An inside look at exploitation within Bezos’ fulfilment centres.
Like many employers out there, Amazon does not appreciate outside investigators or any other curious observers having a peek inside its fulfilment centres (FCs). Of course, it propagates images and videos of efficiency, happy employees, and high quality products to the outside world — sometimes it even gives us a look inside, but always only on its own terms. The Amazon FC, less than a factory yet more than a warehouse, is a strictly controlled work environment. These centres are used for receiving items from vendors and manufacturers, processing and packing them into orders, then finally sending them out to customers using drivers who provide the Amazon Prime service. There are over 175 of these places across the world, more than 40 of which are based in Europe. According to Amazon, these FCs should be a clear testament of their technological innovation. The reality, however, is much less glamorous than the corporation’s promotional materials.
At one particular FC there have been issues with running water for months. Even after the place was closed for an entire day due to “maintenance”, taps in staff toilets continue to regularly cease running and some on the upper floors simply never have hot water, which becomes especially unpleasant in the winter months. Not being able to wash your hands, a basic and crucial aspect of workplace hygiene, makes absurd Amazon’s firm anti-coronavirus measures (face masks have to be worn by workers for the entire duration of their 10+ hour shift, a rule which remained in effect at FCs even before the arrival of the Omicron variant when restrictions in the country were greatly easing up). Other technical troubles included leaks in the roof, cracks and gaps in the floor, frequent IT and machinery issues, and many others. All of this does not really inspire confidence in Amazon’s image as a company of pioneering technological advances.
There are different types of FCs, ranging in size from about 400,000 to 1,000,000 square feet, but within each standard the layout remains largely identical across continents. In this one there is a ground floor (P1) for shipping and receiving, packing, HR, staff canteen, first aid, main entrance, etc. and three more floors (P2, P3, P4) primarily for stowing, picking, and packing. It is these upper floors that feature the AR (Amazon Robotics) floor, a massive caged area where robotic devices called “drives” transport and store “pods” (metallic frames with a softer interior divided up into compartments that carry products). The drives used at this FC weigh 136 kg each and can carry pods weighing hundreds of kilos more. This part of the process is fully automated, but stowing inbound items into and picking outbound ones from pods is done by humans at stations located around the edges of the AR cage. Some of these are ARSAWs (Amazon Robotics Semi-Automated Workstations).
Amazon did not actually start using so much automation in its warehouses until 2012, when Bezos acquired the Massachusetts-based manufacturer of mobile robotic fulfilment solutions Kiva Systems (later renamed to Amazon Robotics). This move has allowed the American giant to increase productivity in its FCs, making it possible to store 40% more inventory. With Kiva’s stations and drives utilised at some of the Amazon workplaces, faster product transportation throughout the facility means a quicker pace of work. All “Amazon Associates” (workers), often called “Amazonians” by the company, are issued with a badge that has their unique login, barcode, and photographic ID on it and must be carried by the worker at all times. The vast majority of the tasks performed by human labourers at this FC are done through stations and thus closely monitored, as everyone must log into a station with their badge in order to commence.
Each employee’s performance is tracked via “takt times”, how long it takes to scan a picked or stowed item, how fast totes are replaced, how much idle time occurs, and so on. Associates are told to not sign out when going for toilet breaks — this means that if the time spent away from the station is too long or WC breaks happen too often then a team leader will come to ask you what is going on. Two breaks of 30 minutes each (one paid, the other unpaid) are given for a 10h 30m shift. In reality, breaks are closer to 20 minutes as they are tracked from last to first scanned product and walking times are long due to the sheer size of the FC. Your performance is measured against set targets; although leadership make a big show of not caring about you meeting your targets in the first few weeks so that you can “focus on quality as speed will come with time”, after a certain period they do certainly care about how fast you work for them. However, it is not hard to tell that the bad press Amazon has been getting (for its horrendous treatment of workers, among other reasons) has led to some changes in company policy.
Working at Amazon, every step of the way, you are reminded that this corporation apparently cares so much about you and your well-being. Seasonal events (Halloween, Christmas, etc.) and themes based around identity (Black History Month, LGBT+ Pride, military veterans) often feature some kind of giveaway with cupcakes and pins or a free t-shirt… One wonders why anyone would fall for these cheap tricks when the wealth of Jeff Bezos grew by £58.52 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic, so he could in fact give all of his nearly 1.3 million employees (250,000 of which work full-time in these centres) a bonus of £43,000 and still be left with a few billion more pounds than he had when the crisis started! Regardless, the charade of a friendly corporate entity is maintained throughout the FC in other ways. A “Voice of Associates” (VOA) board is located near the HR and leadership areas on P1, where employees can write down suggestions. Though the illusion of being listened to falls apart rather quickly when the VOA board is flooded with blunt messages from staff fed up with nothing being done about ongoing issues. Not being able to take additional days off during the extra demanding winter holidays season, when everyone is expected to do mandatory overtime, also takes its toll.
The extent to which one can be honest and confrontational at Amazon is, however, quite limited if they intend to keep their job. A file is kept on every single worker and employees are encouraged to inform on each other. Safety is listed as the main concern, but in truth this goes straight out the window whenever associates rush to meet their goals. Amnesty Floor Monitor (AFM) staff deal with much greater risk, as only they and Reliability Maintenance & Engineering (RME) are allowed on the AR floor to collect fallen “amnesty” products, and fix basic drive issues. Even among them health and safety is secondary when it comes to keeping your response times low, and sorting out problems as quickly as possible, so that efficiency is not greatly affected. In training everyone is told to not lift drives after an amnesty responder at another FC lost their fingers in the procedure, but practically all AFMs end up having to lift the robots at least a little in order to get the job done; everyone in Amnesty knows this, but officially pretend it is absolutely forbidden and never takes place.
One day at the FC an AFM had an accident on the AR floor and the whole level was brought to an emergency stop, after which the worker was rushed to hospital. Actually, even before the amnesty responder left the premises, ‘leadership’ began looking for ways to pin the blame onto the injured employee. A disgusting, but sadly all too typical reaction of our bourgeois overlords. Bodily strains, physical and mental exhaustion, small cuts on the hands, and all sorts of other injuries are commonplace at this workplace, but many are never reported. The Amazon stance towards, or against, trade unions is familiar to most. Unions are not a tool of revolutionary struggle despite their loud claiming otherwise, as they were created to mediate worker disputes with the ruling class, and today those deeply involved within trades unions are often too preoccupied with their own careers to not sell out the workers they claim to represent. Even the smaller and apparently more radical unions are limited to lesser and more reformatory actions instead of making any progress in the fight for a better future. Nevertheless, at Amazon direct workers’ action and organising together with proletarians from other sectors is not only the more radical (and effective) option, but in effect the only real choice.
An Amnesty Floor Monitor, armed with a Kindle tablet and logged into the application through which they can view a virtual map of the Amazon Robotics cage, has the ability to basically put an entire floor of the fulfilment centre out of service! An effort like this coordinated with other AFMs could greatly reduce the amount of workers’ unpaid labour, at least for a time. A simple blockade of the FC entrances to stop trucks from entering or leaving the area, especially if carried out with the involvement of Amazon associates, can also effectively render the facility useless as far as receiving merchandise and sending out orders goes. Even with all the draconian measures used to keep a watchful eye over them, in the end — just like with any other industry — it is the hundreds of thousands of Amazon staff who have the power to make a real difference. It is they who are being exploited, it is their labour power that makes all these services possible, and it is they who, guided by a new internationalist revolutionary organisation, can push our species into a new era.
Soon it might be too late, as our planet screams for mercy. No amount of greenwashing and bragging about electronic vans can change the fact that Amazon, like many other capitalist goliaths out there, is contributing to this devastation massively. Stock that does not sell is not stored at FCs, as it takes up space for items that could still be sold for a profit. Amazon offers to send these unwanted products back to the original vendors/manufacturers (presumably for a price), otherwise the items are “disposed of”… In practice, this means that mountains of things are chucked out just because no one bought them in a specific time window. Automated facilities like these FCs, when utilised properly with the planet and people in mind, have great potential as centres for distribution of food and other goods in a global society that produces for human need instead of profit. Capitalism abuses these systems to achieve increased productivity, thus greater exploitation, but we could instead make them serve us as they could reduce the amount of time people would need to contribute in order for society’s real needs to be met. Whether such places continue to be managed by greed and used to destroy life on Earth is ultimately up to all of us — the world working class.
Picture from: Gberstel, commons.wikimedia.org