Amazon employees reported harsh working conditions as the e-commerce giant continues to expand, a new report reveals.
According to a Daily Mirror investigation of working conditions at a warehouse in England, which the paper described as a "brutal life," warehouse workers are expected to perform lightning-fast packing speeds while dealing with heavy lifting and long hours spent on their feet at Amazon's sprawling distribution centers.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, highly paid professionals at Amazon report a cut-throat environment that encourages tattling on your co-workers, around-the-clock check-ins, and seemingly impossible expectations.
What did the warehouse investigation find?
In England, Daily Mirror reporter Alan Selby spent five weeks working as an order picker at an Amazon distribution center in Essex, using a small camera to record his experiences.
Selby described a typical day:
Alone in a locked metal cage, 10 feet from my nearest colleague, a robot approaches from the shadows and thrusts a tower of shelves towards me.
I have nine seconds to grab and process an item to be sent for packing – a target of 300 items an hour, for hour after relentless hour.
As I bend to the floor then reach high above my head to fulfill a never-ending stream of orders, my body screams at me.
Welcome to Amazon's picking floor. Here, while cameras watch my every move, a screen in front of me offers constant reminders of my “units per hour” and exactly how long each has taken.
Selby noted that Amazon does not have to enforce 10-hour workdays of heavy lifting. Instead, the company could hire more people and add more staff to help lighten the load. But that isn't likely to happen, he concluded, because Amazon makes more money by treating workers as people who are easily replaced by the next wave of new hires.
Or, they might be replaced by robots. Many companies turn to automation as a time- and cost-saving measure used by companies, which often includes changing or eliminating jobs.
In September, the New York Times profiled an Amazon warehouse in southern New Jersey that began using robots to help stack products. Workers typically work exhausting 10-hour shifts requiring them to repeatedly stack bins and other items weighing 25 pounds or more. One employee reported having a new job of "babysitting" robots. The employee said the work was more interesting than what she was doing before.
Are there stories like this in the U.S.?
● Observers said exhaustion and overwork led to the death of an Amazon employee who collapsed on the job in 2013 at a Richmond, Virginia warehouse, the Huffington Post reported.
● Ambulances reportedly waited in the parking lot to treat employees who fainted while working in 114-degree heat at a Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, warehouse in 2010.
● A former warehouse employee in Seattle told The Guardian in 2014 that she would rather be homeless than work for Amazon because of the demanding workload. The homeless woman said she slid onto the streets shortly after Amazon began sending employees home without pay to cut costs.
What is the work culture like at Amazon?
Vanity Fair reported in 2016 that employees are ranked based on speed performance and those on the lower end are dismissed as new workers are brought in. Some employees also complained about long security checks at the end of their shifts apparently designed to detect any theft. Some workers attempted to sue the company for unpaid labor spent waiting for the security checks, a move that failed after the Supreme Court ruled employees did not have to be paid for it.
The treatment of well-paid professionals at Amazon is reportedly not much better. With the higher salaries comes a cut-throat atmosphere and lofty expectations, the New York Times reported in 2015.
Employees alleged they are encouraged to tear down each other's ideas, answer emails and text messages around the clock, and secretly send feedback on other employees. The company also brags about expectations that are "unreasonably high."
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos defended his company in response to the Times article. The paper published an open letter Bezos wrote to employees stating that Amazon is not the “soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard."
Are these stories hurting Amazon?
Meanwhile, Amazon continues to expand.
A dozen cities across the nation are vying to become the new site for Amazon's second corporate headquarters. Seattle is home to its first headquarters. The project will create an estimated 50,000 new jobs paying an average of $100,000 per year.
In response to this story, Amazon defended it treatment of employees, the work opportunities it creates, and its safety practices. An Amazon spokesperson made the following written statement:
“Amazon provides a safe and positive workplace with competitive pay and benefits from day one. We are proud to have been able to create thousands of new permanent roles in our UK fulfilment centres in recent years. One of the reasons we’ve been able to attract so many people to join us is that we offer great jobs and a positive work environment with opportunities for growth.
"As with nearly all companies, we expect a certain level of performance from our associates. Productivity targets are set objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce. Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour. We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.
"Even with careful planning, as an organization that has seasonal fluctuations of customer demand, overtime is sometimes required and when this happens associates are paid a premium. We also have an exception process so that associates can alert us to times when they just cannot do overtime for valid personal reasons. The vast majority of exception requests in Tilbury had been accepted.”