Monday, 25 November 2013

Amazon Workers face 'hard work'

From the BBC
A BBC investigation into a UK-based Amazon warehouse has found conditions that a stress expert said could cause "mental and physical illness".

Prof Michael Marmot was shown secret filming of night shifts involving up to 11 miles of walking - where an undercover worker was expected to collect orders every 33 seconds.

A mate of mine works on the train and he once clocked his distance at 5 miles a day and he loves it as he's now thin and no longer goes to the gym.
Undercover reporter Adam Littler, 23, got an agency job at Amazon's Swansea warehouse. He took a hidden camera inside for BBC Panorama to record what happened on his shifts.

He was employed as a "picker", collecting orders from 800,000 sq ft of storage.

A handset told him what to collect and put on his trolley. It allotted him a set number of seconds to find each product and counted down. If he made a mistake the scanner beeped.

"We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we're holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves", he said.

"We don't think for ourselves, maybe they don't trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don't know."

No, you don't, do you? Probably some middle-class kid with a degree in media studies who's never worked anywhere but the BBC. The fact is, Amazon got this successful by optimising processes. They don't ask you to think because they've got a stock picking process that can outperform you. By the time you'd work out where an item is, it's the same time as the computer telling you and you getting it.

Prof Marmot, one of Britain's leading experts on stress at work, said the working conditions at the warehouse are "all the bad stuff at once".

He said: "The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness."

"There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual's health and wellbeing - it's got to be balanced."

It's a bit more complex than that, but as a public health professor, the sort that normally appears in the Graun and the Independent moaning about "poverty", I would expect nothing less.

Many years ago I worked for a major mail order company. They pretty much went into decline because of Amazon. And that company had a number of automated lines. Someone orders a copy of a big seller like The Guinness Book of Records or a One Direction annual, a robot picks it. Someone orders an obscure bit of French poetry, a human does. It's not worth having a robot for the French poetry.

Of course, if you start handing out diversity workshops, or giving people the levels of workshyness of the public sector, you're going to see those people replaced with robots.

Amazon said that official safety inspections had not raised any concerns and that an independent expert appointed by the company advised that the picking job is "similar to jobs in many other industries and does not increase the risk of mental and physical illness".

So, despite this prof being a "stress expert", the HSE don't seem to agree with him. And Amazon are doing nothing against the law.

The scanner tracked Mr Littler's picking rate and sent his performance to managers. If it was too low, he was told he could face disciplinary action.

Shocking. Of course, if you run the BBC and spectacularly screw up you can resign and get a nice payout for a few months work.

When Mr Littler worked night shifts his pay rose from the daily rate of £6.50 per hour to £8.25 per hour.

After experiencing a ten-and-a-half-hour night shift, he said: "I managed to walk or hobble nearly 11 miles, just short of 11 miles last night. I'm absolutely shattered. My feet are the thing that are bothering me the most to be honest.

Pretty sure other people do jobs that have to walk further, like tour guides. 

Amazon said new recruits are warned some positions are physically demanding and that some workers seek these positions as they enjoy the active nature of the work. The company said productivity targets are set objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by the workforce.

Exactly. Some people want to go to the Antarctic to study penguins. A mate of mine hated his brief time being an office manager for a cable company because he missed the human interaction of going out and sorting out people's cable problem. Some people like working in kitchens, despite it being flipping hot, stressful and having odd hours.

Experts have told Panorama these ten-and-a-half-hour night shifts could breach the working time regulations because of the long hours and the strenuous nature of the work.

Barrister Giles Bedloe said: "If the work involves heavy physical and, or, mental strain then that night worker should not work more than eight hours in any 24-hour period.

But Amazon said its night shift is lawful. They said they sought expert advice to ensure the shifts "comply with all relevant legal requirements".

Probably because walking at 1mph on average doesn't count as "heavy physical" work.

Really, that's the level of Panorama now? Companies employ people to do some physical work that some people might not like? And I'm forced to pay for this shit under threat of violence so that I can watch Columbo?


Pablo said...

Don't be silly, there's Kojak as well!

Anonymous said...

"And I'm forced to pay for this shit under threat of violence so that I can watch Columbo?"
They are all repeats don't bother!

Anonymous said...

"The fact is, Amazon got this successful by optimising processes."

Nothing to do with them and others of their ilk setting their own tax rates.

Man as machine. In thinking about this Amazon story it conjures up Charlie Chaplin's 'Modern Times', with technology boosters. Not dissimilar to the way we process battery hens, for maximum efficiency with zero regard for welfare. And as with the HSE at Amazon, all with the assurances of government veterinary inspectors who can testify that those hens really prefer to be inside in any case. As in Foxconn where suicide is par for the course.
At least in China they have the satisfaction of knowing that without suicide they might have died on the farm anyway.

The Stigler said...


Oh, FFS. Wise up and stop listening to Margaret Hodge and her ilk. Amazon have rarely made any profit in their history. I think they made a couple of million a few years ago, but mostly, they keep losing money.

As for the HSE point, please, dazzle us with your expertise as to why the HSE are wrong.

The Stigler said...


I still stumble across a new Columbo. Didn't know Kojak was on. Which channel?

I'm also rather addicted to old British TV.

ageing man said...

Perhaps when he applied to work in Amazon, he thought it was going to be hot, humid and with weekends off partying with Brazilian beauties on copocabana beach….

Imagine his disappointment when he was handed the bar code reader….. so pissed off he went crying to panorama ….

This is another one of those crap BBC non stories that they feel compelled to push because they have wasted licence payers money making a documentary about it……

As we lead up to Christmas will Amazon’s sales plummet ? no and quite frankly why should they.

11 miles a day is good exercise, paid work, out of the cold and rain….my arse there are some whiners out there……..

that reminds me…just one more thing

Mark Wadsworth said...

TS, Kojak is on ITV 4, available on Freeview.

Anonymous said...

@TS. Yeh no profits and I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. The wonders of transfer pricing. As for the job, as I say its analogous to battery hens. Probably harmless if done for short periods. After a few months at most I'd imagine you would turn to drink first,then more drink, then recreational drugs and other random activities like wife beating and/or child abuse, then eventually you might get yourself into rehab [after separating] but that's OK because the taxpayer will pick up the tab one way or the other. They're all externalities of course. Nothing to do with Amazon per se...

Bayard said...

"As for the job, as I say its analogous to battery hens."

Apart from the operative not being in a cage, not being "at work" 24 hours a day, not being expected to stand in his own excreta, being able to take a fair amount of exercise, in fact the only similarity with a battery hen is that the "work" takes place indoors under artificial light, so really it would be more accurate to say that it was almost entirely not analogous to battery hens.

"After a few months at most I'd imagine you would turn to drink first,then more drink, then recreational drugs and other random activities like wife beating and/or child abuse,.."

Yes, you probably would, but few others would join you in your fantasies.

Derek said...

Might drive the average person bonkers but this actually sounds like the sort of job that would suit someone with mild autism. It sounds as mindless as the potato picking I used to do occasionally back in the 1980s but much less physically taxing.

But even for a thoughtful person there can be advantages in such a job. I found that after a while you can carry out such work unconsciously, leaving your mind free to think or to daydream.

Of course for people who don't daydream and who are not used to thinking, boredom can ensue followed by the sort of activities that paulc156 mentions. Or more likely followed by the person concerned looking for more challenging work.

So it's really a question of horses for courses in my opinion.

Kj said...

Paulc: transfer pricing is usually applied to reduce tax, not corporate profit. If you are not saying that Jeff B is transfer-pricing away all the profits from the shareholders, TS is telling you the truth.

Derek: I have no problem with these kinds of jobs, even if I´ve never been diagnosed with anything ;) It´s all those subtle things that makes it bearable; bosses and co-workers not being dicks, and some flexibility in hours/breaks, and I could definetly do this before a whole range of other crappy jobs.

DBC Reed said...

More right-wing drivel on this site.These people are lucky to have work.They're indoors and paid ,what more do they expect? That's about the Colonel Blimp level.
Transfer pricing: if its so pointless why do firms do it? MW should tell us: he's the tax expert.

Bayard said...

DBCR, I think you will find that all the drivel has come from the left, i.e. Paul156 and yourself. No-one has actually said that anyone is lucky to have a job, or mentioned expectations, nor has anyone trotted out meaningless stereotypes, unsubstantiated accusations or wild fantasies except you two.

This "report" is simply the government telling us who to hate again.

Kj said...

DBC: I grew up in a farming environment, and this notion that the rote work presented here is some kind of example of evil capitalist slavery in comparison makes me laugh. It´s not right-wing drivel to note that working in a warehouse, under the "pressure" of targets and having to walk, should still be acceptable work, even in the alleged "post industrial" world.

Re transfer pricing. Read what I said. Listed companies do not transfer price away their profits. They will transfer price away their profits from subsidiaries in higher-tax countries, yes. But if Amazon, a public company listed on the NASDAQ, as a whole does not make any significant profits, it would be quite silly to claim that they utilize transfer pricing to reduce their overall profits.

Kj said...

That´s not to say that Amazon is an angel employer. There are examples of pretty horrible practices popping up, predictably enough in some US facilities, and some slightly disturbing in Germany. But the Panorama story doesn´t really reveal any of that stuff.

Mark Wadsworth said...

On the tax point, I've no reason to assume that Amazon makes big profits in the first place; even if they do, I'm not sure where they end up.

Further, they are investing in the UK, employing people here, and thereby paying full whack Business Rates, VAT and PAYE.

Those three taxes together makes up ten times as much as corporation tax! So even if they are somehow magically evading corporation tax, they are still paying 90% of their full tax bill.

Further, Amazon don't just act as retailers, they also sell stuff for smaller businesses who otherwise would struggle to organise all the deliveries, so that's good - and all those businesses in turn pay tax.

DBC Reed said...

Its not about hard work:it is about stress.Being monitored all the time to complete orders in too short a time frame is going to be stressful.
I have done agricultural/horticultural work with unsympathetic arsehole people looking over my shoulder and it was stressful.
Unskilled workers suffer as much stress as senior management in the UK though the latter are richly compensated.
As I said this is the kind of right-wing crap which is appearing on this blog all too often these days.You included, to a lesser degree, as you are very prone to fantasies of the minimal state where everything is sorted by market forces moderated (actually, totally negated) by LVT.

Mark Wadsworth said...

DBC, the best guarantee of workers' rights is full employment, if you don't like your job you can leave and get another one the next day. And we know how to get full employment, don't we?

That said, there are plenty of surveys saying you get more out of your employees if you give them a bit of a free rein, maybe Amazon don't know this, or maybe Amazon are proving the theory wrong.

And as Kj and others suggest, working in an Amazon warehouse is far from the worst job in the world, I could give you long lists of things which are a sight more stressful than that.

Bayard said...

"Unskilled workers suffer as much stress as senior management in the UK though the latter are richly compensated.
As I said this is the kind of right-wing crap which is appearing on this blog all too often these days."

Why, do you think this blog should be the preserve of left-wing crap, such as the remark above?

It's typical of lefties that they present all businesses as being composed of large firms run by rich bosses oppressing poor workers, in a sort of Marxist time-warp. Most businesses in the UK are still small firms where the most stressed person is the boss and owner of the company. He is the one who has to worry about keeping the business going, the employees simply turn up, do a day's work and can forget about their job until they come to work again the following day and that includes the stress of the job. When you run your own company the stress is with you 24/7. I have been in both positions and I can tell you, on a stress level, I far prefer to be an employee.

DBC Reed said...

Amazon is not a small company run and owned by one person.
If you think that low paid workers at the beck and call of small operators who do not, for instance, pay a living wage or fulfil their legal obligations as employers while providing short term or zero hours contract work are not stressed then you are remarkably insensitive.

Anonymous said...

@B "so really it would be more accurate to say that it was almost entirely not analogous to battery hens."

Only if you were especially pedantic. You forgot to mention amazon employees don't lay eggs. Battery hens really are the avian equivalent of someone being required to rush up and down aisles all day long whilst being asked to complete said tasks in 33 seconds like an automaton on amphetamines. 33 seconds? About as long as it takes a hen to knock one [egg] out I reckon.

Anonymous said...

I said 'set their own taxes'.
I'm saying that they should very likely have paid far more tax in the UK [and elsewhere]than they did [and probably would have done if they were a domestic business with a few hundred employees] because they chose to adopt the apparently legal pretense of selling several billions of £'s worth of goods to UK buyers with the help of several thousands of UK employees from UK depots with a tuppenny happenny operation set up in Lux'brg employing just a few hundred. An operation whose sole purpose seems to be in avoiding corp tax.

Kj said...

PaulC: who cares, and what does it have to do with working conditions? As I said, the whole operation globally makes a slim profit, and as MW says, even if they did, CT would be small stuff in comparison with all the other taxes they pay. Yes, they probably do locate in Luxembourg because of financial advantages, but still do not make any significant profits overall, the advantages are given out as lower prices and expansion. There´s a solution to this other than nagging about insignificant CT revenues you know, often touted around here.

Bayard said...

"If you think that low paid workers at the beck and call of small operators who do not, for instance, pay a living wage or fulfil their legal obligations as employers while providing short term or zero hours contract work are not stressed then you are remarkably insensitive."

I don't think that (try rereading my comment), so I'm not.

"Battery hens really are the avian equivalent of someone being required to rush up and down aisles all day long"

No they aren't. The main evil for which battery hens are famous for suffering is that of immobility, to such an extent that they have become a byword for it. So someone who is forced to be excessively mobile is about as far from being like a battery hen as it is possible to be.

Graeme said...

paulc156, it is quite easy to look up amazon's financial results on the internet - try this article

key quote perhaps:"Amazon lost money in 2012, and analysts are anticipating another loss when the company releases its third-quarter results on Thursday"

Perhaps you can provide an estimate of how much tax they have somehow failed to pay? You probably do have a bridge you would like to sell - but why did you buy it in the first place?

Anonymous said...

@Bayard "No they aren't."
Oh yes they are.

Anonymous said...

@Graaeme. Yes nice article. Wonder why there's an EU investigation a pending... and a claim for over a $1bn back taxes in the US... oh look here's another article from reuters all about abusive transfer pricing at amazon explaining just how they might be expected to have paid a whole lot more tax than their headline profit/loss figures suggest.

Bayard said...

"@Bayard "No they aren't."

Oh yes they are."

All together now, "OH NO THEY'RE NOT".

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, look out, he's behind you.

Graeme said...

paulc - the simplest explanation is that the job of taxing authorities is to get their hands on as much tax as they can, regardless of economic reality. Repeat after me, Amazon does not generate profits and nor does it generate cashflow.

Mark Wadsworth said...

PC, OK, let's take that article at face value and assume that they've underpaid corporation tax by £1 billion over the last ten years, that's £0.1 billion a year.

Against a turnover of £50 billion a year, a lot which goes in VAT, Business Rates (or their foreign equivalents), is paid in wages (liable to PAYE) or to suppliers (who themselves pay taxes), that is precisely bugger all.

That's like the difference between 20% VAT and 20.1% VAT or something. That's like an employee nicking pencils from the stationery cupboard or throwing a sickie once a year.

Kj said...

Anyway, aside from the tax-non-issue. I´ve been reading a bit about experiences in the US, from one of the warehouses. And I´ll give you as much as that it does seem rather unpalatable if we are to take it at face value.
What a lot of this comes down to, which is a reason why I think Amazon warehouses is not well received as a place of work, is because they are americans, and they seem to have a knack of treating their employees like shit, which they may transport with them. I don´t know if there´s stricly economic explanations for this, or cultural, but MW has touched on it before. They will happily ignore basic decency, safety, and sometimes even the bottom line, for marginal returns or show of power.
So while the description of the jobs from Panorama, doesn´t really look that bad. It might be entirely true that there is more to the story that makes the situation on the floor worse than meets the eye.,0,7937001,full.story

Anonymous said...

@Graeme "the simplest explanation"

...for simplest read expedient.

Graeme said...



Anonymous said...

Yeh and your evidence is their statement of accounts. Aw-shucks. How did that work for the banks back in 2007/8. All the accounts signed off by auditors and all? Mine's got something to do with fixing a brass plate to a building in Luxembourg and creating the fiction that their business is conducted from there and not here where Amazon have about twenty times as many employees and a million times as many customers. Go figure.

The Stigler said...


"All the accounts signed off by auditors and all".

The auditors were concerned. So, they went to HM government and asked if the government would step in if they went tits up and the government said yes. At which point the auditors could rightly sign off that they were a going concern.

Anonymous said...

TS. "The auditors were concerned" [otherwise known as blame the state redux]

I prefer 'the auditors were clueless' or maybe 'the auditors were just being their usual lickspittle selves for their client banks'.

"we conclude that the complacency of bank auditors was a significant contributory factor.[to the crash] Either they were culpably unaware of the mounting dangers, or, if they were aware of them, they equally culpably failed to alert the supervisory authority of their concerns." ...

" We do not accept the defence that bank auditors did all that was required of them."