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Amazon faces criticism for warehouse worker stress but wages are the real issue

25 November 2013

BBC documentary promises to reveal warehouse conditions an expert has said could cause 'mental and physical illness'.

In May I wrote a blog about German workers going on strike at an Amazon warehouse and how eCommerce was changing logistics, placing greater demands on staff as well as driving phenomenal revenue growth for many retailers.


Now the BBC has carried out an investigation into Amazon that features a respected professor in public health questioning its working practices, as well as footage from an undercover reporter working as a picker in one of its fulfillment centres.


On the one hand, Amazon is not doing anything illegal and workers are unlikely to face serious harm. These intense shifts are for very busy periods and the job is clearly suited to fit, physically strong people. This isn’t sending eight year olds up chimneys.


The criticism of voice picking in the BBC article reads like technofear, although there should be a mechanism within companies for workers to make their opinions heard, both to remove irritants and also to boost efficiency.


What struck me more than the health and safety angle was the poor pay. Granted these are agency worker rates, but according to jobs website Reed, the average warehouse operative salary is £17,300. The pay for a ten and half hour night shift at the Amazon warehouse in the documentary was £8.25 per hour. This is equivalent to £18,000 per year, barely above average for what is clearly a well above average workload, combined with significant pressure and strain.


I don’t think these jobs are impossible or harmful but they should be better rewarded. After all, Amazon is making money hand over first. Figures supplied to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee showed its UK sales were £7.1 billion between 2009 to 2011.


Amazon.co.uk paid £2.3m in corporation tax on those sales, or 0.03%. Surely there’s a few quid left over for the warehouse workers? 


It’s tempting to think that better union organisation would help. But in Germany, where Amazon’s warehouse operatives are organised into strong unions, Amazon is reluctant to significantly increase wages.


Indeed the same workers I wrote about in May are striking again in the run-up to Christmas.


This story is almost comical as Amazon presents itself as a kind of Santa whose mischievous elves are threatening to ruin Christmas for Germany’s children.


But this is a serious, broad development that we will hear more about in the coming years. The eCommerce boom has produced huge revenue growth and increased the tempo of work in many warehouses. This step change should be accompanied by a similar step change in wages.

 

The BBC’s health and safety scare was over-cooked. These aren’t dark, satanic fulfillment centres. But if these workers were significantly better paid during this intensely busy time (which Amazon could easily afford) there would not be one murmur of complaint coming from these fulfillment centres about working conditions.


If you have seen the documentary, let us know what you think.

 
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