Amazon has no shortage of futuristic plans for home delivery, experimenting with driverless cars and drones to deliver packages in ever-diminishing timescales. However, the current reality of the world's second most valuable company is much more mundane. Amazon operates a network of vast distribution facilities and employs an army of workers to sort, pack and deliver its goods. Those employees describe gruelling working conditions and punishing targets which must be met to keep packages flying out of the warehouse doors.
Figures obtained by VICE under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that ambulances have been called to Amazon's UK warehouses at least 600 times in the last three years. Common complaints included breathing problems and chest pain, and patients were taken to hospital on more than half of these occasions. Between 2015 and 2017, ambulances were called 115 times to Amazon’s warehouse in Rugeley, Staffordshire. Over the same period, paramedics attended a Tesco warehouse of the same size in nearby Lichfield on eight occasions. (Amazon said the warehouses employ different numbers of people and that the sites are not directly comparable.)
A members survey of Amazon workers conducted by the GMB union paints an alarming picture of life in the company’s warehouses. The findings are due to be published at the union’s annual congress this weekend. Respondents included a pregnant woman who claimed she was made to stand for ten-hour shifts. Workers described life at the company as "soul destroying" and like "living in a prison". Another reported feeling "like a trapped animal". Current and former employees shared similar stories with VICE. One claimed to have been the subject of disciplinary action after failing to call in sick from hospital following an epileptic seizure at work.
Mick Rix, national officer at GMB, said: "Hundreds of ambulance call-outs, pregnant women telling us they are forced to stand for ten hours a day, pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles – even miscarriages and pregnancy issues at work. None of these things happen in safe, happy working environments. Companies like Amazon should be treating staff with respect, not treating them like robots."
Organise, a campaign group fighting for workers' rights, recently published a report based on a survey of more than 200 Amazon warehouse employees about conditions at the company. Workers said they were forced to stand for extended periods and claimed they were subject to timed toilet breaks and ever-increasing productivity targets. In April of 2018, Organise delivered a copy of the report to Amazon's London headquarters, along with a petition calling for the company’s warehouse targets to be reduced.
Usman Mohammed, lead campaigner at Organise, said: "We hear dozens of stories from workers who are constantly forced to put themselves in dangerous situations to meet their impossible targets. And we’ve heard from workers that have spoken out, and been ignored. What's truly shocking is that we hear instances of this from warehouses all over the country. That proves it's not an isolated problem.”
James Bloodworth is the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was published earlier this year. In 2016, he spent a month working at the Amazon warehouse in Rugeley. "If I had to characterise it in a word, it would be fear," he said. "Fear of going to the toilet, fear of taking a day off. You're scared of getting the sack if you phone in sick."
Amazon said it uses "proper discretion when applying our absence policy" and sets its productivity targets "objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce". It added: "We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve."
The company added: "Amazon ensures all of its associates have easy access to toilet facilities which are just a short walk from where they are working. Associates are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed. We do not monitor toilet breaks."
Responding to GMB's claim that a pregnant woman was made to stand for ten-hour shifts, Amazon said: "We are unable to comment on this case as we don’t have any information. Maternity leave at Amazon can start up to four weeks before the birth and includes up to 16 weeks of full pay. Once we know someone is pregnant we work closely with them and carry out a full risk assessment, and, if necessary, consult a doctor. If the employee’s health or that of the unborn child is at risk due to the work that they are employed to do by Amazon, we will vary the employee’s conditions to alleviate all risk, or find the employee a suitable alternative role. We will, as a last option, place the employee on full paid sick leave."
Responding to VICE's figures on ambulance call-outs, a spokesman for the company said: "It's simply not correct to suggest that we have unsafe working conditions based on this data or on unsubstantiated anecdotes. Requests for ambulance services are predominantly associated with personal health events, not work related. Nevertheless, ambulance visits at our UK FCs [fulfilment centres] last year was 0.00001 per worked hour, which is dramatically low. Amazon has 43 percent fewer injuries on average than other companies conducting transportation and warehousing activities in the UK, and that's according to Health and Safety Executive RIDDOR reporting data. We encourage anyone to come take a tour of our fulfilment centres so they can see for themselves."
However, concerns raised by Amazon workers are not just about injury, but the exhaustion that comes with the work, and the atmosphere of fear at its warehouses.
In September of 2016, "Alex" – who declined to be named for fear of repercussions – started work at the Amazon warehouse in Rugeley. Alex was born in Romania and had high hopes for a job in England. "I had very big expectations, but after I see all these things…" he said, trailing off.
Ambulance call-outs were a regular occurrence at the warehouse, he said, and he became used to seeing other workers struggling to cope with the demanding targets. Alex said he was one of the top performers, but that even he was criticised by managers for not working hard enough. "It's not good, this situation, because it's very stressful, very high demanding," he said. "Even for me it was a very bad situation."
Alex was recently offered a new job at a different company in mainland Europe. The pay is almost twice as much and he'll no longer have to worry about meeting gruelling targets in a warehouse. How does he feel? "Very happy," he said. "I feel like liberation. I'm born again."
This article was updated at 10:35AM, Friday 1st June