November 26, 2013

BBC Panorama programme finds working conditions at Amazon cause “increased risk of mental and physical illness”


“I’ve never done a job like this before…the pressure is unbelievable” Undercover reporter Adam Littler

Yesterday evening a BBC Panorama programme aired on BBC 1 which focussed on the working conditions in Amazon distribution centres. The highly questionable and borderline illegal employment practices of Amazon are something we’ve covered before here, here, here, oh and just yesterday, here.

During the programme, viewers experienced first hand what it is like to work for Amazon as undercover reporter Adam Littler filmed his shifts as a picker in the 800,000 square foot distribution centre. During night shifts Littler worked for 10 hours in conditions which were mentally and physically exhausting; during one night he walked almost eleven miles scanning and collecting customer orders.

Add to this the scanner attached to him which tracked his movements and speed, and featured a countdown to him reaching the next item, which ensured he met his target of collecting 110 items per hour.

Add to this the regularly broken light bulbs in the warehouse that meant he was often left collecting products in the dark, while the countdown continued regardless.

Littler conveyed the impossible pressure put on workers as they race around the distribution centre, attempting to meet their targets, “You can do it if you’re basically running” he commented, before pondering how one could run for ten hours straight. “I’ve never done a job like this…the pressure is unbelievable” he panted. Later he discussed the targets with a fellow picker who explained that sometimes he met his targets easily, whereas other times he felt like saying, “hand me a fucking gun so I can shoot myself.”

Other worrying employment practices emerged. Jobs at Amazon distribution centres operate on a “three strikes and you’re out” system. If an employee is sick they gain a point; if they are late they gain half a point.  This means employees are always desperately close to losing their jobs, and are constantly aware of the precarious nature of their employment.

Watching the undercover filming was Professor Michael Marmot, who is a leading expert on stress at work. Shocked by the working conditions, he suggested they could cause “increased risk of mental illness and physical illness”, and noted that a job at Amazon offered “all the bad stuff at once”.

Amazon say that they “comply with all relevant legal requirements” and that their employees are their number one priority.

What is perhaps most shocking is that governments are paying Amazon to open up these distribution centres in the first place, because of their promise of providing local jobs. The programme reported that the Scottish government gave Amazon £6.7m to open a centre which would provide 1,700 jobs while the Welsh Assembly handed over £8.8m to encourage Amazon to build a new warehouse. Not only this, but when Amazon complained that there would be no way for their trucks to access the Welsh warehouse, £4.9 million was spent on building a new road which was named “Ffordd Amazon”; in English that’s “Amazon Way”. You couldn’t even make this up.

The fact is, whether you like Amazon or not, no employer should be treating their employees in these ways. Work that is physically and mentally detrimental to those that carry it out should be put to end when it is discovered. Those governments that fund such workplaces should consider whether they are actually helping local people into safe employment, and how being associated with such poor employment practices compromises their actions. Professor Marmot summarized the situation:

“There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual’s health and wellbeing — it’s got to be balanced.”

These are British examples of practices used by Amazon the world-over. They are bad practices that are inherent to the company, and contribute to its successful business model. As Amazon continues to expand and open new distribution centres, that may be the most frightening thing of all. Professor Marmot continues:

“It’s organizational injustice. It’s not “my boss is a rotter and treats me badly and he’s unfair to me” it’s not that. It’s the sense that the way the organisation is structured is unjust.”


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.