A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 3, 2019

What Happens Inside An Amazon Warehouse When You Click 'Buy Now'

The cost of the speed and convenience consumers enjoy is being borne by those who work in Amazon's fulfillment centers. JL

Margaret Burin reports in ABC:

Performance is timed to the second. They are expected to constantly work at ‘Amazon pace’, described as somewhere between walking and jogging. Everyone is employed as a casual and constantly anxious about whether they’ll get another shift. “It’s not fair to put in place what I would consider unreasonable and in some cases unattainable deadlines, but then blame the worker when they don’t achieve them.”
As workers walk into an enormous, nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of Melbourne, they pass a sign reading “Amazon fulfillment”.
Inside, they’re met with a wall of haphazardly arranged slogans, mottos they’re expected to live by here: Customer Obsession. Think Big. Earn Trust.
Then they front security and a metal detector. Staff need to make sure they have no electronic devices with them and they can’t wear anything sold by Amazon Australia. Anti-theft measures.
On the warehouse floor, there are aisles of shelves as far as the eye can see, all stacked with a seemingly random assortment of goods.
workers have told ABC News:
  • the workplace is built around a culture of fear where their performance is timed to the second;
  • they are expected to constantly work at ‘Amazon pace’, described as somewhere between walking and jogging;
  • high-pressure targets make them feel like they can’t go to the toilet and sometimes push them to cut safety corners;
  • they can be sent home early without being paid for the rest of their shift when orders are completed; and
  • everyone is employed as a casual and constantly anxious about whether they’ll get another shift.It’s been just over a year since Amazon opened in Australia. The global giant recently became the biggest company in the world based on total stock market value (albeit briefly) and its founder Jeff Bezos is listed as the richest person on the planet.
    ABC News has spoken to eight current and former employees of Amazon’s first warehouse in Australia.
    They spoke to us on condition of anonymity, for fear they would lose their shifts with Amazon or their new employers.
    “I feel dehumanised,” says Amazonian 1.
    “I feel like they resent the fact that I’m not a robot and that I’m made of flesh and bone.”
    Organisational psychologist Heather Ikin calls Amazon’s practices a form of “abusive supervision” that create a constant sense of anxiety among staff.
    An Amazon Australia spokeswoman told the ABC these claims did not represent the Amazon she knew.
    This week, she took me on a tour of the warehouse. The invitation came more than three months after my initial request to see inside and speak to workers. Amazon initially “didn’t feel comfortable” with any media coming inside, their public relations agent said.
    But that changed after I sent Amazon a detailed series of questions about workers’ claims. Now, Amazon Australia were sorry the ABC had not felt welcomed.
    “Let’s start again,” the spokeswoman requested. “How can I help you?”
    I was offered the warehouse tour — but with no cameras, no on-the-record interview, and no conversations with staff without a manager present.
    Leave everything in the car except pen and paper, I was told.
    The warehouse is certainly an impressive and high-tech operation, as you would expect. But the tour did not answer our questions about working conditions.
    “We strive to be a great employer in Australia and we believe we are making good progress but still have lots more to do,” the company noted in its written response to the ABC’s questions.

    ‘Work hard. Have fun. Make history.’

    Teams huddle together on the warehouse floor at the start of their shift.
    “I say Amazon, you say ‘efficiency’,” a supervisor chants.
    The supervisor asks someone to lead the daily team stretches. The workers are asked to share an Amazon ‘success story’. This is all designed to gear ‘Amazonians’ up for the high-pressure day ahead.
    ‘Work hard. Have fun. Make history.’ The company’s motto is woven into a huge rainbow-coloured mural at the front of the warehouse.
    Employees here — responsible for storing, picking, and packing tens of thousands of items each day — are a small cog in the huge machine behind Amazon’s vision to be an everything store for anyone, anywhere.
    Some say their work is robotic and others compare their days to a dystopian video game.
    “They would drill ideology into you every day. They’d try and brainwash you into becoming the star player of Amazon,” Amazonian 2 says.
    At first, many of the Amazon ‘associates’ we spoke to were excited to be a part of something big. But the novelty wore off quickly.

    Amazonian 1 works as a picker, one of the highest-pressure jobs on the warehouse floor, where algorithms determine how many items should be moved, stored, packed and picked within the hour.
    The technology prioritises Amazon’s same-day deliveries.
    At the start of his shift he collects a hand-held scanner ‘gun’ and trolley. His role involves collecting items from the warehouse shelves to make up people’s online orders.
    Other teams stock the shelves and pack Amazon’s trademark ‘smiling’ boxes ready for shipping.
    “Your job is carved up to tiny tasks which means they can replace you easily and training is very efficient,” Amazonian 1 says.
    Once he collects and scans a product, a new item automatically appears on his scanner, along with a timer counting down how long he has left to find and scan the next item.
    “The item might be six aisles away and you have 15 seconds,” he says. “Technology gets it wrong. You’re paranoid, you don’t know if the manager knows that’s unreasonable.
    “The timer disappears if you don’t make it, just to put the fear of god into you. You internalise that little clock...
    “You walk at ‘Amazon pace’, which is just shy of jogging.
    “They expect that of you, that’s made very clear. Everything we do here is really fast.”
    On the day of my tour, about 130 staff are rostered across the warehouse floor. The sound of a bike bell dings before a trolley comes zipping around the corner of an aisle.
    “Safety first,” my guide says.
    After we pass another 20 or so aisles, a packing supervisor tells us her understanding of ‘Amazon pace’ is working as quickly as what’s needed to “get customer orders out on time”.
    But there is “no pressure”, she adds. “I love working here. That’s the truth. The support is amazing. I’m always supported by management.”
    Management, of course, are right there alongside us.
    Each worker’s performance is calculated into ‘pick rates’. Amazonian 1 says that if you’re collecting ‘small items’ from the shelves, you’re expected to collect about 120 products an hour — two items every minute. The employees say they’re left physically and mentally exhausted at the end of each shift.
    If staff don’t meet their rates, they say a supervisor will approach them and ask if something is wrong.
    “A representative came to me and said, ‘your numbers are low, what happened?’,” Amazonian 3 says. “I said I was lifting large items, 15 or 20 kilograms. But when they come to us it makes me feel like we’re not working hard enough.”
    “It’s hard, I can’t make the times in the scanner,” Amazonian 4 says. “It’s really fast. I get stressed. They [are] always looking for your rates. It’s about numbers at Amazon.”
    Workers say it’s never explicitly said, but everyone understands that poor pick rates result in fewer shifts.
    “I was privy to conversations with management and a casual PA (processing assistant) and there was a lot of ‘Can we help them?’ We had people in their 60s. If they can’t help them, the next day they were sacked immediately, they wouldn’t get a text with their hours. Just, your shift’s been cancelled,” Amazonian 6 says.
    Amazon denies its targets are unreasonable.
    “Some of our roles are physically demanding jobs and this fact is made clear when associates join, so they understand the process and requirements,” it wrote.
    “As with nearly all companies, we expect a certain level of performance from our associates and we continue to set reasonable productivity targets objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce.”
    Like many of his co-workers, Amazonian 7 is a recent migrant to Australia. He thought working for such a huge company would look good on his resume but in reality he’s never sure if he’s going to be able to pay his rent.
    One week he was getting five shifts and the next week he got none. In the meantime, he says, new staff were starting on the warehouse floor.
    “I was getting $550 for a week. Then all of a sudden ... no shifts.”
    The warehouse is located in Dandenong South, an industrial area next to one of Melbourne’s most disadvantaged suburbs. Many of the staff we spoke to say people working there are often living pay packet to pay packet.

    Work is a casual arrangement, but only for Amazon

    All of the on-ground warehouse staff the ABC spoke to were employed as casuals through one of the country’s biggest labour hire agencies, Adecco.
    National Union of Workers national secretary Tim Kennedy says the level of casualisation in Amazon’s warehouse is “unheard of” in Australia.
    “In a lot of the facilities where we represent workers, up to 40 per cent of the workers will be casual or labour hire, but nowhere have we ever found in Australia that a major company running its logistics supply chain uses 100 per cent labour hire casuals not employed by them directly.
    “It allows Amazon to have no legal obligation to workers in regards to unfair dismissal or any sense of job security.”
    This structure gives Amazon the flexibility to respond to the demand of its daily orders. For staff, it means they are called on, cancelled on and have their shifts shifted at the drop of a hat — often less than 24 hours before their start time. Sometimes their rostered shifts are even cancelled on the morning of the shift, via text message.
    “They can switch anyone out whenever they want,” Amazonian 2 says. “They can let their employees go without a care. And they will maintain the highest standards to always get their orders out to their customers.”
    Employees say there’s an unspoken expectation they’ll be available at Amazon’s beck and call.
    “I don’t make any plans from Monday to Thursday,” Amazonian 8 says.
    “When we turn down a shift we are scared, will we get a shift next week?” notes Amazonian 3. “They think Amazon is the only thing you should be thinking about, that you shouldn’t have a life.”
    “Sometimes I don’t think they think of us as human.”
    Amazon says it had informed job applicants that “all roles were casual”. In response to our questions about that approach, it foreshadowed plans for change.
    “As we grow our local operations, we will be transitioning the majority of associates to full-time permanent employees with competitive pay and benefits, as we have done in other places where we operate around the world.”
    Shortly after the publication of this story, Amazon announced it would create 500 permanent roles at its Melbourne and Sydney warehouses over the next 12 months.

    ‘I don’t drink water ... so I don’t have to go’

    Amazon says the safety and well-being of associates is top priority, but staff say they feel pressure to cut corners to meet their pick rates and ensure they get another shift.
    Workers have told us they jog with trolleys, stack their trolleys so high they can’t see over them and pull items off high shelves without safety equipment to beat the clock.
    But they say their work is structured so that if they breach a safety rule, they’re the ones in the wrong.
    “They make it out like it’s all about safety but at the end of the day everybody will not follow safety procedures because it will bring their rates down... Everyone knew all they care about was rates,” Amazonian 5 says.
    In response to these claims, an Amazon spokeswoman says the company is always working to improve safety.
    “When we talk about Amazon pace we are talking about the speed customers expect us to deliver their order but not at the expense of safety — this is always our top priority.
    “We have a site safety committee that meets monthly and we have undertaken hundreds of audits at the site, which managers and associates participate in.”
    A number of the workers we spoke to say to meet targets, going to the toilet in the middle of a shift isn’t possible, so they usually avoid drinking water. And the warehouse can get hot, so people get dehydrated.
    Amazon says this is not accurate.
    “We encourage associates to carry a water bottle with them and most do. Water coolers are available throughout the fulfilment centre (and break room) and are replenished during the day,” it says.
    “Associates are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed. We do not monitor toilet breaks and factor appropriate breaks such as these into daily planning.”
    Workers agree Amazon never tells them they can’t go to the toilet during their shift, but everyone knows it’ll affect their pick rate if they do.
    “They expect your rate to stay the same all day and you’re expected to keep that rate up all day,” Amazonian 5 notes. “You can’t go to the toilet.”
    “I don’t drink water when I work so I don’t have to go,” says Amazonian 1.
    On some occasions, staff are sent home hours early without getting paid for the rest of their rostered shift.
    “One day we were picking so fast, they made us give ourselves a round of applause,” Amazonian 1 says. “Then they made us all go home early, and we didn’t get paid for our whole shift.”
    Amazonian 1 says staff don’t feel comfortable questioning this, despite feeling it is unfair.
    Break times are also a pressure point according to several workers, who said taking a full break would affect their pick rates.
    This is because workers say they’re expected to be back on the floor ready to scan their first item the minute their break officially ends. But this doesn’t take into account the time it takes to collect your trolley, sometimes from the other end of the warehouse, or to go back through security checks.
    “It might look like I’ve been on a 20 or 25-minute break, so I was constantly questioned by Adecco,” says Amazonian 5. “I would say, this is bullshit, you know the reason. It’s because I had to walk to the other end of the warehouse to pick my first item.”
    “During peak times we’ve been told to skip our 15-minute breaks,” Amazonian 1 says.
    Amazon denies this, saying “it is important to us that all associates receive their full break”.
    “In all of our fulfillment centres we have scheduled morning and afternoon breaks that are longer than legally required and include additional walking time.”

    ‘Hunger Games workplace’

    Heather Ikin, chair of Australia’s College of Organisational Psychologists, says Amazon does not appear to be taking any responsibility for the “culture of fear” it has cultivated.
    “When people feel like their efforts aren’t good enough usually what they do is just work that much harder and that’s why in part we’re seeing people, even though they’re not being told to do this, they’re effectively skipping rest breaks, not drinking water... to meet expectations and prove their worth to their employer which is really about shoring up their job security.
    “It’s not fair to put in place what I would consider unreasonable and in some cases unattainable deadlines, but then blame the worker when they don’t achieve them.”
    Associate professor Sarah Kaine from the UTS Centre for Business and Social Innovation says all of these elements combined create a “perfect storm for vulnerability”.
    And she fears with Amazon’s looming rise, more Australian retail employers will adopt similar techniques to try to compete.
    “The more disturbing aspects of Amazon’s approach are those in which the surveillance, the control, the pressure, the mental and physical wellbeing of workers is potentially compromised by their fear of not having ongoing work.”
    “I really describe it as a hunger games workplace.”
    These kinds of allegations against Amazon are not anything new. Since launching as an online book store in 1994, the Seattle-based company has built an empire powered by more than 500,000 employees.
    Similar accounts have emerged from its warehouses around the globe, including claims many staff in the Pennsylvania warehouse were collapsing because of the lack of air conditioning combined with their working conditions.
    In recent months Amazon workers in places like the UK, Spain, Italy, Poland and Germany have begun mobilising to call for better conditions from their $800 billion employer. These highly casualised workplaces are difficult to unionise and globally Amazon has been hostile to union activity.
    In Australia, Amazon doesn’t appear to be breaching any clear industrial laws or awards.
    “I think they’ve probably examined the laws in detail and they’re doing what they can to stay just within those laws,” associate professor Sarah Kaine says.
    “Amazon argues that it’s constantly responding to feedback from staff. If that’s the case, the question has to be asked about why we’re hearing similar stories in Australia years on.”
    Dr Tess Hardy from Melbourne Law School says under the Work Health and Safety Act both Amazon and Adecco are required to take all reasonable and practicable steps to provide a safe workplace.
    “Amazon and Adecco may emphasise the importance of safety in training and policy handbooks,” she says.
    “But, in reality, safety appears to be routinely compromised on the warehouse floor because of the relentless focus on performance and pick rates and the underlying fear of having shifts cut if the employees’ pick rates drop.”
    In short, it’s not sufficient to just tell workers to be safe. Employers have an obligation to make sure they’ve taken steps to allow them to do their job safely.
    Just next to the safety briefing area on the warehouse floor, staff members are invited to add suggestions for how to change the workplace. Amazon says it’s always calling for input from the team about how to make things better.
    The labour hire agency Adecco also declined an interview, but in a written response it says the company’s online portal allows employees to anonymously report safety concerns.
    “We will always address any concerns immediately, working collaboratively to find solutions,” a spokeswoman says.
    As Amazonian 1 leaves the Melbourne warehouse after a 10-hour shift, his bones are weary and his muscles ache.
    He estimates he’s walked about 30km today. He’s not sure if he’s got a shift tomorrow and he’s not sure if he wants one, even though he needs the money.
    His thoughts turn to the people who are receiving Amazon’s ‘smiling’ boxes, and to the man at the top of the Amazon empire, whose fortune is estimated at $140 billion.
    “Sometimes I think about what Jeff Bezos is doing at that second – what gourmet food he’s eating on which of his boats or jets. And I’m driving away so exhausted, sitting in my beat-up little hot-box in freeway traffic. I think about what I could’ve done that day if I wasn’t desperate to accept every shift.
    “Jeff Bezos has got the most money of any person on Earth. He’s not earning that money. That’s the money we’re making for him."


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