‘A UK sweatshop’: how the cost-of-living crisis sparked withdrawals at Amazon | Labor struggle

Amazon workers say they are working in a “sweatshop” as safety concerns and worries about the cost of living crisis have sparked walkouts at warehouses around the country.

The Observer has spoken to four employees involved in the move, who work at three Amazon warehouses, including Tilbury in Essex, where the protests began on August 4. All say they will struggle to survive this winter with pay rises of between 35p and 50p an hour – far less than the rate of inflation, which is currently at 13%.

The workers, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation from Amazon, said they spoke out to highlight how the firm’s ultra-cheap, ultra-convenient and super-fast delivery model works.

Amazon employs more than 70,000 people in the UK, and is adding 25,000 staff in 2021 alone. Many work at the company’s 21 fulfillment centers, where some workers say they are asked to complete long, physical shifts, with difficult targets, for low pay.

Starting wages in Amazon warehouses will soon rise to between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour, depending on location. An Amazon spokesperson said this was a 29% increase in the minimum hourly wage paid to staff since 2018. They said it is also boosted by a comprehensive benefits package worth thousands of pounds a year, and a company pension scheme.

But staff say that’s too low for the kind of work being done and given the current economic crisis, especially at a company that just had $121bn (£100bn) in revenue in the second quarter of 2022 alone.

“When we heard the news, it was shocking,” said a worker at Amazon’s warehouse in Tilbury. “It’s ridiculous. Inflation is 13% and our wages are barely rising 3%. The worker rents a house with her husband for £1,350 a month with no bills. “My salary is £1,600. … I’m lucky to be married, otherwise I would I’ve been homeless.”

Some staff want a £2 an hour pay rise from the tech giant.

In addition to poor pay offers, workers are protesting conditions that lock staff in cages for entire shifts at the warehouses. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA

Another worker at Amazon’s Tilbury warehouse said they were “petrified” of how they would survive this winter. “We had a scenario recently where someone was living in [an] Amazon [warehouse],” he said. “To be honest, I can probably see it happening again.

“I can see people staying in the canteen all the time because they can’t afford to go home.”

The worker is protesting against the poor wage offer, as well as conditions that lock staff in cages for entire shifts in the warehouses, from which they pick goods to be delivered to customers. (Amazon says the workstations will protect workers from moving robotics.)

“It’s a Chinese sweatshop in Britain,” said the other worker at Tilbury. “That’s how they set up their model.”

The worker has struggled with his mental health while working for the company. “I’ve realized how bad Amazon is for my mental health,” he said. “The anxiety of going to work, knowing you have to do the same things day in, day out, is terrible.”

That concern is echoed by a worker at an Amazon plant near Bristol, who has worked there with his wife for three years. “It was good at first,” the worker said. “There was a lot of security awareness, and the targets were pretty reasonable. But now they’re just pushing it higher and higher, exploiting people.”

Around 100 Amazon employees in Bristol staged a sit-in in the company’s canteen on August 10 – an action they say they were paid for by on-site management. “The vast majority of people went back to work at that point because at the end of the day, as much as they want to fight for it, they have to think about themselves financially.”

The warehouse worker in Bristol says that managers used to stop employees from lifting heavy objects from bins on high shelves in the warehouse without ladders. “If you overstretched for 10 hours, you’d end up with a bad neck and a bad back,” he said.

That later changed when staff said they felt pressured to meet ever-increasing demand. Staff pushing carts around the warehouse used to be limited to using one cart at a time for safety reasons; now it is claimed that managers turn a blind eye to employees pulling two carts at the same time. “They don’t say anything because all they care about is getting the job done as quickly as possible,” he said. “Security just goes out the window.”

He says he has personally lifted objects weighing up to 25kg himself, despite rules stating that anything heavier than 15kg must be lifted by two people.

A worker at an Amazon plant in the north-west of England said managers at his warehouse similarly ignored rules around not driving on site and lifting heavy items from high areas in an effort to meet targets, which at his site require two items to be picked every minute.

Amazon declined to respond to specific allegations.

Martha Dark, director of Foxglove, a nonprofit that works to highlight issues within tech companies that support Amazon workers, said: “None of the workers we support wanted to protest.

“They are desperate and cannot survive on these wages. Meanwhile, Amazon is threatening to cut wages and send workers to HR to reveal the truth about life in the warehouse.”

She added: “Amazon must respect workers’ rights to organize, stop punishing people who are struggling to survive and give a real pay rise now.”

Two workers said they plan to leave the company because of the conditions and pay. Some, however, hope to stay – to change things.

“If many of us who are experienced leave Amazon at this point, they will have a new group of people that they can mold into this depressing way of working,” the Bristol worker said. “That’s the problem.”

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