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       Hazards, number 143, 2018
Rich pickings? Exploitation is part and parcel of the Amazon business model
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is the world’s first 100 Billion Dollar Man. But one man’s fortune is built on a world of pain. Warehouse staff leaving work by ambulance. Peeing in bottles. Treated like robots. GMB director of safety Dan Shears says his union’s not buying it and intends to deliver union protection.

 



AMAZON EXPOSED GMB organisers and activists have been a regular feature outside Amazon’s fulfilment centres, protesting day and night in all weathers about an employer the union says treats its workforce as little more than robots.

Imagine a large multinational retail employer. One with a dominating presence online, but with no physical shops in the UK. One with a large number of workplaces across the country, but few direct employees.

Imagine a company where ambulances are called to attend its workers several hundred times in the last three years.

You might imagine there would be a response from regulators. You might imagine that there would be inspections of these workplaces. You might anticipate investigation of some of these incidents. You might even conceive of enforcement action being taken.

You would be wrong. The ambulance call outs are not imaginary. They were in response to genuine emergencies, experienced by real people.

The employer is operating in public view, in plain sight, with political approval and without sanction.

That employer is Amazon.

The GMB has been attempting to organise workers within Amazon for many years. We have been met with hostility. Our efforts to gain union recognition have never been accepted by management. During this time, hundreds if not thousands of workers have suffered ill-health and injuries, many serious enough to warrant hospitalisation, when working at Amazon distribution warehouses or ‘fulfilment centres’.

The centres are much like any other large distribution warehouse. Goods are received into the warehouse from suppliers. These deliveries are broken down into their constituent products and then placed in specific berths within the warehouse.

Products are ‘picked’ when a customer places an order with Amazon, and the complete order is then assembled and dispatched to the client.

There are four specific in the centres:

Goods In – unpacking and checking incoming deliveries
Stowing the items on shelves
Order picking
Packing the items ready for delivery.

Amazon is now the leading retailer in the UK of books, DVDs, blu-rays, CDs and a huge range of other products. Work in its fulfilment centres is hugely labour intensive. One solution would be to automate as many of these processes as possible. Amazon has found an even cheaper way of maintaining efficiency and maximising profit.

Labour exploitation.

Infraction traction

The vast majority of people working at Amazon centres are not direct employees. They are temporary workers, employed on zero hours contracts, and sourced from labour agencies – PMP Recruitment, Adecco and Transline.



BAD GIG It is not just warehouse worker that are feeling the pressure from Amazon. Couriers who work for companies including Amazon may be at a much higher risk of crashing because of the demands of 'gig economy' work, a study has concluded. more

The precarious nature of their employment, means they are vulnerable by design. Any infraction – lateness for work, leaving early due to illness, not being able to turn up for work due to ill-health or sickness – can result in disciplinary action. Cumulative disciplinary points can result in a worker’s contract being revoked, or hours no longer being offered. Workers do not have the protection necessary to air concerns about wages, working conditions or health and safety problems.

There are migrant workers at most Amazon sites, often from Eastern Europe. Not having English as a first language, and having no understanding of how to contact regulators, these workers have very little opportunity to raise awareness about their circumstances and their issues.

Workers tell GMB conditions are unbearable, and that injuries and ill-health are part and parcel of working in Amazon. Working wounded is the norm.

So in 2018, GMB conducted a freedom of information survey of NHS Ambulance Trusts. What we learned was absolutely shocking. Ambulances had been called out more than 600 times to 14 Amazon UK warehouses in the last three years. In over half of the cases, workers were taken to hospital.

One site, Rugeley in Staffordshire, had 115 callouts in three years. These included 14 cases of breathing problems, 24 cases of chest pains, 18 cases of cardiac chest pains, 10 cases of neurological trauma, eight cases of unconsciousness, five pregnancy-related call-outs and one stroke.

By comparison, the Tesco Distribution Centre in Lichfield – a similarly sized site performing similar activities just 10 miles away – had only eight ambulances attend over the same three-year period.

Clearly something was badly amiss.

Fast and furious

To identify the extent of the injuries, we asked our members to perform a body mapping exercise. We surveyed workers at sites in Rugeley, Dunstable, Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keynes and Warrington in England and Gourock and Edinburgh in Scotland.



IT'S PERSONAL Amazon’s response to the devastating 2018 GMB report was predictable. “Requests for ambulance services at our fulfilment centres [FCs] are predominantly associated with personal health events and are not work related,” it claimed. more

We could not perform the survey openly or in conjunction with the employer – just being identified as a GMB member can place your job in jeopardy. Instead, we asked workers to complete a simple body map, identifying areas of either constant or occasional pain.

Almost nine out of ten (87 per cent) workers reported ‘constant and occasional pain’ in at least one body part. Only three per cent reported they experienced no pain whatsoever.

The types of pain were typical symptoms of working in a warehouse. ‘Constant pain’ affected the back – especially the lower back – and knees and ankles/feet. Sites of occasional pain were the neck, shoulders, wrist/hands and again the knees. This is crystal clear evidence of a total failure to manage the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The most frequently cited cause of pain was the excessively high pick rate and the furious pace of work.

A clear picture soon emerged, common across all of the sites surveyed:

High pick rates
Excessive work pace
Picking from or accessing high areas
Picking heavy items
Constant bending
Excessive walking
Pulling heavy carts and totes
Repetitive opening of packaging
Working through fatigue on a daily basis; and
Poor layout of the site causing unnecessary work.

Two other issues of immediate concern became apparent. A large number of respondents reported serious issues with welfare facilities, particularly toilet breaks. Given the need to maintain the pace of work to hit the pick rate, and the amount of time needed to get to the toilet facilities, workers were urinating in plastic bottles to save on time. One investigation reported the Rugeley site has just three bathrooms for more than 1,200 workers, with toilets located four floors from the picking floor.

In response, GMB aligned itself with our international colleagues at UNI Global to develop and promote the #AmazonPeeGate campaign on social media and at Amazon sites across the world. 


The second unexpected issue was the number of respondents raising problems from exposure to cardboard dust. Workers at fulfilment centres handle very large volumes of cardboard in the goods in and packing/goods out departments, and workers here appear to be being exposed to high quantities of dust.

Given that dust can cause respiratory problems, bronchitis, allergic reactions, migraine, conjunctivitis, sore throats and bacterial infections, it may well explain some of the ambulance call outs for breathing problems and chest pains.

Dust is also a fire and explosion risk, and the Rugeley site has twice had fires on site, in 2016 and 2017.

Amazon profits

There is little political will to hold Amazon to account for its health and safety failings.
The cost of those failings is borne by the workers, who pay with their health; by the NHS, which picks up the pieces through hospitalisation and GP visits; and by the state, which subsidises low-pay through in-work benefits and has to tackle the social issues that result from the Amazon business model.

GLOBAL EXPLOITER A labour rights group is urging Amazon to improve conditions for the factory workers in China who make Echo speakers and Kindle e-readers. The call by New York-based China Labor Watch adds to recent allegations that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos became the world’s wealthiest man on the back of low-paid labour and a series of deaths in its US distribution centres. more

Amazon on the other hand is quids in.

Accounts filed in August 2018 by Amazon UK Services, the company’s warehouse and logistics operation that employs more than two-thirds of its 27,000-plus UK workforce, revealed the company almost halved its declared UK corporation tax bill from £7.4 million in 2016 to £4.5 million last year. It received a tax credit of £1.3 million from the UK authorities in 2016, and last year paid just £1.7 million tax on its UK profits.

This was the same year that Amazon’s UK profits tripled from £24 million to £72 million.

This business model has provided Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos a very health bank balance. On the back of labour exploitation, unhealthy workplaces and cost-shifting to the public purse, his global firm was valued in September 2018 at $1 trillion. Bezos himself is the world’s first $100 billion man.

 




It’s personal: Amazon’s amazing denials

Amazon’s response to the devastating 2018 GMB report was predictable.

"It’s simply not correct to suggest that we have unsafe working conditions based on this data or on unsubstantiated anecdotes. Requests for ambulance services at our fulfilment centres [FCs] are predominantly associated with personal health events and are not work related.

"Nevertheless, ambulance visits at our UK FCs last year was 0.00001 per worked hour, which is dramatically low, and according to the Health and Safety Executive RIDDOR, Amazon has 43 per cent fewer injuries on average than other companies conducting transportation and warehousing activities in the UK.”

According to GMB’s Dan Shears: “This is the Amazon tactic laid bare. The ambulance call outs are ‘personal health events’. Given the low number at Tesco Lichfield compared to Amazon Rugeley, the workers at Rugeley are either incredibly unlucky or incredibly unwell. This is simply not a credible defence. Ambulance call outs should be a rarity – as they are at the Tesco site.”

Shears says one call out almost every week for three years tells its own story. “Amazon may well report 43 per cent fewer RIDDOR injuries than other employers in the sector, although this assertion is difficult to assess. The vast majority of workers at their fulfilment centres are employed through agencies. Those injuries are not counted against Amazon.”

Since April 2013, the local authorities responsible for enforcing safety in warehouses have not had to undertake proactive health and safety inspections.  Inspections are unlikely to be scheduled where they might jeopardise the relationship with a key local employer, especially if they are not mandatory. In addition, the majority of reportable injuries will relate to agency workers, rather than Amazon employees.

Even where ambulance call outs are routine, there’s no visible official concern. “This may explain why there are no details of any inspections, investigations or enforcement action at the Rugeley site available anywhere online,” says Shears.

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Gig economy drivers at higher crash risk

Drivers and couriers who work for companies such as Amazon and Uber may be at a higher risk of crashing because of the demands of 'gig economy' work, a study has concluded.

The University College London (UCL) researchers found the pressures that come with being a self-employed courier or taxi driver may increase significantly the risk of being involved in a collision.

The majority of those surveyed – 63 per cent – are not provided with safety training on managing risks on the road. Sixty-five per cent said they are not given any safety equipment such as a high visibility vest and over 70 per cent resort to providing their own.

Nicola Christie and Heather Ward of the UCL Centre for Transport Studies carried out 48 in-depth interviews with drivers, riders and their managers, and analysed 200 responses to an online survey taken by drivers and riders.

The participants included self-employed couriers who delivered parcels and food, and self-employed taxi drivers who received their jobs via apps. Over two in five (42 per cent) drivers and riders reported that their vehicle had been damaged as a result of a collision while working, with a further one in ten reporting that someone had been injured.

Eight per cent reported they had been injured, with two per cent saying someone else had been injured.

“Our findings highlight that the emergence and rise in the popularity of gig work for couriers could lead to an increase in risk factors affecting the health and safety of people who work in the gig economy and other road users,” explained Heather Ward.

Co-author Professor Nicola Christie said: “In previous years the UK had a good road safety record, but deregulation over the last few years has left self-employed couriers and taxi drivers at an increased risk of exploitation.

“The Health and Safety Executive has regulations on safety at work, but these don’t apply to those whose work takes place on public highways. I hope to see the recommendations in this report taken on board by the Department for Transport and incorporated into health and safety regulations as the gig economy is set to continue to increase.”

GMB national officer Mick Rix said: “Companies such as Amazon and their delivery firms have passed all the risk and responsibilities to drivers, and are avoiding their employer responsibilities and public safety obligations."

He added: “GMB calls on the government to bring forward legislation to enhance driver and public safety – the same laws which exist for those working in the more traditional employment models.”

Nicola Christie and Heather Ward.The emerging issues for management of occupational road risk in a changing economy: A survey of gig economy drivers, riders and their managers, UCL Centre for Transport Studies, 20 August 2018. www.cege.ucl.ac.uk

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Amazon blasted over Kindle factory conditions

A labour rights group is urging Amazon to improve conditions for the factory workers in China who make Echo speakers and Kindle e-readers. The call by New York-based China Labor Watch adds to recent allegations that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos became the world’s wealthiest man on the back of low-paid labour and a series of deaths in its US distribution centres.

The China Labor Watch (CLW) report followed a nine-month investigation into working conditions at a factory in the city of Hengyang owned by Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., the company known as Foxconn, which manufactures products for Amazon.

It paints a picture of low pay and intense working conditions. CLW report that workers were required to work more than 100 hours of monthly overtime, in violation of Chinese labour law that limits overtime to 36 hours a month. “Dispatch workers,” a form of temporary agency labour, made up around 40 per cent of the workforce – far higher than the 10 per cent permitted by Chinese law. These workers receive no sick pay, the report said. Nor were workers at the Foxconn factory provided adequate safety training and staff dormitories lacked adequate fire safety precautions such as fire extinguishers.

CLW’s investigation also found there was a lack of personal protective equipment and added that staff were verbally abused by managers. “As wages are low, workers must rely on overtime hours to earn enough to maintain a decent standard of living,” the report noted.

Amazon said in a statement it took the reported violations “extremely seriously.” It said it has asked Foxconn for a “corrective plan” and is monitoring the situation.

Foxconn is China’s largest single private employer, and in March 2018 it reported a 4.2 per cent increase in profits, with net income rising to £1.84bn in the last three quarters of 2017. Profits for the first quarter of this year were £605m and its CEO, Terry Gou, has a fortune reported to be about £5.3bn.

Amazon has been stung by criticism of its safety standards closer to home. A letter from the US National Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health, published on 16 May 2018 in the New York Times, criticised multibillionaire Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’ statement that “the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.”

The coalition this year named Amazon as a Dirty Dozen employer in the US, because of its abusive employment practices and record of seven warehouse deaths in five years.

“Mr Bezos needs to pay much more attention to what is happening here on Earth,” the safety group said.

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Rich pickings?

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is the world’s first 100 Billion Dollar Man. But one man’s fortune is built on a world of pain. Warehouse staff leaving work by ambulance. Peeing in bottles. Treated like robots. GMB director of safety Dan Shears says his union’s not buying it and intends to deliver union protection.

 

Contents
Introduction
Infraction traction
Fast and furious
Amazon profits

Related stories
It’s personal: Amazon’s amazing denials
Gig economy drivers at higher crash risk
Amazon blasted over Kindle factory conditions

Hazards webpages
Low pay
Insecure work