Amazon, Britain’s most popular website for Christmas shopping, is making its staff work seven days a week and threatening them with the sack if they take time off sick.
The company charges among the lowest prices for products ranging from books and CDs to sofas and lawnmowers, but those who use Amazon.co.uk or its US counterpart Amazon.com this Christmas may be unaware of the harsh conditions it imposes on staff. Last year the company achieved global profits topping £2.2 billion.
Behind the scenes Amazon, which can expect its busiest day of the year tomorrow, is employing thousands of casual workers in Britain to fetch and package items under arduous conditions. An investigation by The Sunday Times at Amazon’s enormous warehouse in Bedfordshire has found that workers were:
– Warned that the company refuses to allow sick leave, even if the worker has a legitimate doctor’s note. Taking a day off sick, even with a note, results in a penalty point. A worker with six points faces dismissal.
– Made to work a compulsory 10½hour overnight shift at the end of a five-day week. The overnight shift, which runs from Saturday evening to 5am on Sunday, means they have to work every day of the week.
– Set quotas for the number of items to be picked or packed in an hour that even a manager described as “ridiculous”. Those packing heavy Xbox games consoles had to pack 140 an hour to reach their target.
– Set against each other with a bonus scheme that penalises staff if any other member of their group fails to hit the quota.
– Made to walk up to 14 miles a shift to collect items for packing.
Given only one break of 15 minutes and another of 20 minutes per eight-hour shift and told they had to get permission to go to the toilet. Amazon said workers wanted the shorter breaks in exchange for shorter shifts.
Business is booming for Amazon, which receives nearly 1m orders around the world each day. The company has predicted that its turnover for 2008 could reach £13 billion, a rise of up to 31% on last year.
According to industry trade statistics, Amazon is the most popular choice for online shoppers – ahead of the Argos and Tesco websites. David Smith, of IMRG, an internet retail trade body, said: “Amazon is the biggest online retailer by value and weight of traffic.” Christmas is the busiest time for all online shoppers. An IMRG survey showed that 77% of shoppers were planning to do at least half of their shopping for presents online this year.
Smith said he expected tomorrow to record the highest online sales figures for the year, up from the £320m spent last Monday by UK consumers over the internet.
Amazon’s popularity is partly driven by its low prices. The company allows “third party” vendors to advertise items under £18 on its website, which are then shipped to the UK from the Channel Islands. This avoids Vat, and thereby reduce prices further.
Amazon also keeps down overheads by paying Christmas temporary staff low wages and making them work as hard as possible. An undercover Sunday Times reporter took a temporary job with Amazon after a tip-off about tough conditions for workers.
The reporter spent seven working days at Amazon’s warehouse in Bedfordshire as a packer after signing up with Quest Employment, an agency based in Northampton that supplies it with temporary staff.
She was told that the hourly rate for a day shift was £6.30, 57p more than the minimum wage. She worked on an evening shift until midnight, earning £6.80 an hour, but was told that she would have to pay £8.50 a day to use a communal bus laid on by Quest unless she could arrange her own travel to Amazon’s warehouse.
The warehouse at Marston Gate, in an isolated spot off the M1 between Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire and Dunstable in Bedfordshire, is half a mile long and stocks everything from cuddly toys to saucepans. It is one of four such sites that Amazon runs in the UK.
The undercover reporter was given a half-point penalty on her first full day for being late. She had arrived early but did not realise she was required to swipe a card to register her presence. She was told she would work as a packer, putting varying items into boxes, and was told she was expected to pack 140 “units” an hour. Senior staff confided that they felt the target was “ridiculous” and almost impossible to reach.
On her first day working in the warehouse one of the reporter’s fellow workers described how she was told off by the area manager for not hitting her target and was in “agony” after packing heavy Xbox game consoles for most of her shift.
Other workers, such as those tasked with picking items off the shelves for packing, walked up to 14 miles a day, the reporter was told.
When a spreadsheet showing productivity was put on the wall it showed that only one of the 25 “multi-large packers” – people who pack multiple items into each box – had hit their hourly target. Workers were told they could achieve a “bonus” of up to £35 extra a week, which would be paid in January, but to qualify, the entire workforce had to hit their targets.
Managers warned employees that surveillance cameras monitored their every move, and even though most came from eastern European countries, they were told to speak to each other only in English if anyone else was nearby.
Staff were warned that days off for illness, nonattendance or lateness would result in “points” against them. Any sick days, even if justified by a doctor’s note, resulted in a point against the worker.
The area manager for packing, Christophe La Corne, told staff that overtime was “mandatory” and that he was going to be “strict” about enforcing it. He said he “did not want to hear people’s excuses” about why they could not work the extra day.
One man, working as a “picker”, told the reporter that he was “exhausted”. He said: “I will never be able to look at amazon.com in the same way ever again without thinking, ‘Those poor bastards – what they go through’.”
There is no suggestion that the company is breaking the law. A spokesman for Amazon said anyone not willing to work “many hours” should not accept a job with the company. He confirmed workers would be penalised for being sick.
Allan Lyall, Vice President of EU Operations for Amazon said:
“Every single member of the Amazon.co.uk workforce, be that a temporary picker in Marston Gate, a permanent packer in Gourock, a customer service representative in Cork or a product manager in our Slough head office, is currently working flat out to ensure that our millions of customers receive the products that they have ordered on time this Christmas. Our number one focus is our customers and everyone at Amazon works hard on their behalf.
"Our customer delivery success rate is a fraction of a percentage point off 100% and that is due largely to the hard work of all our temporary and permanent associates at our fulfilment centres. Their work is greatly appreciated and they are rewarded for it with a basic wage complemented by performance related pay. Performance related pay targets have been reached on 85% of occasions this Christmas which is a testament to the efforts of our fulfilment workforce.
"We want our associates to enjoy working at Amazon.co.uk and the interests of all workers are represented by a democratically elected employee forum who meets regularly with senior management. This forum was consulted before the workforce elected to reduce breaks to 15 and 20 minutes on an eight hour shift in order to cut the total working day by half an hour.
"Demand for permanent roles from our temporary employees is at such a high level that we no longer need to recruit externally for permanent positions. Indeed, we have already seen well over 100 temporary employees become permanent this year alone. During 2008, we have taken on over 4,000 temporary fulfilment centre associates in the UK and are benefitting from the lowest level of employees leaving the company that we have experienced over all our 11 Christmases. We hope that a good number of these will go on to become permanent members of the Amazon.co.uk team as well."
Since its launch 13 years ago Amazon.com has become the most popular place to do online shopping, offering everything from DVDs to vacuum cleaners delivered to the door for low prices.
Founded by Jeff Bezos in his garage in Seattle on the west coast of America, Amazon quickly built a worldwide presence with amazon.co.uk launched in 1998. This year’s worldwide net sales are expected to be about $19 billion.
Many of Amazon’s online competitors have stopped fighting against the might of the online retailer and joined forces instead.
Amazon estimates that 81m people around the world buy something from it. In Britain the company has warehouses or “fulfilment centres” in Glasgow, Fife, Bedfordshire and Swansea. The Swansea Bay site in Wales is Europe’s biggest warehouse and spans 800,000 sq ft.
Next year Amazon is expected to launch the Kindle e-book in the UK, which allows users to download books from the internet .