Amazon: Working hard and against the clock

By Chris Dawson November 25, 2013 - 9:45 pm

PanoramaBBC 1 Panorama aired an insider secret film show about the life of an Amazon picker working in their Swansea warehouse.

Their infiltrator smuggled in a camera and recorded his working life, starting on the day shift and then transferring to the night shift.

The work looked pretty tough to be honest – working a 10.5 hour shift with an hour break and a scanner which timed how long it takes to pick each item with a count down to let you know when you’re running behind. Occasionally the lights failed (probably less often than was shown, but we all know that sort of event is gold dust for TV) and apparently the shift involves walking around 16 miles per shift.

Blisters for someone that’s got new boots and not used to walking long distances are of course an inevitable problem but if you watch the show on iPlayer you’ll get the distinct impression that it’s a hellish way to earn a living.

To contrast the show, after the end of Panorama there was a 72 year old chap on BBC News who also works for Amazon. He said the work wasn’t really that hard, that he loved it and that Amazon is a great place to work. I like how the BBC are balanced enough to show someone who enjoys working for Amazon but it’s a bit of a shame it was on the news and that Panorama didn’t also balance their footage with interviews of long term employees and what they thought of their jobs.

There’s absolutely no question from seeing the programme that working for Amazon is just that – work. It’s hard graft and if a slacker happily drawing the dole is forced to take up a job there it’s going to be a shocking wakeup call as to how the other half live. To balance that however I’m sure Posties delivering our mail, Hod Carriers on building sites, Dustmen clearing our rubbish (who hasn’t seen them jogging around on bin day) and any number of people working in other jobs don’t work just as hard.

Working for Amazon definitely isn’t for everyone, Panorama made that clear. The real question however is was the program balanced and how many Amazon workers love their jobs?

The other thing I found faintly amusing was the contrast with the owner of a small chain of bookshops. He’s had to close a couple of shops as life on the High Street is tough. He also complained that he couldn’t compete with Amazon on price for the latest best sellers. What absolutely shocked me however was they filmed the launch party for his website! Hard to believe a multiple outlet retailer also selling on Amazon hadn’t set up a website before now.

  • Phil
    4 years ago

    The problem with Amazon is that they are unbelievably corporate. Everything is algorithm based. I didn’t particularly find it a shocking documentary. The star system is just typical corporate nonsense – Amazon will face the consequences of being so punitive eventually through lack of employee retainment and eventually a need to offer greater wages to fill the posts. Aside from this underwhelming documentary, legitimate questions should be raised about Amazons dominance in the UK.

    One thing that really grinds my gears is how Amazon frequently argue of the billions they invest in the UK as though it is some sort of benefit. The customer pool available to Amazon in the UK is the asset, not the other way around. Actually, when you consider it, they are not really bringing anything new to the table. Yes, they spend a lot on construction so there is a short term economic multiplier from this and of course regional towns benefit from their presence, but this second benefit is actually a trojan horse. These jobs are not really created but taken from other areas, it is simply an illusion that they are created. This regional competition for local jobs by councils is leading to subsidises (bribes) which i find appalling, particularly when Bezos is worth some $30bn.

    If Amazon actually manufactured or created things here which were sold elsewhere then i would agree that their presence is beneficial. Instead i believe the lack of a satisfactory contribution to domestic taxes (one reason they remain competitive on price) along with the exportation of capital outside of the UK along with outrageous marketplace fees and the concentration of demand away from so many other businesses is why i believe their presence to be negative on the wider economy.

  • 4 years ago

    What I found amusing also was that as they launched the website and said they would be saving the 15% commission (I think), I hoped they were aware of what extra they may have to spend on getting people to their website.
    But good luck to them.

    • 4 years ago

      Tell me about it – I was playing with Adwords over the weekend and burning through 31p a click for a couple of hours started to add up pretty fast to some scary numbers if I had left it running a whole month!

    • 4 years ago

      Lets be honest Amazon is a beast and we would have all loved to have been the person who created that beast. Their business model is amazing, for them of course. I don’t like having to sell on Amazon, but it is no good working against it because you won’t win and therefore we embrace it as best we can. I watched the documentary and thought – wow, how have they got away with becoming so productive and getting government grants to help fund it too. I take my hat off to them…. but I hope I never have to work for them.

      As for Google PPC – 25-30p a click for us and I just cannot decide if it is worth it at all – but if it isn’t why are all my competition doing it ? That I suppose is a whole new subject.

    • Jimbo
      4 years ago

      “As for Google PPC – 25-30p a click for us and I just cannot decide if it is worth it at all – but if it isn’t why are all my competition doing it ?”

      Why don’t you stop and see hoe it effects your sales? The way to see if it is worth it is by tracking your conversion costs. If your not doing that don’t bother with PPC.

    • Stuart
      4 years ago

      I too was shocked to see them only just setting up a website…..but then all these people moaning on about the ‘end’ of the high street are often the ones that haven’t changed with the times.

      I do think it looked very hard work picking the orders there, but then of people want cheap goods this is the price people pay, just like all the people that work in other countries making clothes for Primark etc, now that is really hard work and they probably don’t get paid in a day what the Amazon employees get in an hour.

      Most people won’t really care about the program and it won’t change their buying habits.

      Did make me think I need some countdown scanners for my picking teams 🙂

    • 4 years ago

      Exactly what I thought, that people in other countries working in sweat shops is fine, but here in the UK. It shouldn’t be allowed.
      Now I wonder what the wife would say if I got her one of those scanners for Christmas!!!!

      I could wrap it and everything.
      Will go nicely with the new iron and set of saucepans.
      I’m joking..
      She works a damn site harder than I can.

  • 4 years ago

    What made me mad about the programme is the fact that they never mentioned that some amazon sellers don’t have their items dispatched from the giant warehouses.

    I dispatch everything myself in a lovely working environment 🙂

    • 4 years ago

      Me and the wife do all our work.
      Pick, pack, dispatch, restock, fulfilment, answer questions………
      Slightly different to the Amazon Warehouse!

  • Glenn
    4 years ago

    I firmly believe that investigative reporting is right and proper and sometimes media pressure can result in positive change. The BBC 1 Panorama however was not investigative reporting and that is a real shame, because it would appear that there are issues within Amazon.

    The program like the secret filming was distorted and presented a tunnel vision of the facts. Apparently packers do a 10 ½ shift which includes a 1 hr lunch break and I assume toilet breaks as and when required. If packers are walking up to 10 miles a shift that works out at just over 1 mile an hour, which even if you consider that they are pushing a trolley isn’t actually a hardship. So if we accept that they are walking just over 1 mile an hour and consider that a walking speed of 3 miles an hour is a very gentle pace it transpires that even at a sedate pace they are only walking 20 or so minutes in every hour. This is turn means that the other 40 minutes of the hour is taken up with picking products. The Panorama program gave the impression of a person performing the role of a rat in a maze in a rush, rush , rush, rush. This doesn’t seem to be the truth and that the bulk of a working day is actually spent picking products.

    In today’s compensation culture with all the Human Rights legislation, Health & Safety and Employment laws I think it’s very unlikely that Amazon would leave themselves open to any civil litigation.

    Did Panorama actually request permission to film, because as soon as they state ‘Secret Filming’ it suggests ‘Cloak and Dagger Skullduggery’.

    The so called experts gave opinion based on hearsay and incomplete evidence from an edited poorly filmed account – farcical!

    I seriously don’t want to defend Amazon, I’m sure there are issues which should be addressed, but Panorama’s attempt to expose Amazon was plainly flawed.

    I am far more annoyed with Panorama than Amazon because Panorama failed to present sufficient facts to justify their claims about Amazon and if those claims are truth then they really should have done a better job of it.

    • L
      4 years ago

      Pushing a filled trolley for miles in different directions for so many hours with that annoying beeper day after day must drive people crazy. No doubt this will result in stress and create some costs to the government. I’m not sure who is giving these grants out to Amazon because Amazon would come to the UK anyway. These jobs are simply being transferred not created, if anything the efficiency will decrease the number of jobs required. I’m sure there are plenty of other dull jobs and much more stressful ones but it is a little scary how much emphasis they place on efficiency. I bet these managers also have set targets themselves to enforce upon the lower level workers.

  • James
    4 years ago

    What a load of crap this was. I personally don’t believe the working environment and policies were all that bad. Its much more depressing to work in than our warehouse, but this is what happens when you have to build a hangar and fill it with robot workers.

    I don’t know what the aim of the show was, but either way it was a bad attempt at proving anything. If its hurting your feet then dont work there, if you dont like the odd light out moment then dont work there. I can think of a dozen jobs off the top of my head which can have more serious affects to a human!!

    The points which should have been made about amazon is their tax evasion and also their pricing policy which is killing UK independents. They should have also interviewed a seller who had at least an idea about online selling.

    What amazed me is the amount of cash injected into the Swansea plant by the gov! Who signs this off when they know damn well that all the proceeds are going back to another bloody country!!!!! Why don’t I get a grant to help with our road/car park at our warehouse, I employ people in my area!!!

    Amazon are nothing but a drain to our economy. They take all our money and put it elsewhere, whilst killing all of our own homegrown businesses. Our own gov then throws money at them just so they can get unemployment numbers down a bit.

    Why wasn’t that money invested into the thousands of UK businesses across the country who are looking to expand – and if it really matters to the BBC, probably provide a much better working environment.

  • Gerry007
    4 years ago

    This is not defending Amazon….

    BUT, the BBC reporter should actually consider his own health situation & his job @ the Beeb, as he is quite young & IF walking a few miles a day is having that effect on him, he needs to start going to a Gym….

  • northumbrian
    4 years ago

    that soft sod of a bbc chappie needs to try being a seller on ebay
    then he really would find problems and be overworked
    my fingers are worn down to stumps clicking the keyboards dealing with tonys promises

  • Alan H
    4 years ago

    Interesting – but this model of working is surely going to end soon.

    Last year Amazon bought a robotics firm (Kiva Systems – $775 million). The worker stands in one place and the little robots pick up the shelving units and take it to the pickers/packers. When fully implemented it should require one-third the current staff levels PLUS less staff training PLUS (presumably) little walking for anybody.

    I don’t know if I’m able to post URLS, but if you go to the kivasystems [dot com] website there is an amazing demo video on the front page . . . eye-popping stuff and, I suspect, the future.

    Highly efficient, but goodness knows where lesser skilled people will find jobs in the future.

  • elvis
    4 years ago

    I found it funny when the worker said “I literally work every minute of my shift”.

    Uhhhmmmm, isn’t that what you are paid to do at work?

    I previously worked in a pancake factory making pancakes for little chef’s. These shifts were non stop, through the night for low pay but I still enjoyed the job, albeit teedious at times haha. There’s always targets in these warehouse and factory jobs, 90% of the time you don’t reach them but it maximises productivity.

  • 4 years ago

    If Amazon actually manufactured or created things here which were sold elsewhere then their presence is beneficial.

  • Jason Cooke
    4 years ago

    Love or hate Amazon, they have a genius in Bezos, and their model is unbeatable.

    The Panorama investigation I’m sure most want to see is “eBay Exposed”.

    • Jimbo
      4 years ago

      What is there to expose?

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