The Seattle Times Publishes Report on Amazon Concerning Author James Bloodworth’s Negative Portrayal of the Company

Working at an Amazon warehouse in the U.K., James Bloodworth came across a bottle of straw-colored liquid on a shelf. It looked like pee.

How could he be sure? “I smelt it,” said the 35-year-old British journalist and author, talking about his new book “Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.” It was definitely pee, he said.

As he tells it, urinating into a bottle is the kind of desperation Amazon forces its warehouse workers into as they try to avoid accusations of “idling” and failing to meet impossibly high productivity targets — ones they are continually measured against by Big Brother-ish type surveillance.

It didn’t help that the nearest bathroom to where he worked was four flights of stairs below.

Bloodworth’s grim picture of Amazon’s blue-collar workplaces — he compares the warehouse he worked in, alternately, to a prison and a totalitarian state — is bringing new attention to the company’s treatment of its workers. Out in the U.K. since March, and just appearing in this country, “Hired” sparked a flurry of reviews in the British press and some American coverage as well.

Adding to concerns that have festered for years, Bloodworth’s depiction arises as the company rapidly expands its warehouse operation, where workers store, pack and ship the items customers order online. Amazon last year said it employed 125,000 full-time workers in the U.S., 38 percent more than a year ago.

The company has not released worldwide employment figures, but said it has 175 “fulfillment centers,” as it calls its massive warehouses where goods come in and out, and 35 smaller “sortation centers” that finish off the delivery process.

“We don’t recognize these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings,” the company said in a statement about Bloodworth’s book.

The multilevel Kent warehouse covers more than 850,000 square feet. Much of the work is highly automated. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
The multilevel Kent warehouse covers more than 850,000 square feet. Much of the work is highly automated. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

The statement touted Amazon’s above-minimum-wage warehouse pay ($11 after two years in the U.K. and an average $15 in the U.S.) and benefits, including stock options for permanent employees.

“We are committed to treating every one of our associates (the term Amazon uses for its warehouse workers) with dignity and respect,” Amazon added.

There were, however, echoes of Bloodworth’s book even on a warehouse tour in Kent with an Amazon PR manager looking on.

“We are allowed to go (to the bathroom),” said one worker, “but you can’t stay for that long.” Four or five minutes is OK — “six minutes tops.”

Anyway, he said, if you spend too long, “the numbers start to bite you,” meaning the rate of tasks per hour by which workers are measured, will drop unacceptably.

Sheheryar Kaoosji, co-executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, a nonprofit in Southern California that advocates for better working conditions, said all warehouse employers try to get workers to do their jobs as quickly as possible. But because of the way Amazon uses technology, he said, “it’s definitely a whole other level.”

Tracking every move

Bloodworth said he spent several weeks at Amazon in early 2016 working the requisite 10-hour shifts, four days a week, at a warehouse in the West Midlands countryside. Seeking to write about the plight of the working class, he also worked at a call center, as an Uber driver, on a building site and as a home aide caring for the elderly.

“Amazon was the worst employer, easily,” the author said by phone.

When he took a day off sick, he received a “point.” Earn six and you’re fired, he said.

Bloodworth said he heard of one person getting a point because she had to leave early to see her child in the hospital, and he talked to another who got a point for failing to hit her rate.

At the warehouse where he worked, Amazon monitored everbody’s rate through a handheld device — tracking “our every move as if we were convicts out on house arrest,” he writes.

The device carried messages to workers and recorded how quickly they were picking or packing goods. “Your rates are down this hour, please speed up,” a message might say, according to Bloodworth.

Robots signed by workers have been turned into sculptures that hang from the ceiling at the entrance to the highly automated Kent warehouse. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Robots signed by workers have been turned into sculptures that hang from the ceiling at the entrance to the highly automated Kent warehouse. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

“The productivity target was astonishingly high,” Bloodworth said, and it was always going up. To try to meet it, you had to run around the warehouse — at least if you were an “order picker,” as he was, tasked with collecting items from shelves to be sent on for packaging.

Yet, he said, you were not supposed to run, and could get a point for doing so.

“You couldn’t not break the rules,” he said, especially if you were angling for a permanent position. Most of the workers he met were, like him, temporary.

Adding to the oppressive atmosphere, in Bloodworth’s telling: Amazon’s security measures to prevent theft, which entailed having workers go through airport-style metal detectors.

The author summed up his experience: “You were not seen as a human being. You were seen as a robot.”

How accurate is Bloodworth’s description?

Amazon contests the number of shifts he worked — 10, according to a spokesperson. Bloodworth initially said 15, then took account of a half-day plus two days he missed for sickness and warehouse maintenance, and recalculated to 12 and a half.

More substantatively, the company said it employs mostly permanent workers, not temporary (outside of the Christmas season, at least), and has bathrooms “just a short walk” from where staffers work.

“We do not monitor toilet breaks,” the spokesperson said in a series of lengthy written responses.

One Amazon statement defended the company’s sick-leave policies. “If someone is ill, we want to help them get back to work when they are fit to do so. We completely support our people, and use proper discretion when applying our absence policy.”

The statement did not say what its absence policy is.

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Source: Seattle Times