Ed Miliband has been blazing a trail for living wages, calling out the private sector on the poverty pay which keeps people reliant on state support. There are many major companies which this applies to, but one in particular deserves special attention: Amazon.
In November, the Guardian and the BBC both ran exposés of the prison-like and demeaning working conditions to which Amazon’s UK warehouse workers are subjected. Like many of you, I read and watched these and I became incensed. I set up an online petition calling on Amazon to pay its workers a living wage which seemed the least it could do: Christmas was around the corner and across the UK, people were getting click-happy – so much so that Amazon took on around 15,000 extra temporary workers to cope with the demand, many of them poorly paid. But of course, Amazon’s warehouses (or ‘fulfilment centres’ as it so ironically calls them) aren’t staffed by elves; there’s a human cost to our consumer satisfaction, and that cost is all too dear. Others agreed with me: the petition went viral collecting over 55,000 signatures to date.
As a result of the overwhelming response to the petition, I’ve spent the past two months collecting real workers’ experiences about being in Amazon’s warehouses. They make for powerful and depressing reading: “At first, I couldn’t believe it was actually legal,” says one worker about compulsory overtime and walking 20 miles per shift with only 30 minutes’ break. “Toilet breaks were monitored,” says another, whilst a third states that “they used fear to control workers who were terrified of losing their jobs.” Amazon has a disciplinary points system; three points and you’re out, according to workers’ statements. Fair enough, you might think, but the way Amazon applies its system is deeply unacceptable: “Took two days off due to partner having a miscarriage, was given points for this absence despite phoning in.”
Amazon represents the absolute epitome of ‘predator capitalism’: by siting its warehouses in areas of high unemployment, it can be sure of a constant stream of temporary workers, usually un-unionised and desperate to earn. Workers’ stories repeat again and again that they were promised permanent roles if they worked hard and fast enough, and yet most were let go after three months. Funnily enough, three months is also the time period after which Amazon would have to give them more employment rights. They don’t even give workers the dignity of telling them they’ve been let go: “I was told to turn up on the Friday after Christmas for my shift and I was really happy because I’d made it past Christmas when nearly everybody hadn’t. But when I turned up my pass wouldn’t work. I wasn’t needed any more. I had to walk home six miles.”
This is the human story behind Amazon. If we want a future in which work pays better than welfare, we must stop subsidising companies which facilitate in-work poverty. Amazon is a prime example of the kind of company government must target: a company with billions in UK sales per year; a company with tens of thousands of employees and agency workers; and yet, a company which keeps people on benefits by paying poverty wages and using insecure contracts as its core business model.
Todayat 1pm, a peaceful demonstration will see the 55,000-strong petition handed in to Amazon’s London offices at 60 Holborn Viaduct. To coincide with this action, a major new website is being launched today at www.amazonanonymous.org to act as a hub for all the various campaigners, consumers and concerned individuals that want to stand up to this predatory behemoth. Together, and on behalf of each and every worker whose story is like those described above, we will call on Amazon to end their poverty pay in 2014.