Sunlight is a privilege when working for Amazon, especially in winter. Amazon’s warehouse workers – or to use the company nomenclature, ‘fulfilment associates’ – are nocturnal on nightshifts and light sensitive on dayshifts. They see by the fluorescence of streetlights, the fluorescence of bus lights, and the fluorescence of endless rows of light fixtures bolted to every ceiling surface at Amazon’s ‘fulfilment centres.’ After a month of mandatory overtime shifts, turning 40-hour weeks into 50, I learned to savour the darkness of sleep at the end of each long day.
In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have come to see Amazon as an essential service and a public good. Jeff Bezos could not have found himself in a more powerful position. But his strength was leveraged off of our backs — the backs of Amazon’s half-million unseen employees. Behind every purchase on the Amazon marketplace is a team of workers picking, packaging and shipping products for a paltry wage.
Over several months at Amazon, my brain tired out, my wellbeing worsened, I grew pessimistic and depressed. In short, life as a fulfilment associate is lonely and alienating. The only gratification I ever felt was from a pay cheque. For many of my colleagues, even the pay cheque is not enough. In recent years, hard-pressed workers have been found camping outside warehouses in the UK to save money.
Jeff Bezos has proven ignorant of public appeals to decency. This will persist if its labour force remains invisible to society and if workers are kept atomised and unrepresented. In truth, I perceived that the total lack of internal worker representation at Amazon is due not just to thin union density, but also to the structure of the workplace itself.
Now that COVID-19 has necessitated the introduction of PPE and physical distancing, communicating and organising in the warehouse workplace is basically impossible.
The size of Amazon’s fulfilment centres is difficult to comprehend. The largest in the UK covers one million square feet – or 14 football pitches in size. These warehouses consist of so many identical floors of shelves, conveyor belts and parcel chutes that it is physically disorienting. A job like “picking” can become a dreamlike limbo.
This is where workers push a trolley over distances upwards of 25 kilometres across worn linoleum and concrete floors, which they load with products pulled from shelves for hours at a time. I was always surprised by how numb I felt and far I had walked at the end of each shift. Any sense of progress is eliminated. It does wear you down.
With social distancing in place and plastic walls separating each canteen seat, workers hardly communicate. If you are determined, you can make a friend at break times. If you are exhausted, the isolation is intense. Sometimes you can hear the echoes of the radio playing from speakers across the warehouse. But mostly it’s the regular beep of your scanner and the rattling wheels of your trolley.
Every picker’s scanner has a timing function. If you don’t pick a high enough average of products each minute then you rack up ‘idle time.’ Several times I tallied up too much idle time. If this happens you’re called to the manager’s desk and given an impersonal verbal warning. If it happens again someone from the employment agency, Adecco (who Amazon uses to rotate its temporary workforce), approaches you with a clipboard and asks you to sign a warning.
More warnings and you’re sacked. You build idle time for many basic things: you could be tired, you could spend ‘too long’ in the toilet, you might have to switch floors between products, you may have to get a refill of water.
The effect of this time pressure is that it keeps employees busy, while quickly draining their mental and physical energy reserves. Perhaps you are beginning to understand the loneliness of working for Amazon.
We have to look at why people work for Amazon to understand how it maintains a workforce subject to such conditions. I met myriad people, albeit in brief intervals, who shared the same circumstances at the warehouse. One man was a lawyer from Botswana, another was a Romanian whose true ambition was to set up a high-end barber, another was an ex-rigging engineer who had lost his job to the pandemic.
There were workers from all of Europe, from the United States and South America, from Africa and Asia. There were university students and elderly, mothers and fathers. They shared one thing in common: none of them wanted to work there. Who would? Most people work at Amazon because they must — a condition of desperation that is easily exploited.
Amazon knows how to find these exploitable workers. It has been shown that Amazon tends to construct its warehouses in poor areas, where local governments are liable to see them as an opportunity to create jobs and generate growth. But real effects are documented: fulfilment centres deprive local industries of labour and offer workers no transferrable skills and no opportunities for career development.
Bezos believes unions are unneeded intermediaries between his company and his employees. Yet Amazon’s engagement with workers goes as far as Q-and-A boards, whiteboards detailing tallied tons of cardboard recycled and questionnaires about staff crowding and mask wearing. As incentives, Amazon ‘rewards’ employees with video games and production-target themed arcade games. It hands out free T-shirts and runs raffles and prize draws.
Better still if you can wield your workforce to build an image of Amazon as a public good, providing jobs for the jobless and cheap deliveries to the world stuck indoors. Although Amazon is one of the most criticised companies in the world, its consumer body keeps growing, and its public perception stays positive. Both consumers and employees think of Amazon highly: YouGov rated Amazon in the top five brands according to consumers, and Forbes rated Amazon the second-best employer in the world.
High praise for a company that smears employees who attempt to unionize, threatens to fire employees calling on Amazon to respect the climate, pays next to no federal income tax, and contributes no net jobs to the communities it plants its fulfilment centres in. As if Amazon weren’t already doing itself enough favours, reports show the company spies on its workers to consolidate its workplace control. But still, the public is unprepared to see Amazon differently.
Due to the pandemic, Amazon is better placed than ever to cement this impression its leadership has cultivated. One of the most rapacious and monopolising companies that has ever existed has succeeded in convincing the world that it is needed, all the while subjecting workers to a reduced state of picking and packaging products against the clock.
Bezos has said he wants to prevent the demonisation of Amazon by the public. From strange armies of Twitter bots posing as employees, to a dubiously ambitious climate pledge, to employee wages and benefits which are very slightly better than those offered by other employers, Amazon is persuading many that it is just a convenient service platform.
The basic problem is that Amazon has convinced its workforce and consumers that there is no practical alternative. You cannot blame someone who uses Amazon because they can’t afford other services. Nor can you blame a workforce that has to tolerate time pressure, ten-hour shifts and mind-numbing monotony because it needs to sustain itself.
From the warehouse to the doorstep, the popular movement against Amazon must be stimulated first before it can roll forwards. If we are to “Make Amazon Pay,” we must show the world how Amazon treats its workers, how Amazon evades accountability, how Amazon abuses the environment. If we are to win this fight, then we must begin to build the movement everywhere — across social media, on the news and in the papers, in Parliament and Congress. We have a long way to go, but fulfilment associates like me are ready to fight.
Finn Smyth is a Progressive International volunteer and a former Amazon warehouse worker.
Disclosure: The Wire is hosted on Amazon Web Services.