Amazon denies undercover author's allegations of staff treatment

Amazon denies undercover author's allegations of staff treatment

Amazon has denied allegations it penalises staff for toilet breaks or absence due to illness, saying "we completely support our people", after an author who worked undercover as an Amazon warehouse picker claimed UK workers "peed in bottles" for fear of taking breaks.

Amazon's statement simultaneously addresses a survey reporting concern for the health of warehouse staff, while struggling to meet "ever increasing" targets. The survey report was hand-delivered to Amazon HQ last week accompanied by a petition signed by almost 4,000 people protesting the treatment of warehouse employees.

James Bloodworth was commissioned to write a book entitled Hired on the realities of low-wage life in the UK for Atlantic Books in 2016. Published last month, it is based on the six months he spent living and working across Britain in 2016 "taking on the country's most gruelling jobs", including a stint in the Staffordshire Amazon warehouse. Bloodworth has described working 10-and-a-half-hour days in the e-tailer's fulfillment centre in negative terms, claiming workers are "carefully monitored ... from how long you took to go to the toilet to how many items you picked off the shelves each hour". 

Bloodworth told New Statesman workers were "pawns in an algorithmic system of management that was a throwback to the theories of Frederick Taylor, who believed in the scientific perfectibility of labour activity". He said to the Sun: "For those of us who worked on the top floor, the closest toilets were down four flights of stairs. People just peed in bottles because they lived in fear of being disciplined over 'idle time' and ­losing their jobs just because they needed the loo."

A survey conducted by campaign platform Organise based on interviews with 241 Amazon warehouse employees in England between December 2017 and March 2018, published on Sunday (15th April), meanwhile, asked workers whether their health had changed since joining the company. Altogether 55% of respondents claimed they suffered from depression since working at Amazon and 57% said that since joining the company they had been "a lot more anxious".

The survey report stated 74% of respondents "avoid using the toilet for fear of missing their target and receiving a warning point" and cited the testimony of one employee who claimed she was given a point (given for infractions, previously applied to absences) for "being ill in pregnancy".

Although the proportion of employees who participated in the survey is small compared to the number in Amazon's overall workforce, the executive summary of the report states: "Unreasonable targets mean that people are constantly working in fear with the threat of being fired if they fall behind."

Among the report's recommendations, it advises Amazon to listen to an Organise petition asking it to "drop all targets by 15% or make a fairer target system that lets people work hard, with their basic human needs still looked after". Thus far it has been signed by 3,998 people. 

Amazon declined to provide a reply to the petition but said it didn't recognise these allegations as an accurate portrayal of what went on in its buildings. It also pointed to its ranking in seventh place on LinkedIn's "most sought after place to work" list in the UK and emphasised that its transparency was evident in the fact it even offers public tours of its fulfilment centres. Productivity targets are set "objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce", it added, noting it no longer uses a penalty points system for attendance.

An Amazon spokesperson continued: "Amazon provides a safe and positive workplace for thousands of people across the UK with competitive pay and benefits from day one. We have not been provided with confirmation that the people who completed the survey worked at Amazon and we don’t recognize these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.

"We have a focus on ensuring we provide a great environment for all our employees and last month Amazon was named by LinkedIn as the 7th most sought after place to work in the UK and ranked first place in the US. Amazon also offers public tours of its fulfilment centres so customers can see first-hand what happens after they click 'buy' on Amazon.

"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."

With respect to illness and monitoring attendance, the spokesperson emphasised Amazon has "a range of initiatives to support our people if they become ill at home or at work and we recently extended these to include improved on-site support" and "if someone is ill, we want to help them get back to work when they are fit to do so". 

The spokesperson likewise said Amazon no longer has a points based attendance policy, which it changed "following feedback from out our associates [staff]". "If someone is sick, we will have a conversation with them to understand their own individual circumstances. We completely support our people, and use proper discretion when applying our absence policy," they said.

Regarding reasonableness of targets, Amazon's spokesperson added: "As with nearly all companies, we expect a certain level of performance from our associates and we continue to set productivity targets 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."

According to Amazon, permanent fulfilment centre employees are given stock grants, which over the last five years were on average equal to £1,000 or more per year per person; they are offered a comprehensive benefits package, including private medical insurance, life assurance, income protection, subsidised meals and an employee discount, which combined are worth more than £700 annually, as well as a company pension plan; and, after two years, fulfilment centre employees in the UK earn at least £8.35 an hour. The company also offers a programme called Career Choice that provides funding for adult education, offering to pre-pay 95% of tuition and associated fees for nationally recognised courses, up to £8,000 over four years.