Amazon's Super-Depot In The U.K. Raises Questions About Economics Versus Ethonomics

The Financial Times feature quoted a manager as saying of his staff, "You're sort of like a robot, but in human form. It's human automation, if you like."

An in-depth feature by the Financial Times throws stark light on life at one of Amazon's super depots in the U.K. The firm, No. 2 in Fast Company's hot-off-the-Intertubes 2013 MIC, has a shed the size of nine football pitches, sorting, boxing, and shipping thousands of items destined for British households. The long-read article throws up a huge question of Economics versus Ethonomics, as well as some really fascinating factoids about life in an Amazon depot, a variation on its Mechanical Turk online marketplace.

  • You're not a worker in a warehouse there, you're an "associate in Amazon's fulfilment center."
  • On average, a worker walks between 7 and 15 miles per shift--one "picker," as the workers who push customer orders around on trolleys are known, lost half a stone in his first three shifts.
  • An Amazon truck leaves the depot, which is the size of nine soccer pitches, every three minutes or so.
  • Humans will always be employed, despite Amazon's acquisition of a robot company, as they're better at coping with the different-shaped products. "You're sort of like a robot, but in human form," says one of the managers there.
  • The firm employs a "three-strikes and release" policy. Talking is frowned upon, as it is seen as a form of time-wasting, says one former worker.
  • Basic pay is £6.20 per hour, that's one penny above the U.K.'s minimum wage.

The firm, whose dominance of the online market is seen as partially responsible for the death of high-street shops such as HMV, has invested over a billion pounds in its U.K. operations--that's $1.59 billion--and is responsible for giving work to many people. There is, however, some contention with the terms of employment--many workers are employed by a global human resources agency rather than Amazon itself--and Amazon's tax status in the U.K. has got not only the British chattering classes but also both its European equivalents hot under the collar. While some former miners (the coal mine in Rugeley closed down in 1990, leading to 800 job losses) call Amazon a "slave camp," others say that, while the U.S. firm is not a perfect employer, it is, at least, providing work in a very depressed area.

Where do you stand on the Economics versus Ethonomics debate? Do you think Amazon should be made to improve pay and working conditions for its workers? Does the fact that it has created jobs in one of the biggest downturns the world has seen exempt it from paying tax in the U.K.? Or, in the words of local councillor Timothy Jones, can you see both sides? "I very much want them to stay, but equally I would like some of the worst employment practices to end," he said.

[Image by Flickr user Sherpa_536]

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