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Jamie Lawrence


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“We are robots,” says undercover Amazon worker


A BBC investigation at a UK-based Amazon warehouse has revealed working conditions that a stress expert said could cause “mental and physical illness.”

Undercover reporter Adam Littler, 23, got a job collecting and processing orders in the company’s 800,000 sq ft warehouse.

In a video filmed secretly by Littler as part of a Panorama investigation, workers on night shifts were walking up to 11 miles and had to collect an order every 33 seconds. His pay rose from £6.50 an hour to £8.25 an hour when he switched to night shifts.

After experiencing a ten-and-a-half-hour night shift, he said: "I managed to walk or hobble nearly 11 miles, just short of 11 miles last night. I'm absolutely shattered. My feet are the thing that are bothering me the most to be honest."

Littler was told by an electronic handset what to collect and put on the trolley. The handset provided a window for him to locate each product and set it down. It beeped if he made a mistake. The scanner also tracked Littler’s performance and sent his stats to managers – if it was too low, he was told he could face disciplinary action.

Stress expert Professor Michael Marmot said that conditions at the warehouse were "all the bad stuff at once.”

He said: "The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness."

"There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual's health and wellbeing – it's got to be balanced."

The online ecommerce giant is recruiting an extra 15,000 staff to cope with the Christmas period. In a statement, Amazon said that worker safety was its “number one priority.”

Littler said: "We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we're holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves", he said.

"We don't think for ourselves, maybe they don't trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don't know."

Those working night shifts at Amazon work a four-day week and have an hour’s break per shift. Despite this, experts have told Panorama that the ten-and-a-half hour night shifts could breach working time regulations because of the physical nature of the work and the long hours.

Barrister Giles Bedloe said: "If the work involves heavy physical and, or, mental strain then that night worker should not work more than eight hours in any 24-hour period.

Amazon has said its night shift rota is lawful and has sought legal advice. It added that it had invested £1bn in the UK and created 5,000 permanent jobs.

The company said it relied on the good judgement of its employees, adding: "Together we're working hard to make sure we're better tomorrow than we are today."

The phrase that stuck out for me from this story was this, from the stress expert: "There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse.”

This should be a fundamental aim of the HR department.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for the reply

    I can't believe I called it Escape from New York – I actually MUCH prefer Escape from LA! I understand what you're saying, however the task was perceived to be impossible. That's why everyone got behind Snake Plissken when he achieved it because no-one had ever completed the challenge. It wasn't supposed to be beaten. That's why the bad guy – can't remember his name – picked up a gun at the end. "Why are you going to shoot him?" "I have to."

    I agree that office workers have got conditioned to cushy jobs. In fact, it's part of a wider first-world problem of people raised in cushy environments not realising how hard life is – or in fact life is supposed to be. From a wellbeing point of view, being too comfortable and lacking a challenge can lead to depression. Working environments should encourage and expect hard work – work should never be a walk in the park. And you are so right about people assuming that work that requires little thought to be a negative thing – some people love doing that type of job, so that when they get home they aren't mentally exhausted and can spend time doing non-work related activities.

    When we say engagement, what we really mean is working hard. The problem is – it is soulless to work at a lot of companies. Working for a money-making machine is often soulless and hard to integrate with one's vision of giving back to the world. So the workers are unconnected to the company and thus see no point in working hard there – instead of branding this a social issue, which it is ("What do companies need to do/stand for for employees to work hard? Is the concept of the organisation as a unit outdated?") – we bring it down to the employee level and talk about engagement. Just because we're paying attention to the problem now, it doesn't mean it hasn't always existed. But in the past employees had less choice, less voice, less knowledge.

    I think a pertinent point would be this: I wouldn't write an article about a postman walking 11 miles a day in the cold, but I would about the Amazon worker. I don't think anyone would be interested in the postman story, but this story has been very highly trafficked. WHY is that? Because the job at Amazon – and by extension jobs like it, I guess – clearly make people uneasy.

    Also, your motivational poster makes a fair point.. well part of it anyway. The simpler jobs will indeed be taken over by robots – it's inevitable. Finding jobs for people who a) love simple jobs, for the reasons we mention or b) have no other options, will be a significant social problem. Not a talent management problem. Not a workplace diversity problem. A social problem, and we're all in the damn thing together, and we should be thinking about it now. Perhaps that's why the Amazon story is pertinent?

  2. Good points, Jamie

    "It's a social issue rather than an efficiency one."

    An interesting point – we all strive for greater efficiencies in the name of keeping costs down and being competitive, but at what point does something cross the line from being 'demanding' to 'unreasonable'?

    "It's (…) about 'how do we treat workers who do this type of job?"

    As well as any other company does.  All Health and Safety standards seemed to be being adhered to – beyond that, what is truly expected of a company?  Postmen walk similar distances every day, outdoors in all weathers.  Many people have repetetive jobs which are hard work but don't challenge them creatively or mentally – is it the company's place to try and make sure that everyone is a completely fulfilled human being for the hours they are at work?  I think there's a bit of 'ivory tower' syndrome going on here – many people reading this website will be working for the sort of companies that have spent a lot of money on their people development and their people skills.  Working at the higher end of the market, it can be easy to forget that there are people who would regard the sort of job where no independent thought is required as a dream job.  Turn up, do what you're told, go home.

    I love your Escape from L.A. analogy, but you missed out the most important part.  The first guy on the court fails at this seemingly impossible task.  Snake Plissken turns up and succeeds.  So the task wasn't impossible, just difficult.  Should companies not present their staff with challenging tasks?  Sometimes figuring out how you're going to do what initially looked impossible is the best part of a job.

    "I just think with this much pressure on the worker, they're going to be scared of anything going wrong/making mistakes/getting behind, especially if their performance is communicated to management."

    How is this any different from any other organisation that monitors productivity, or sets goals?  Surely performance should always be communicated to management?  Many companies are traditionally bad at monitoring and ameliorating underperformance – in some jobs it can be difficult to pin down, this is definitely one where the goals are clearly defined.  Now, if the goals can be proved to be unreasonable, that's a different matter.  Someone must have set the goals based on what a skilled and experienced worker would be able to do.  There is no benefit to setting unrealistic and unrealisable goals.  It won't take long before everyone realises the goals are unattainable, and then nobody tries to achieve them.

    People do need breaks and downtime, but perhaps we have been so conditioned by cushy office jobs that we forget that there are many jobs out there where the worker has much less control over their own time, and that these are not necessarily bad jobs, or bad companies.  The whole programme with Amazon came across to me as "Oh my god, this company expects you to work hard for your ENTIRE SHIFT!  What fresh hell is this?".

    I actually think this one is worse.  In this video, the Kiva robots at a Staples warehouse bring the worker the goods to be selected, packed and shipped.  In this one, the worker doesn't even get the exercise of walking, or interacting with other workers by chance.  Just stand there, and put the items in the pre-labelled boxes, because you're cheaper than teaching a robot to identify the difference between a green stapler and a red one.

    And this was fiction when written, and the latter part of it still is, but the first few chapters are growing ever closer, and could probably be implemented now if someone was minded to do so.

    I saw one of those motivational posters a while back, only on closer inspection it wasn't.  Under the stereotypical cheesy picture of mountains at sunrise, the text read: "If a pretty picture and a sappy quote are all it takes to inspire you, then you probably have a very simple job.  The sort robots will be doing very soon."

  3. Reply

    It's a social issue rather than an efficiency one. The point of this story isn't 'Amazon is the devil', it's more about 'how do we treat workers who do this type of job? It's less about the stress expert pointing the finger at Amazon and more about us understanding that people do not thrive in this type of environment. Yes, there will always be workers who need work and thus will put up with the 'conditions' at Amazon until they have a better offer, but is this the world we want to live in?

    To me, this is a stand out phrase: "Workers had to collect an order every 33 seconds." I just don't think this a healthy dynamic to have and puts undue stress on workers. Reminds of a scene in Escape from New York with Kurt Russell when the main character has to move to one end of a basketball court, take the ball to the other end and score, then repeat the process. He has 50 seconds to score five baskets or something. Problem is: he's behind from the beginning, and each basket he gets even more behind and has to start throwing from further away, but then of course he has to go and collect the ball anyway. I just think with this much pressure on the worker, they're going to be scared of anything going wrong/making mistakes/getting behind, especially if their performance is communicated to management. 

    Also, there will always be a differential between hours worked and hours charged. People need breaks and need downtime – if they're ill they'll be operating at less than 100% anyway. HR should be looking to simplify processes and provide employees with autonomy that allows them maximise their productivity while making allowances for their individual nuances. That's why it frustrates me when companies say they allow flexible working and there's a 10 page policy on the 15 forms employees have to fill in before they can work from home. That's not self-autonomy, it's management for compliance, and it's still focused on the means – true flexible working is focused on the ends. I don't think the ratio of hours worked to hours charged is a good metric to use. Some people beast their work in a sprint, then burn out for 20 minutes. Others run a controlled marathon. We shouldn't say who is 'better' – both could be very committed, loyal workers.

  4. The terminal velocity of efficiency

    There are companies the world over who would be ecstatic if they could achieve this level of productivity – workers working constantly for their entire shift;  no banter, no chit-chat, no coffee-machine breaks.

    Surely it's no worse than any old-style assembly-line job in a factory? Yes, it's tedious to the point of mind-numbing – so are many jobs.

    He claims to have walked 11 miles in a 10 hour shift – 1.1 mph isn't a sprint.  Yes, it's a lot more than most desk-bound office workers manage, but it's not that extreme.

    I've read surveys that put the differential between hours charged and hours worked at up to 25-30%.  Not actual deliberate wastage, but just the afore-mentioned banter, chat, coffee-machine runs, wandering around looking for someone you need to speak with etc.  Amazon just seem to have figured out a way to claw most of that back.

    It's not dangerous, it's not difficult, it's not outdoors in all weathers.  It's a bit more physical than a lot of office jobs, with machine-guidance to help ensure maximum throughput.  What's the issue?


  5. Job Design

    This is an example of poor job analysis and design. The Hay Group method of job evaluation is helpful here. Jobs consist of know how, problem solving and accountability, if the job is defined with such a fast throughput they are likely to be very stressful and additional levels of risk assessment should be in place to enable any adverse health effects to be mitigated. 

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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