Inside an Amazon warehouse: "Treating human beings as robots"

Amazon's hyper-fast growth has fueled the need for workers at more than 150 warehouse locations across the globe. The jobs may often be welcome, but the pay and working conditions are "shocking" and "demoralizing," according to one new first-hand account. 

Journalist James Bloodworth worked undercover at an Amazon warehouse in England for three and a half weeks in 2016. In his book "Hired: Six months undercover in low-wage Britain," to be published in the U.S. in June, he set out to investigate the reality of Britain's low-wage work, which -- like in the U.S. -- has replaced disappearing manufacturing and mining jobs. Bloodworth also did stints at as a home care worker, an insurance salesman and as an Uber driver. 

"There was a lot in the media coming from the government about how Britain's economy was recovering. There was a discourse about a record number of jobs being created," he said in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch. "So I wanted to look at the true picture, because there was a big rise in precarious employment."

Among Bloodworth's findings while working at the Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, U.K.:

  • Workers received disciplinary points for various infractions -- six points were grounds for firing.
  • Calling in sick resulted in a point. A worker told Bloodworth she offered to bring in a doctor's note and was told she would still be given a point.
  • A handheld device monitored workers' time and movements, sending messages when they were behind or slowing down. 

In a statement, Amazon said, "We don't recognize these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings." It added that it "provides a safe and positive workplace for thousands of people across the UK with competitive pay and benefits from day one."

Amazon said it no longer uses the points system detailed in "Hired." Its statement said, "If someone is sick, we will have a conversation with them to understand their own individual circumstances."

Amazon also responded to Bloodworth's account of coming across a bottle of urine hidden on a warehouse shelf. He said he presumed this was one worker's solution to the lack of time to get to the bathroom in a business that's focused on productivity. 

"I only found the bottle, looked at the colour, smelt it, and then carried on working. I don't know who had done it, but it was definitely urine," he said in an email. 

Amazon said its workers "have easy access to toilet facilities which are just a short walk from where they are working." Amazon added that "Associates are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed. We do not monitor toilet breaks." 

"We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve," it said. "More than 10,000 people who currently work in permanent roles in our fulfillment centers first joined us in temporary roles."

Amazon also noted other elements of its compensation package, including stock grants and funding for adult education. Amazon recently disclosed the median salary for an Amazon worker: $28,446 a year. 

Following is a Q&A with Bloodworth. The interview had been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to go undercover? 

I thought it was a way to get a truer picture of what was going on in some companies. As a journalist, if you approach a big company, you're given a political line where you aren't necessarily getting the truest picture of what's going on. 

It was worse really than I expected in many aspects. I didn't expect working minimum-wage jobs would be enjoyable, but it was in many ways more shocking than I expected. I was working in an Amazon warehouse. All the contracts were temporary. You're on a nine-month contract, and at the end you would lose your job unless you were "exceptional," whatever that meant.

Why did you want to work at an Amazon warehouse?

It was just luck, really. I thought it would be more interesting because it was a company people were familiar with. I was looking around [The Midlands] in Britain in this town called Rugeley, where Amazon was the biggest employer. I just ended up getting a job through an agency.

You selected items and put them in plastic boxes that were placed on what you describe as "never-ending conveyor belts." Amazon is known for its investment in automation -- how much of it was at the warehouse? 

I was working as an order picker, and you're already treated as a robot. Everything revolves around your productivity and your productivity rate. There's very little concern for your well being.

It was all obsessed with productivity, even going to the bathroom. People were told off for taking five minutes to go to the bathroom. You're clocking up idle time, you're taking time to get to the toilet. They started treating human beings as robots, essentially.

If it proves cheaper to replace humans with machines, I assume they will do that. I couldn't see them being concerned with people losing their jobs. 

You describe having to use a handheld device that made you feel "as if we were convicts out on house arrest." What was it about the device that made you feel that way? 

You did have line managers, but your main contact with any sort of authority was this handheld device. It was more like a small scanner, so a bit like the devices people use at the door when you have to sign for a parcel. As soon as you entered, you would pick it up and log in with your identification. It would direct you around the warehouse. It would send you to whatever item you had to pick up. A timer would begin, and then you would have to get to the next time before the timer went off. 

You'd get messages like, 'You have to get your pick rates up." 

The main impact for me was quite demoralizing. At the time I was 33 years old. I'm healthy, I go to the gym, run and hit the weights. I wouldn't say I was enthusiastic, but I wanted to do well to show I could do that kind of job. 

Someone came up to me the first week and said I was in the bottom 10 percent in productivity. I'm not sure it's true. I wasn't able to verify it. 

You mention that Amazon used a demerit system based on points and that calling in sick resulted in workers getting a point. How did that work?

If you got six points, you lost your job. I started to get sick during my shift. I went home at midnight, and I was up at 9 a.m. the next morning. It was almost like I had the flu. I was calling them way before my shift, saying "I'm unwell, I should be back the following day."

When I went back to work, someone came to look for me and said, "I'm giving you a point for this." I said, "Why is that?" He said, "This is what Amazon has always done."

An Amazon supervisor on the first day of the job said, "If you are sick, we need you to self-medicate because we need you here."

The employment agencies stress that plenty of workers are willing to take your place if you can't hack it at Amazon. Was that accurate? 

I think to some extent there [were people waiting for the jobs.] It was mostly migrant labor. Most of them were from Romania, and they never had a shortage of people coming in. There was a huge turnover. People would come in for a short period and leave. But there were always new laborers coming in, so I think there was some truth to that.  

Rugeley was once a mining center, but the mines closed and put a lot of people out of work. Does Amazon's warehouse offer comparable work? 

In many ways, it is better -- I wouldn't want to engage in or indulge in nostalgia. But it's only better in that you aren't likely to die in an Amazon warehouse. In mines, people get buried under hundreds of tons of coal. 

At the same time, the people who had been miners said their job gave them pride and there was dignity in it. You could earn a reasonable living as a coal miner. If you wanted it, there was a job for many, many years. There was a strong trade union, and social functions that spun off from the job itself. 

I would see people around the town and they said, "I only work at Amazon." They never would have said, "I'm only a collier [coal miner]." There's a lack of pride in the new jobs that have replaced the old industries.

The old jobs had been reasonability well paid, but they have been replaced by drudgery in the warehouses. It's very difficult to plan your life around a job that's very precarious. I think it's the same in the U.S. in the Rust Belt area, where the new work that has replaced the old industries increases fear and insecurity. 

A number of U.S. cities are competing to host Amazon's second headquarters. What questions would you recommend those cities ask Amazon during the selection process? 

There are obviously higher-end jobs that Amazon provides, but I would think that much of Amazon's wealth is built on people in their warehouses, who in my opinion are badly exploited. 

I would urge state regulators to not only look at the quality of the high-end jobs, but those further down the chain that don't have as much of a voice. 

Do you shop at Amazon? 

I used to. I've stopped after I've seen what the system is built on the back of. It takes a little longer to find alternative sellers of some items, but it is possible.