I spent the winter of 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, working at an Amazon warehouse in Scotland. What I witnessed and experienced there was repulsive. Managers bullied and intimidated agency workers; Covid-19 health and safety policies were used and abused to discipline labour; precarious staff were frequently turned away from scheduled shifts, and bottles of exploited workers’ urine abounded across the workplace.
Amazon relies on an image of equality and diversity, a happy smile stamped on every cardboard box. In truth, the company treats its workforce like dirt. “This place is hell”, a worker I was assigned to shadow on my first shift told me, “you feel fine for the first two or three weeks, and then it feels awful”, warned another. In my time working there, I felt these frustrations and more, experiencing physically what I had previously known only from reports: that enterprises like Amazon are not just places for the circulation of commodities, but for the demeaning of the working class and the crushing of the free human spirit. Below I detail some of these experiences and observations, in an attempt to contribute towards ongoing discussions of work in Amazon and the necessities of labour organising there. This is, of course, also an effort to discuss the necessities of organising work in general.
Starting at the Warehouse
I lost my previous job amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and struggled to find work over the summer of 2020. It was then that I heard Amazon were advertising jobs near my home. I had read a lot about the company previously, hearing about their notorious exploitation of workers, their tax-evasion, and their opposition to trade unions. With the pandemic and the lockdown preventing me and countless others from finding alternative means of earning a living, and with a naïve, if militant, desire to know more about the reality inside the place, I applied for a job there. Within two weeks I was employed as a warehouse operative via the staffing agency, Adecco, and called into work.
Before my first shift, I had to watch a series of video presentations as part of an online induction. “What you are about to see is going to blow your mind” read one of the slides, followed by a video with poor, outdated special effects tracing the journey of a commodity to a customer’s door. Permeating all these videos were messages about Amazon’s collective ethos, slogans about working together, and promoting equality and respect. You could tell they wanted you to be in awe of the place. While every job expects you to show a modicum of respect towards the company, to represent it to some degree, Amazon took this to another level, cult-like: “You are here to make history.”
My first day inside the warehouse itself was eye-opening. As you walked the corridors leading to the floor, bereft of sunlight or windows, you felt attacked from all sides by fluorescent colours and childish imagery. Orange and yellow balloons bounced around the place, sometimes made into anthropomorphic figures to compliment the cartoonish “minion”-style mascots that decorated the walls. Images of Amazon’s logo (the sinister smile) underlined everything. Next to these were contradictory slogans conveying the company’s supposed values: “leaders are right, a lot”, “have backbone, disagree and commit”, “equality”, “customer obsession”, and so on. You had to walk past these every day. In one month I was there, the balloons were arranged to form a huge tunnelled archway. Walking through early in the morning felt like a strange fever dream. Another time, the balloons were arranged into a huge “minion” worker. “What is that fucking thing?”, workers would ask each other in disgust as they passed it, refusing to accept this corporate sponsored identity.
An induction supervisor explained our shift hours. As full-time, day-shift workers on zero-hour contracts, we were told to expect a standard shift pattern of 30 hours a week, 6 and a half hours a day. Amazon would offer plentiful opportunities for overtime, they told us. The supervisor stressed that, if we wanted to earn good money, we should aim to work over 60 hours a week. This promotion of excessive work hours concerned some workers, although many were happy to hear about overtime opportunities. As it turned out, these opportunities rarely materialised in any stable way. In the subsequent months many of us would regularly have our scheduled shifts cancelled at last minute and would be refused entry as we turned up to work.
After a short tour, we were told to shadow someone working on the warehouse floor. There was no proper training whatsoever. The workers responsible for showing you the ropes clearly felt this was a burden, with the added difficulty of abiding by Amazon’s strict two-metre social distancing policy. The work itself was simple, dull, and monotonous. It was also a little dangerous, with tall, heavy carts weighing in excess of 100kgs whizzing past you every other moment. Sometimes these would collide in crammed aisles and heavy boxes would spill out across the floor. My first task was “staging.” Here, you take an empty cart to another worker, a “picker,” exchange this for the cart they have just filled with bags of parcels, and take this full cart to a loading area where the parcels await delivery. Instructions and picking locations are coordinated via a scanning device that you wear around your wrist, which also times how long you take on any given task. Relatively straightforward, but initially disorienting. You were never given the bigger picture, just assigned a specific task with no context beyond what you immediately needed to do. Communication between managers and workers was terrible. “I’ve been here for months and nobody tells you anything”, one worker told me, “When you ask a manager about what you are doing, they just brush you off. I struggle to tell my family what it is I even do in here!”
The warehouse was a “sortation centre” (although vague job adverts conflated this with “fulfilment centres”, where goods are packaged). Thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of parcels entered the warehouse every day to be labelled, processed, and sorted into bags for final delivery. The workspace was organised around a huge, central conveyor-belt system, with a series of tributary lines extending in branches across the floor. On each side of the conveyor lines were “picking areas”. As parcels were labelled and loaded at the centre, “pickers” would be stationed along tributary lines and had to pick the parcels off labelled for their area. They would place these on metal shelves behind them. Behind the shelves was a “stower”, a worker who would take these parcels, scan them, and place them in the relevant bag or “oversize” area. Full bags (usually weighing anywhere around 10-20kgs) would later be “picked” again onto large carts, and then a “stager” would collect the carts and take them to the loading area for drivers. It was this latter task of “picking” and “staging” that we performed most on the day shift. Generally, the routine of work was as follows: you clock-in, grab a scanning device, start your task (picking or staging), work for several hours, take a 30-minute break, and then back to work in the afternoon for another task (picking or stowing, as more parcels would arrive).
The work was incredibly fast-paced, and physically and emotionally exhausting. There was a general consensus that most workers would not last long, either leaving from overwork and stress or fired. Workers were often assigned the same picking areas, and would compete with one another to pack as much as possible, shouting and hurrying each other to make room, get out of the way, or work faster. This was spurred on by the threats of managers, constantly shouting at workers to speed up, and disciplining those whose pick-rate (measured by your scanning device) was slow. When picking goods from the conveyor belt, there was a feeling of constant pressure. Missing items was inevitable, although if you missed too many a manager would be on your case. The stower, working behind you, would often be unable to pack the parcels quickly enough, and so pickers regularly appeared to almost drown in parcels, with nowhere to put them and yet still expected to keep up. The little smiles on the parcels were always taunting you. These stupid boxes entering and exiting the warehouse, travelling all over the country, while the workers who package, sort and distribute them are stuck in the same place.
I asked other workers that I met during my first week what working at Amazon was like. “This place is hell”, I was told by the first person I shadowed: “I’m tired and exhausted all the time, I can’t wait to leave here”. “Many people can’t handle it”, another Amazon employee told me. This was a common description of the work. Almost everyone I met started working at Amazon during the pandemic. This speaks to the high turnover of workers. Most were employed by the staffing agency Adecco, with a very small number employed directly by Amazon who had been there a little longer. These employees had a permanent contract, a more secure job, and were slightly more positive about the place. This positivity was always measured against the pandemic, and most agreed they would rather be working somewhere else.
The workforce was composed of a diverse range of people from different backgrounds and with all manner of experience. I met former soldiers, ex-policemen, out of work welders, technicians, delivery drivers, massage-therapists, office workers, and students. There were a lot of migrant workers, mainly from eastern Europe. There was also a mass of young workers with little or no previous working experience. Amongst these workers were obvious shared attitudes and affinities. Often new workers would express enthusiasm, happy to be earning money and have a job. Within weeks, the same workers would begin to curse the place. Most people I came to know felt compelled to work in Amazon – with the pandemic and economic crisis, there were few other options available. An older worker told me: “you meet interesting people in here, but wait until the run up to Christmas, they will bring in all kinds, people you wouldn’t want to meet, lazy people who just need money and don’t want to work, people coming off the dole.” This kind of disdain for other workers was common.
Workers felt alienated from their jobs and from Amazon. This manifested in different ways. Some kept their head down, worked like mad, and never spoke to anyone. Others would express solidarity, telling us new workers ways to avoid overwork and unnecessary stress, as well as what managers to especially avoid (if you could). It was clear from the beginning that most managers treated workers with blunt disrespect, and most workers felt uncomfortable approaching them with issues. People feared for their job security. One co-worker who worked in the warehouse previously, in 2019, was always telling me to watch out for managers, to stay out of their way. He was constantly nervous, telling me they look for excuses to fire people every day. I asked him why he left Amazon, and why he was back now. “They take people on throughout the year, for the prime periods, and for Christmas, then there’s no work for most people in January. You barely get any shifts by that point.” It was a peculiar torture to go into this place every day, nervous you would be sent home, and yet feeling colonised by the place – “I spend more time in here than I do at home”, workers would often say in frustration.
A culture of fear was entrenched. Cameras were everywhere, and we were often warned by managers that we were being constantly monitored for violations: checking phones, walking the wrong way, not working, and so on. “There are more cameras in here than Belmarsh”, someone told me – a joke, but nonetheless expressing the reality of constant surveillance. One worker who had to retrieve a device from a manager’s office told me he saw screens in this office zooming into workers’ faces on the floor, and in and out of particular areas of the warehouse. It was the attitudes of Amazon managers above all that reinforced a culture of fear and hatred. All agency workers were on zero-hour contracts, and the threat of a sacking was constantly hanging over everyone. This was reinforced by Adecco managers who would sometimes warn workers on the floor to be extra careful, as Amazon were looking for excuses to get rid of people on particular days. One morning a smug Amazon manager shouted at workers, “I’ve already sacked someone today”. There was always a surplus of workers, so they could, and did, fire as they pleased. You went into this place every day, your muscles aching and exhausted, and yet, each shift, were made to feel like you did not belong, made to feel you were always doing something wrong (even when working yourself to ruin, as commanded), that you were there to be monitored and controlled and judged.
Overwork, Hostility and Dehumanisation
After a month, the work became increasingly tedious, with moments of conflict becoming more frequent. Managers aggressively shouted at workers and constantly rushed everyone. Workers who stood up to this kind of bullying and intimidating behaviour, who challenged being spoken to like animals, were threatened with dismissal. “Talking back” was how Amazon considered this, infantilising workers and depriving them of the ability to challenge aggressive behaviour. “They treat you like dogs”, workers would say. This would become a common expression for managers’ behaviour. They would yell at workers for sitting down, for talking, for walking the wrong direction, for picking too slowly – sometimes so loud their voices would crackle and break. This kind of impotent rage constantly directed at workers was infuriating. I talked to managers about this, about the structure of the place, and they told me they are held responsible for all screw-ups on the floor. I once explained to a manager how shouting at people for simple and accidental mistakes is a horrible experience. In response, he told me, in no uncertain terms, that he did not care how I had been spoken to and that if I had a problem with it, he would send me home.
Work was extremely fast-paced, although occasionally there would be quiet periods between picking cycles, where workers had nothing to do. Even in these moments, managers treated everything like a military operation, and marched around like drill-sergeants. “No sitting!”, “Up!”, “Move!”, “Here!”, “Come on!”, “You’re here to work, not to talk!”, “You! Come here!” I was reminded of a line in a book I read about the absurdities of factory work – to paraphrase: “what is this fucking place, is it a war zone or something? Why is it essential that everybody absolutely necessarily just has to work every single second!?” The extreme pace and militaristic approach affected warehouse operatives the most, who, without proper training, sometimes injured themselves under pressure. One worker caught his foot under a cart and spent a whole day noticeably limping. I insisted we go and report this, but he told me he was too afraid he would lose his job. Low-level floor managers were also pressured to work excessively. On one occasion, a manager told me they had been working for over 9 hours without a single break. An older worker who had spent his life in the merchant navy told me how he had never before been so stressed as while working at Amazon!
Day-shift workers were astonished to find bottles of urine periodically appearing in the warehouse. A worker with experience on the night-shift told me it was common for men to do this, as they were not allowed to leave their picking station to use the toilet – or if they did, they’d get in trouble and risk their job. On one occasion, some workers reported a bottle of urine to a manager, who boasted that he would trace it to a driver and sack them. According to this guy, Amazon drivers often piss in bottles, leave them in bags, and forget to take them out when the bags are returned to the warehouse. But this did not preclude the likely “culprit” in this situation being a warehouse worker, not a driver, and so workers protested this sacking decision. Another manager appeared, reiterating the commitment to the sacking. He tried to ease the tension by explaining how common it was for drivers to do this, that it could never be a warehouse worker. According to this manager, it happens all the time amongst drivers. I found it amazing that Amazon chose to reason with concerned workers by arguing which of their workers had to piss in bottles, rather than address or make efforts to change the reality that anyone working for them would have to do this at all. Following this, I often looked around near picking stations for bottles of urine. Usually, if you looked, it was easy to find these concealed under bags or behind carts… It became a running joke between some workers, finding these things, the putrid yet logical consequences of a dehumanising and excessive work process.
Shifts and Pay
Shift cancellations were another constant problem. Confirmed and scheduled shifts became frequently cancelled with no prior notice, and workers would be turned away even inside the warehouse after turning up to work. This was especially troubling for those who relied on infrequent bus services, or who had to travel for hours to reach the place from nearby cities. Shifts were also cancelled last minute via text, sometimes late in the evening before or early on the morning of the shift. One worker had all his shifts cancelled for three consecutive weeks. Speaking to him about this, I could feel his indignation and resentment towards Amazon. He had been a committed worker, his labour at their disposal while he struggled to pay his bills and support his family. Complaints were made about this practice, but a general culture of fear prevented many workers from speaking up about problems: “you have to keep your head down and just survive in here”, “they are ruthless”, so co-workers told me.
On one particular day, around 20 of us were held in the canteen and told we likely would not be needed. Five got to stay and everyone else was sent home. This continued for weeks. Every other day after this you would have shifts cancelled at the last minute. When you walked into the warehouse, there were often workers waiting in the canteen to see if they could actually enter the floor. Agency managers bullshitted about this constantly, blaming night-shift supervisors for messing up the rota, and offering holiday pay to those who were turned away. Holiday pay accrued at one hour for every ten hours worked, so workers exhausted this after a couple of cancelled shifts. Many did not have enough holiday hours accrued to be paid, so managers insulted them instead: “what I’ll do for you is I’ll offer you a day off.” Ironically, Amazon managers would often pressure workers to work overtime near the end of a shift. In a double-blow to workers, these overtime shifts were frequently poorly accounted for, and many had to fight constantly with the agency to secure their overtime pay.
Shift start times were another issue. One week, instead of starting at 9:00am as normal, Amazon decided shifts would now start at 8:00am. Weeks later, the “day shift” was abolished altogether, and everyone on our shift had to start at 6:30am. They also sought to extend the shift from finishing at 1:00pm to 3:00pm. Most workers were informed of this via text while on shift, where we were prevented from looking at our phones. When we went to leave that day, they had sent a particular agency manager to stand in front of the clock-out machine, telling workers to go back to work, that we had not finished, and we would have to work two more hours. This kind of intimidating display really pissed us off and many clocked-out and left anyway. We kept this up every day, refusing to be coerced into overtime without notice or consultation. Many workers went back to work initially, worried and confused, clearly the result of intimidation. In the subsequent weeks many often worried if they actually had to work these extra hours or not, if they would get in trouble for leaving.
This erratic scheduling was normalised. No consultation, nothing. Just: you are all now working x hours earlier, x hours later. This shows the level of control that companies like Amazon exercise over the lives of workers. With no secure contract, with no union, with no power, what can workers do? A push against workers, a push forward for profit and capitalism. Workers cannot even hold on to a regular start-time, a start of minimum convenience. By rearranging time, companies like Amazon seek to decide when workers will be in the warehouse, when we will be at home, when we will be asleep in our beds, when we will be commuting, and so on. This affected workers’ lives, especially those with kids and caring responsibilities. Every week workers worried if they would even be able to continue working at Amazon with these constant changes. Every week workers travelled to work unsure if they would even be allowed to work their scheduled shifts.
As we understood it, Amazon used the agency to hire as many workers as possible so that they could easily replace those who leave or got sacked. This was easy for them to do given the huge amount of unemployment in the local area, magnified during the pandemic. This created a situation where Amazon had a huge surplus labour force desperate for shifts. In this way, workers were simultaneously attracted to and repulsed from the warehouse. You would find yourself one day denied entry to a scheduled shift, and the next day trying to avoid agency managers patrolling the floor looking for workers to send home.
Workers could not approach management, either the agency or Amazon, to discuss these issues. We were constantly patronised, dismissed, and written off as lazy, or as displaying negative behaviour when raising any issues with most managers. This attitude was a priori, ingrained, and established: a product, no doubt, of Amazon’s obsessive anti-worker politics. Amazon likes “happy workers”, productive workers, unquestioning and obedient workers who do not think, like the smiling “minions” they plaster all over the place. They do not want workers who complain about not being paid, wanting a secure shift, or wanting some basic rights at work. Whenever I asked a manager to do anything for me, they acted as if I expected them to move mountains. And yet, the same people would expect you to just leave work and travel home without complaint and without pay if they messed up the rota. Some managers sympathised, although even they could never give you a straight answer for anything. Some of them seemed ashamed of the simultaneously chaotic and highly regimented structure of the place. You could tell the lowest level managers were being squeezed by their own bosses, but nothing like the pressures faced by workers. Others, like those who shouted at workers, clearly identified very strongly with the authoritarian structure.
It was difficult to discuss resisting these processes with workers. Everyone was so divided, so individualised, with social distancing enforced at all times on the floor and in the canteen. Prohibitions on gatherings and travel outside the workplace also made any kind of organising near impossible. I did have some conversations with a friend, a worker from eastern Europe, about resisting the shift cancellations. Most workers were in a precarious situation, but for migrant workers, this was even more so. But he told me he thought migrant workers were more perceptive, more militant, more knowledgeable than British workers. Facing more discrimination, they were more likely to know and exercise their rights. The difficulty, we agreed, was that here, inside Amazon, no worker really had any rights. Looking around the warehouse with indignant eyes, we would often commiserate about the situation of workers together, at the submission expected of people in this place and the manipulation of the labour force. This manipulation, as I will explain in part two of this article, was achieved through Amazon’s approach to Covid-19 and social-distancing: combining threats of dismissal with constant policing of the workforce.
The second part of this two part piece will be available soon.