As your finger is poised over your mouse ready to make that last minute gift selection for a loved one this holiday, bear in mind the complex web of economic, social, and political networks that solve your problems. Over the last year, a number of critical articles and documentaries in the UK have coupled Amazon’s corporate practices with its employment regimes, and in both areas class issues have figured strongly in the critique.
The wider story about Amazon, in the UK at least, centers on tax avoidance. While the company employs around 20,000 people in the UK, it pays very small amounts of tax – £3.2 million in 2012 on UK sales of £4.2 billion. It has been able to do this – perfectly legally – by designating its UK operation as simply an “order fulfilment business,” while its office based in Luxembourg employs only 380 people. Given the tax advantage to companies such as Amazon who are prepared to offshore, it is no surprise that there is now a crisis on the UK high street with many long established chains filing for bankruptcy due to the corporate penetration of Amazon’s business model. As recent articles and critical politicians have pointed out, Amazon is sucking out the tax base within local, regional, and national economies in terms of business rates as well as wages. In a high profile battle, cosmetics company Lush is even taking Amazon to court over its tactics. Lush refuses to sell through Amazon and yet the company uses ‘Lush’ as a search term in order to capture customers who then get directed to other products. Indeed such is the power of this corporate behemoth that before it decides to locate one of its Customer Fulfilment Centres, it extracts as much as it can from local authorities and regional economic development bodies. For example, the Welsh government gave £8.8 million in grants to Amazon to entice the company to locate its distribution centre in Swansea, South Wales rather than some place else. Much like WalMart, an Amazon Customer Fulfilment Centre creates some poorly-paid, high-stress jobs even as it also puts other companies out of business, cutting jobs elsewhere. And as with WalMart, Amazon’s low wages are subsidized by government welfare programs funded by the taxes that Amazon has avoided paying.
Even more interesting have been critiques of working conditions at Amazon, which suggest a connection between the quality of jobs and the wider sense of sustainability of community. The two biggest issues with Amazon UK have to do with employment status and the intensity of the work. In recent Financial Times and Observer newspaper pieces as well as a recent BBC TV Panorama documentary, reporters have gone undercover, obtaining employment as temporary Amazon workers. Their reports explain how Amazon’s direct workforce of around 5000 workers in the UK swells to over 20,000 during the holidays, but most of the additional workers are hired through temporary employment agencies. Amazon offers these workers a carrot: the possibility of permanent employment, slightly higher wages, and better conditions if they behave themselves. In reality, most temporary employees will never enjoy these carrots.
Most temporary hires work as pickers, walking 8 to 15 miles in a shift as they navigate around the selves to fulfill customer orders. Amazon’s distribution sites are huge as you would expect – they range from 800,000 to 1 million square feet, as large as 14 soccer fields. Workers report suffering fatigue, stress, and blisters, but more worrying is the pace of the work, which would put car factory assembly workers to shame. Each step, each minute, sometimes even each second of the picker’s shift is closely monitored with a central logistic computer telling the worker what and where to pick next and specifying the number of seconds in which they should ideally perform the task. Workers complain about this monitoring and about the company’s sick leave policy, which allows only three periods of sickness before a worker is ‘released.’
So why do people take these jobs? Amazon deliberately targets locations with high levels of unemployment, usually areas where traditional industries were once based. The South Wales base, for example, is in an area decimated by steel and coal closures. The FT magazine article emphasizes that Amazon’s centre in Rugeley, in the English Midlands, is near the site of Lea Hall Colliery, a once modern ‘super pit’ opened in 1960, which closed just before Christmas 1990. Reporter Sarah O’Connor writes that when the 800 workers were made redundant at the mine, they were being paid the equivalent of between £380 and £900 in today’s money. Today, temp agency workers at Amazon are paid only about £220 per week. Amazon’s low wage tactics reflect a far wider problem with in-work poverty. This link between low pay and poverty is gaining more attention in the UK, and a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted that of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK in 2011/12, more than half were, for the first time, living in working families.
Like the often cited truism about multinational corporations, there’s only one thing worse than being exploited by a multinational and that is not being exploited by a multinational. This is true for the communities where Amazon is located. In communities with high unemployment, these are jobs that pay some kind of wage. But I think we have to ask bigger questions about what companies like Amazon are doing to our communities and to working-class work. Workers must have the right to be represented by trade unions, and they should earn a living wage. O’Connor ends her piece by quoting a local estate agent in Rugeley who criticized locals’ negative attitudes toward Amazon: “People expect a job for life, but the world isn’t like that any more, is it?” Well, the miners of Lea Hall enjoyed better terms and conditions and far safer working environments than their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations because ordinary working-class people had expected and fought for more — if not a job for life then at least job that would give them more of a life than they currently enjoyed.
So as you scan those seductive Amazon pages, spare a thought for the employment and corporate practices that lie behind your choices. You could take a working-class perspective one click at a time. Now there is a seasonal wish!