Anthony*, 36, works in an Amazon fulfillment centre in the north of England. He’s been working for the retail giant since September. This is his diary of a working week filling orders in the run-up to Christmas, one of the busiest retail periods of the year.
I wake up at 5AM and catch a train and then a shuttle bus to the warehouse. It takes two hours. My shift starts at 7AM, and you better not be late, otherwise you’re in trouble. You’re not allowed to take anything into the warehouse with you: no phones or books, nothing. I’m paid £9.60 an hour for ten hours work a day, before tax. It’s better pay than most of the warehouse jobs around here, which is why I took the job.
I’d been dreading going back to work today, because I’ve been unwell. I was hospitalised earlier this month for a stomach condition, but I don’t feel like I can take proper time off to rest.
When you arrive at the warehouse, the first thing you see are the words “Work Hard, Have Fun, and Make History” emblazoned on the wall. It’s like some kind of Orwellian nightmare. Every time I see it I want to fucking shoot myself. The days here are so long and dreary. You never see the sun. You’re in this huge warehouse, with thousands of robots on each floor, no one to talk to, and no access to the outside world. You leave home at 5AM and come home at 7PM and your day is darkness, dreariness, sweat and toil.
What I do is stow items. Robots bring you shelving units, and you have to put the stuff away. If you manage to put something away in eight seconds or under, you hit your rate. But your rate doesn’t take into account whether the robot has brought you the wrong shelves, or the pieces don’t fit, or if you need the toilet. If you go to the toilet, your rate drops.
You always want to be hitting 100 percent of your rate. You hear about these mythical people who hit 140 percent of their rate, but I’ve never met them or worked alongside them. I’m always on 70-80 percent. I’m never fast enough. Management come around and ask you in this real friendly way whether want to know your rate. You can tell them no if you don’t want to.
Today, I decided that I didn’t give a shit about my rate. I still felt so ill. So I treated myself – every 20 minutes, I went to the toilet and sat there for two minutes, just so I could have some time off my feet. Even doing that, I was still so exhausted I could barely stand.
I got out at 5.30PM, was home by about 7, and fell asleep on the sofa. This week is going to be rough.
This morning I got in early, so that I could try and get a good station. Ideally, you want one near the toilets, so you can have a break without your rate dropping too much. I got a station near a guy I started chatting with last week. He’s not the sort of person I’d normally be friends with – he’s a rugby lad, and I’m a leftie socialist – but he’s the only person I’ve met here who didn’t just want to talk about my rate. That’s the first thing anyone asks: “What’s your rate?” The level of self-surveillance is crazy. Because you know that people in the bottom 5 percent of rates are liable to get fired, everyone’s always trying to work out where their rate sits so they know where they stand.
Having someone to chat with, even if you have to shout over the machinery, makes such a huge difference to your mood. Most of the time, you’re on your own. Every minute feels like an hour, because nothing interesting is happening. You start getting into your own head. You become weird. Words rotate around your head, and you start to feel like you’re going mad.
After lunch, rugby lad had to go and do some training, so I was on my own again. The next few hours were really dark. I started thinking really negative thoughts. I have a degree, I’m in my mid-thirties – what the fuck am I doing here? I was hating every minute. I’m not the only one. All the other seasonal workers who started in September are struggling to drive ourselves on. I think that’s why Amazon turns over staff so quickly, because people can’t hack it after a while. Your brain turns to mush and your body feels like concrete.
It was bloody cold this morning. My knees were absolutely knackered as I cycled to the station. This work is really hard on your body. I’m always boshing Ibuprofen for the pain.
Today there was a guided warehouse tour. You’ll be trying to hit your rate, and getting gawped at like you’re a monkey in the zoo. It’s dehumanising. But I do actually think people should go on these tours – they should see the scale of this fucking thing. It’s absolutely massive. People should know where their stuff is coming from.
Working here in the Christmas rush, you realise how much stuff there is in the world. Some of it is useful, like kitchen utensils and books. But a lot of it is substandard cack that serves no purpose. You stack it away and think, who is filling their lives with this crap? I packed a ton of Alexas today. It blows my mind that people would willingly put spyware in their homes.
We get two 15 minute breaks a day, and one 30 minute break. It takes four minutes to walk to the break room from your station, so you normally end up having a seven minute break in total. You’re so exhausted that you just sit there, staring at a wall.
Today I decided that I wasn’t going to the break room, but go through security out to the lockers so I could check my phone and eat something. You’re not meant to do that, but I did it anyway. I sat on the floor on my coat and watched four minutes of a YouTube video, then headed back to my station. It was worth it – anything to make you get out of this place, even for a few minutes.
My manager came around today and asked me if I wanted to know my rate. I said no, but he told it me anyway! Fucker.
I was speaking to a guy today who’s a picker. Pickers have to climb up and down ladders, fetch items, and put them in boxes. It’s one of the hardest jobs at the warehouse. He told me that his knees are wrecked and he can barely walk because he’s going up and down the ladders constantly.
The election is going on at the minute, and today we were flyered by the Socialist Equality Party. Most of the political parties don’t flyer here, and unions don’t organise either – the turnover of staff is so great, they can’t get a foothold.
I think the work is purposefully brutal so it drives people out. It makes sense. Permanent workers can organise for better labour protections, and it’s a really simple job – you can train someone to work here in a few days. It’s better for them to have a temporary workforce they can sack after our standard nine-month contracts come to an end.
I know I’m going to be sacked come January, and I can’t wait. I can feel myself breaking. You meet these people who drive themselves unbelievably hard, in the hopes of being taken on after the Christmas rush. It never works.
Fridays are the hardest. Your body is so broken. On weekends, I can barely get out of bed. Even the rugby lad, who’s in peak physical condition, tells me that he never makes it out of bed before 1PM on a Saturday. He’s exhausted.
I chatted to an Indian guy who works here. He moved to the UK when he was 16. He’s always smiling, even though he has to wake up at 4AM and do a three-hour commute each way to work here. Lots of people working here commute for hours each way – no one can afford a car on these wages. He works really hard and is always positive. I respect him for that.
I stayed up last night to watch the election results. It confirmed to me what I already feared: I live in a country that doesn’t give a fuck about me or the fact that I need the NHS and a decent, stable job. No one cares about people like me, who work in shit jobs for low pay with no workplace protections. Nothing is going to get better. I’m sad this is the future of work.
Today, I disappeared into myself. There was a period where I had to sit on the stepladders – I couldn’t stand up any longer. Your calves cramp up so much towards the end of the day.
There are small peaks and troughs that define your day. When you hold out when you need the loo, so your rate doesn’t drop. When you find a station nearer the toilets, that’s a bit better. When you get to chat to people. These are the things that keep you going. But there’s a part of me that feels like I’m going to break soon. I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.
* Name has been changed to protect identity