manager warned employees to cover their feet in Vaseline before putting on socks to prevent blisters.
Amazon’s warehouse employees walk a lot. They walk between seven and fifteen miles every day. These aren’t casual walks, either. They’re high stress, high pressure walks.
Employees carry around little handheld gadgets that look like calculators. Those gadgets tell the employee where to go in the warehouse to grab what needs to be grabbed. Simultaneously, the gadget is measuring the employee’s productivity. If you’re slow, Amazon knows it. If you’re taking a break, Amazon knows it.
And despite the low pay, there are a lot of people itching for any kind of work. If you’re too slow, or you break Amazon’s rules, you’ll quickly find yourself without a job.
In Amazon’s defence, this is what life is like in a warehouse. You have to work hard. And its ability to measure employees, though it may feel intrusive and creepy, can be a good thing. We’ve all had jobs where co-workers are slacking off and not getting caught. Those people are infuriating and can hurt morale. At least at Amazon, in theory, hard work will be recognised.
In a statement to the FT, Amazon defended itself, saying, “Some of the positions in our fulfilment centres are indeed physically demanding, and some associates may log between seven and 15 miles walking per shift. We are clear about this in our job postings and during the screening process and, in fact, many associates seek these positions as they enjoy the active nature of the work. Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazon employee – managers, software developers, site merchandisers and fulfilment centre associates – and we measure actual performance against those expectations.”
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