Amazon warehouse conditions like a 19th-century cotton mill, says union

Amazon warehouse conditions like a 19th-century cotton mill, says union
The National, by Andrew Learmonth


People working for Amazon in Scotland face working conditions similar to a “19th-century cotton mill”, according to a trade union.


The claims came after the New York Times ran an exposé of Amazon based in interviews with 100 members of current and former staff.


The article claimed staff were expected to work long hours for little money, and were encouraged to criticise colleagues.


The paper also claims staff members who took time off following deaths in the family were subjected to “work improvement plans” when they came back, to ensure that their focus did not drift.


Yesterday, Amazon’s boss Jeff Bezos hit back at the article and said it did not “describe the Amazon I know”.


However, Martin Smith, GMB National Organiser, said there was a lot in the article that would be “familiar to Amazon workers in Scotland in terms of the company’s level of control and micro-management of their working day.”


Smith said: “There’s nothing new in these management conditions. A worker in a 19th-century cotton mill would recognise some of the management techniques Amazon have adopted.


“But obviously we’re working with all Amazon staff to try and build the union to make sure they get some more respect and better treatment from their management.


“What [Amazon workers] are expected to do in a day is shocking. A lot of our members say the expectations are almost impossible. For the warehouse workers, they have to fulfill orders from one side of a huge warehouse to the next at a run.


"It’s the only way they can literally do it. People feel that they have to run a half-marathon on every shift – it’s impossible to sustain for more than three to six months maximum.”


Smith pointed out that a lot of public money was being used to attract Amazon to certain areas.


“If you look at some of the places where they put their warehouses – I might say with very large grants, particularly from the Scottish Government and local councils – they are deliberately putting those low-paid, zero-hours jobs in communities that have very little choice," he said. "It literally is the job of a last resort.”


The union said Amazon was almost running out of willing workers in the communities where it located its factories. The only people willing to take work for the firm, it claimed, were people who would have to choose between that or having their benefits sanctioned.


The article in The New York times laid out a reports of an “abusive corporate culture”.


The paper quoted one former employee who said: “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk”. A former head of HR said Amazon’s hiring and firing policy was an attempt at “purposeful Darwinism” with only the strongest employees surviving.


The article was highly critical of Bezos and his management style claiming: “Of all of his management notions, perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace – that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas”.


Workers at Amazon were encouraged to leave “anytime feedback” about co-workers. Essentially, employees can privately leave good or bad feedback about a colleague to their line manager whenever they want. This, The New York Times said, was often used to “sabotage” the career prospects of ambitious colleagues.


One of the most shocking allegations was of an Amazon employee who had a stillborn child and was then put on a performance improvement plan as she had taken time off work.


The woman did not stay long with Amazon. “I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,” she told the paper. She said that on her return that was told her performance would be monitored “to make sure my focus stayed on my job”.


Yesterday Bezos sent a memo out to all staff criticising the paper.


He said any employees recognising any of the “shockingly callous management practices” should contact him immediately.


He wrote of the article: “It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognise this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

He wrote: “The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.”