Retail giant Amazon gets a pretty bad rap. From prompting the closure of independent high street stores to corporate tax avoidance on an almost unprecedented scale, it seems the multi-billion pound retailer just can't get a break. And, according to reports, neither can the staff who work there.
Two years ago, both the Guardian and BBC Panorama sent reporters undercover to see what life was really like inside one of Amazon's infamous "fulfilment centres". The findings weren't great. Experts warned of mental health problem-inducing stress levels, blisters from the endless walking, long shifts and shitty, shitty pay.
A couple of years down the line, I wanted to see if anything had changed; whether or not a couple of negative news stories had forced this internet behemoth into changing its ways – or if, in fact, Amazon is just too big to care.
First up, I had to get hired. Conveniently, a quick hunt online suggested that my near-Christmas timing was just right. In the UK this year, Amazon will take on 19,000 "seasonal" staff – the people locating, packing and shipping those waterproof binoculars you got for your dad, or the therapeutic ear candles your secret Santa loudly and specifically announced they wanted when everyone was pulling each other's names out of the hat.
I sent my CV over to a recruitment agency and, a few days later, found myself at their office, sat at a table full of my soon-to-be colleagues. I was handed a pack of forms and contracts, "x's" conveniently placed in the gaps for me to sign.
"Hey, would you mind if I took these away with me to look at over lunch?" I asked my recruiter, Angniezka, who was shouting out names.
"No, that is not possible, you can't take them outside now."
This was a contract for employment; I couldn't help feeling slightly concerned that I wasn't allowed to mull it over. But with no opportunity to go over the finer points, I did as I was told and jotted down my name.
"Right, now all you need to do is come back here tomorrow at 1PM for the drug and alcohol test."
Arriving back for the testing, over 50 hopefuls were waiting to be called upstairs. "I think I'll pass… I mean, I really hope I'll pass," one teenager from Watford whispered to me as he gulped down a litre of Evian. "How long does weed take to pass through your system?"
After a breathalyser test to see if we'd been boozing, I was given a cup for my sample. "Now, just fill it up to the line," said the guy in a suit watching over me. "Then don't flush the toilet; come and hand in what comes out."
After handing in what came out, our results were read out for all to hear. I'm pretty sure this breached the Data Protection Act somehow, but in fairness I know very little about the Data Protection Act. "Just see it as a bonding experience," one suited man smirked.
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To get to the Amazon warehouse – located on the edge of an industrial estate north of London – for the 7:45AM start time I had two choices: either drive, or get a train to Hemel Hempstead and take the transport supplied by the recruitment company, charged at £7 per journey (close to an hour's pay), for the last leg.
I don't have a car. So, at 6:45AM on my first day, I hung around in the cold outside an Iceland near the station, waiting to be picked up. About 60 people were stood next to me, some of them smoking, most of them looking about as thrilled to be there as you'd imagine. "This is the worst job I've ever done," a Ukrainian man told me.
As the first minibus arrived, people pushed forward. One woman shouted: "This happens every day! Jesus, I was here early and I just can't be late again!"
I managed to shove my way onto the next bus, but three people were left standing on the pavement. "This is the last one," said the driver, "you'll have to sit on the floor in the gaps."
A sure sign that you're part of a valued workforce: paying your employer £7 to ferry you to work on the floor of a minibus.
Taking a seat in an upstairs conference room, surrounded by other new starters, a short film was projected onto a screen. Flo Rida's "Good Feeling" pumped out from tinny in-wall speakers. Six limp balloons hung from the ceiling. A moving photo mosaic of employees having slightly-too-good-a-time played on repeat.
"Amazon prides itself on everyone enjoying themselves," barked a lobotomised-sounding "associate" in the clip. "It makes you feel valued, like a family."
Various people in this video continued to tell me how the warehouse was basically the UN of the retail world, with "many countries working towards one goal", how great it was "making customers happy as we are all customers" and, bizarrely, how "Amazon has given me the knowledge and knowhow to achieve greatness".
The next few hours were spent going over the terms of our employment. We'd be working 11-and-a-half-hour shifts to achieve greatness, I was told, with one hour of breaks spread over the day. Lunch would be 30 minutes (unpaid), including time taken to walk to and from our stations to the canteen. In reality, each break was an opportunity for smokers to inhale two cigarettes and down a watery – but free! – coffee from the machines.
Then came the attendance policy. The whole "we have fun and a lot of laughs" vibe felt a lot less charming when being ill once, late once and then ill again over a three-month period would see you automatically get the sack. (Although this is what I was told on my first day, Amazon contests my account, saying its policy is based on a points system, with six points resulting in dismissal and each case considered individually.) Sick pay, pensions and holiday allowance are at the statutory minimum, although most people I spoke to weren't aware they were entitled to any pay if they were ill.
With my first day coming to an end, I headed over to speak to an agency rep, who I was told would be my go-to for problems. "My name is spelt wrong on my badge, mate," I told him
"Oh, that's fine, nobody cares about your name here anyway; we just need your barcode – that's all."
"Hey, guys, so, we've been getting busy, so as of tomorrow everyone gets to [has to] start an hour earlier!" yelled a guy from the front. "See you here at 6:45!"
"I live in Barking," David, sat next to me, exclaimed. "How am I supposed to get here for 6:45?" The answer: two buses, a train and a £17 taxi, all for £8 an hour and a pre 7AM start.
Another woman said it would make her journey "completely fucking impossible", before getting up to walk out. We caught up outside. "Thing is, I had to get up at 4:30AM to make it here on time today, and it wasn't cheap," she said, smoking a cigarette. "I can't quit now, because the cost of getting to the agency for the interview and drug test – and getting here today for just five hours' pay – means I'll have made a loss."
"Suppose there's nothing we can do," someone sighed.
My recruiters had forgotten to give me a copy of my contract, so I couldn't even check if it was legit. (Amazon say employees should be given a copy as policy, so this was likely a mistake at a busy time.)
The fulfilment centre itself is just a giant shop. Bulk-purchased products arrive, before being unpacked and placed onto floors of caged shelves. The endless aisles are then ready, waiting for you to place an order in your virtual trolley.
Stock comes in and stock goes out, the fundamental principles of retail. But it was nothing like the shops I've worked in before, obviously, as there are no customers in sight. This opens up Amazon to a whole new world of efficiency: no smiling faces, pleasant décor, snazzy lighting or a pretence that anyone's happy to be there. Productivity reigns supreme. Workers have just one task to do all shift, whether it's unpacking products on arrival or packaging them back up at the end. There's no end to the monotonous tasks that need doing, no face-to-face contact with customers to pass the time. Day and night shifts mean the place never stops.
Walking over to my packing station, each located along a conveyer, I realised I was one of hundreds stood among the seemingly endless rows. Bored looking-packers, bored-looking pickers, all desperate to hit their targets for both the hour and the day. Only, what our targets were was never made clear to me – a possible oversight? One woman, Anna, reckoned it was a deliberate attempt to keep us "ignorant and on our toes". (Amazon say that all workers are given targets.)
As new starters we had trainers who were there to make sure we weren't screwing up the job. Mine was Jo, a nurse from London who'd been at Amazon for going on two years.
"They get a lot of stick, Amazon do," she told me, lent up on the counter, "like on that BBC piece about the place."
I asked about the points raised by the investigation – for instance, the loud beeping noises made by the scanners that could, as the papers implied, contribute towards an increased risk to your mental health.
"You can just turn the volume down on them," she said. "At the end of the day, nobody is forcing anyone to work here."
Jo had been working at Amazon for long enough to have an established community; she knew the various layers of management and how to make sure she got the better tasks day-to-day.
Working next to me was a 23-year-old Polish guy called Peter.
"Thing is, in Poland I worked in a warehouse and would earn, like, £2 an hour. I then joined the army, but could only earn, say, £400 a month. The work is shit here, but I can earn more – it's really as simple as that."
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On day three I spent hours working out how to pass the time. Once you head into the fulfilment centre all your belongings have to packed into lockers – meaning no iPhones or MP3 players – and nothing can prepare you for the endless, silent monotony that creates.
I managed to get a pen inside and, in my head, to keep me from quickly developing some kind of mental repetitive strain injury, invented a game. I could, I decided, have dropped "he dies at the end" into every parcel containing a book. Or a note reading "I couldn't think of anything good, so here's Adele's new album, hun" festively placed in parcels all around.
But of course I didn't do that, because I was still hoping to be paid.
Mind you, even if I had, it would have only got me through until 10AM, with eight-and-a-half long hours to go.
Turns out that working in Amazon didn't give me the chance to expose illegal practice, abuse of trafficked workers or reveal pay scales below the minimum wage. In fact, everything was completely by the book.
What became apparent over my time there was that, whatever the dramatisation of previous investigations, working at Amazon is just shit – but no more shit than any other mundane, badly-paid job.
Since there have been bosses and profits there have always been shit jobs, and until we're replaced by more efficient robots, they'll still be there for us to complain about.
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