Thousands of workers of online sales giant Amazon struck work across Europe on November 23 to draw attention of consumers to the “inhuman” work conditions in the company’s warehouses. The strike coincided with ‘Black Friday,’ which records one of the highest sales in the year.
Injuries resulting from accidents, overworked employees collapsing unconscious on the floor, constant robotic surveillance measuring every second taken off from workstations, workers having to skip toilet breaks to avoid missing the targets, pregnant women having to do work that involves bending and moving heavy objects, miscarriages – all these have been documented at Amazon warehouses.
The workload on employees increases even further on the Black Friday when, inspired by the US, hordes of shoppers in Europe and North America jostle to lay their hands on a limited number products on sale at discounted prices in various retails. So frantic is the shopping spree that stampedes are a common occurrence at malls.
Cornering almost 50% of all the online sales on Black Friday last year, Amazon reaped over a billion dollars in profit in just 24 hours, following which the net worth of CEO Jeff Bezos, who is the richest man in the world, crossed $100 billion. A number of workers, who failed to meet the higher targets set for the number products to be processed and packed on Black Friday last year, were sacked.
Choosing this day to go on strike, the workers of the Amazon in the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy tried to communicate their plight to the consumers and put forth their demands for better treatment before their employer.
Amazon workers in Germany, where the company has not reached a collective bargaining agreement with its employees, went on strike from Thursday night till the end of Friday at the call of trade union Verdi.
“Employees currently have to fill up the shelves for Christmas business, as well as send thousands of Black Friday offers. This results in a lot of overtime, which is paid much worse than is the case with companies subject to collective bargaining,” said Silke Zimmer, head of the Verdi regional trade department in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Seeking a new contract
In Spain, the company’s largest logistics center at San Fernando de Henares, was brought to a virtual halt after about 90% of the employees went on a two-day strike.
The trade union CGT, which gave the strike call, has pointed out that Amazon took advantage of the expiry of a previous agreement with its workers to cut into their sick leaves and breaks. “The expiration of the previous agreement that regulated the working conditions of the centre gave way to rights that had been historical in the centre such as the price of overtime, professional categories, the guarantee of salary increases and incapacity agreements,” the union said. Amazon has reportedly refused to renew the agreement.
One of the employees on the picket line is reported to have said, “It is one of the days that Amazon has most sales, and these are days when we can hurt more and make ourselves be heard because the company has not listened to us and does not want to reach any agreement.”
Although Amazon has diverted the cargo from this center to 22 other depots in the country to avoid disruption in business, this is likely to impose some costs on the company and cause delays in deliveries. The Spanish unions have decided to maintain pressure on Amazon to reach an agreement by striking on upcoming shopping days. These include the Puente holidays from December 7-10, the Christmas shopping season between December 15 and 30, and then again on January 3, ahead of the Three Kings holiday.
In the UK, where it was estimated that $13 million will be spent every minute on shopping on Black Friday, the trade union GMB organized hundreds of Amazon workers for strikes at warehouses in Rugeley, Milton Keynes, Warrington, Peterborough, and Swansea.
Over the last three years in the UK, according to information unearthed by GMB by filing numerous Freedom of Information requests to ambulance services, there have been 600 instances when ambulances had to be called, either due to injuries or due to overworked employees collapsing unconscious on the work floor. “At a similar sized supermarket distribution warehouse a few miles away, there were just eight call-outs during the same period,” GMB said in a statement.
In the Rugeley-based warehouse alone, ambulances had to be called 115 times, three of which were to attend pregnant women. At least one carrying woman reported a miscarriage due to high workload.
Another pregnant woman who was surveyed told GMB that she was forced to remain standing up for her entire shift. “When I found I was pregnant, I asked my manager to be transferred to a different department. I was told I could not be transferred and must continue picking, which involves bending, stretching and moving a heavy cart, and walking miles. After a while, I told them I could not walk so many miles and I could not pick from low locations,” she told GMB. However, “[my] manager told me that most women are working on picking until their maternity leave.. I know this is true, because I saw ladies with huge bumps picking.”
Constant or occasional pain
87% of the workers surveyed by GMB “are in constant or occasional pain due to their workload”.
Cases of employees collapsing at work from strain, requiring ambulances to be called, have also been documented by a reporter from the Mirror, who went undercover with a secret camera and worked for five weeks in Tilbury warehouse in Essex, the largest of Amazon’s packaging plants in Europe, where the workers are paid less than the living wage.
In his shift, which lasted from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., only two breaks of half hour each were provided for workers to hurry up with some food. The warehouse was so vast that it would take five minutes to reach the restroom from his workstation. “If I went [to the restroom], the system would know I had not been active, so the pressure was on to hold it in,” he wrote.
Describing his day-to-day work routine, he wrote, “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.”
Once a product is packed, the next set of workers in line are assigned with the task of scanning. The time between each scan is monitored. When one takes longer than accepted by the company to find the package he is directed towards by computerized systems, that additional time is marked as “time off task”, which accrues penalty points.
Any worker who accumulates a certain number of such points is fired. Under such pressure, according to multiple reports, many workers have had to resort to urinating in trash cans nearby, instead of going all the way to the restroom, in order to not lose time.
Apart from the toll this extreme workload takes on employees’ health, numerous instances of fractures, head injuries, being knocked down by forklifts and electric shocks have been reported to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.
“Hundreds of ambulance call outs, pregnant women telling us they are forced to stand for ten hours a day, pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles – even miscarriages and pregnancy issues at work.. I’ve never seen figures like this – Amazon Rugeley must be one of the most dangerous places to work in Britain. Amazon should be absolutely ashamed of themselves,” said Mick Rix, the National officer of GMB. “Companies like Amazon should be treating staff with respect, not treating them like robots”.
Member of Parliament and shadow work and pensions minister Jack Dromey has said, “It is simply unacceptable for such a large, profitable company as Amazon to be putting the safety of its staff at risk at work.”
Earlier this month, Dromey, along with MP Emma Reynolds, visited the “infamous Rugeley site” to “ask Amazon directly why their staff suffer so many injuries at work..”
Ostensibly to protect workers from injuries, Amazon had considered the extremely unoriginal idea of locking up their workers in cages. A study about artificial intelligence carried out by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler earlier this year revealed that Amazon, in 2016, had patented a cage, with a workstation inside, where, standing up for the entire shift in absence of a seat, the employee would work on processing the products which the cage, moving towards the correct shelf over motorized wheels, would collect the product using its robotic arm and place before the worker.
This cage, the authors wrote, “represents an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines. It depicts a metal cage intended for the worker, equipped with different cybernetic add-ons, that can be moved through a warehouse by the same motorized system that shifts shelves filled with merchandise. Here, the worker becomes a part of a machinic ballet, held upright in a cage which dictates and constrains their movement.”
Amazon, however, has clarified that since the company has come up with more efficient ways to “protect” its workers, this machine will not be put to use, even if patented.