Amazon's surveillance culture is 'breaking' its workers

Amazon's surveillance culture is 'breaking' its workers
'We've all hit breaking point' — As Amazon UK staff strike for the first time in history, GMB members on the picket line in Coventry tell us about the "productivity targets" wreaking havoc on their physical and mental health.

With roads outside Amazon’s Coventry warehouse blocked by a 3.5 mile queue of vans, many drivers missing their delivery slots by almost three hours, and around 200 workers gathered around the picket, it’s clear that the online retailer’s workforce is at breaking point.

“We’re growing in membership by the hour,” Stuart Perry, regional organiser for the GMB tells me. “Just this morning we’ve had 50 workers arriving on the day shift joining the union.”

The GMB has been building up inside Amazon’s UK warehouses for a decade, but union activity has ramped up in response to the 50p per hour pay raise workers were offered last summer instead of the £15 they’re asking for. Staff are currently paid just 8p over the hourly minimum wage. In a cost of living crisis where inflation is at a 40-year high, paltry pay coupled with poor working conditions defined by overbearing micromanagement and widespread employee surveillance has led to increased industrial action.

More than 310 staff at the Coventry fulfilment centre made history in January when 98% of union members voted to walk out on a turnout of more than 63%, making them the first ever Amazon UK employees to go on strike. This is despite union membership making up less than a quarter of the 1400 staff and Amazon refusing to recognise the union.

GMB members on the picket lines in Coventry. All photos courtesy of Adele Walton.

Amazon’s surveillance software gathers data from worker scanners which are used to scan an item every time it moves from a different part of the logistical process. This means that surveillance is integrated at every level of the workplace, and performance is being monitored on this basis. European Amazon boss Brian Palmer admitted to parliament in December that workers can be fired for not meeting targets, which include the requirement to hit a rate per hour, and to not go over a certain idle time, also known as Time Off Task.

With productivity targets generated by an algorithm, workers in Amazon warehouses are under constant scrutiny and pressure to work faster and harder. Garfield Hylton is a 59-year-old Universal Receive – which means he processes and checks products for damage before they’re taken to be dispatched – who has been working at the Coventry warehouse for almost five years, and is currently training to be a GMB rep. 

“When we execute an action it registers as being completed, but if our performance spikes in idle time management will ask us why that’s happened – though it’s often due to system error,” Garfield tells me on the picket line. “I have learnt to keep an extensive log of where I go and what I do in case I get asked why I’ve had a spike. Ultimately we get on with it, but it’s stressful having to constantly prove that you’re not making errors.”

Additionally, surveillance technologies are often abused for the sake of productivity. “Managers often lie about your rate and tell you that you’re getting a lower rate so that you’ll work faster.” Garfield explains. “You’re not told you’re being monitored when you start working there. Once you join you just start being told your rate, and if you fall into the bottom 25, you’ll be called for a meeting with management.” This unsurprisingly leads to feelings of exhaustion and exploitation.

“The algorithm is that you go into work not knowing what target you need to hit, but knowing you have to hit a target,” Stuart Perry, regional organiser for GMB, tells Huck. “What that means for a worker is that you have to work as hard as you physically can for as long as you can, in fear of not hitting a target that you know nothing about.”

The constant pressure to keep up with abstract and unattainable targets is having a clear impact on the mental and physical health of Amazon’s staff. “If you have an idle time of an hour total because you go to the loo three times in a 10 hour shift, you’ll be penalised for a bodily function,” says Garfield.

Ambulances have been called out to the company’s fulfilment centres almost 1000 times between 2018 and 2021. “The horror stories you hear are true. We’ve supported people who have had miscarriages in the toilets, electrocution from poorly maintained equipment, workers being called in for disciplinary action for being off sick with cancer.” says Perry.

In a video for GMB (featured below), a union member called Nick details the following experience: “I had cancer three years ago, and I got called into a meeting and received a warning because I breached the three and a half month time off. If I didn’t take that time off, I would have died.”

For Garfield, who’s been at Amazon for almost half a decade, the toll is becoming increasingly unbearable. “I’m hanging in there to support my colleagues but I’m realising I’m coming to the end of my tether,” he explains. “I can feel my joints seizing up and I have a bad hand from work. I’m on unpaid leave at the moment, but then you come into work where you’re constantly pressurised and where management is unsupportive, it definitely knocks your resilience down a notch.”

According to Perry, Amazon are “taking the human element out of [work], because humans can’t cope with the amount of work they’re asked to do. At some point your body’s going to break.”

After prolonged email exchanges with Tim Hobden, senior PR manager, UK operations for Amazon asking for comment on the specific allegations above, one was finally given.

Tim said over email, “Despite several requests, Huck refused to provide any details that would allow us to investigate these unsubstantiated allegations. Safety is at the heart of everything we do and that’s why we invest millions every year in training and technology to help our people stay safe while doing their job. In fact Amazon has over 50% fewer injuries on average than other transportation and warehousing businesses in the UK.”

Details of each allegation have either been reported previously, or were provided to Amazon. 

Questions are starting to be asked about the nature and effectiveness of workplace surveillance, and whether it’s ethical at all. One in five companies are already using surveillance to monitor workers or are planning to do so. The pandemic accelerated the spread of employee surveillance tools, colloquially known as ‘bossware’, across sectors ranging from retail, manufacturing, logistics and tech companies, with the Institute for the Future of Work calling this “the Amazonian Era.”

With the government slow to respond to a rapidly changing labour landscape, unions are leading the charge in the race to protect workers from surveillance.

“It’s a real culture of fear that tries to drive performance through this veil of productivity,” says Stuart Richards, a regional organiser for GMB. On the possibility of mounting a legal challenge around the use of surveillance and the algorithm for performance management, he adds: “We’re fairly confident that there may be aspects of illegality around how the widespread use of these technologies impedes on equality legislation, where employers are failing to make any reasonable adjustments for workers based on their performance.”

It’s evident that the government is starting to take an interest in policies relating to AI and technology. However, current and prospective legislation favours corporations over workers. What’s actually needed is the introduction of regulations that protect workers from forms of AI that encroach on their rights

“The current Data Protection and Digital Information Bill and upcoming AI White Paper are likely to weaken already limited protections in the name of cutting red tape and delivering a Brexit dividend,” says Dr Jeni Tennison, Executive Director of Connected by Data – a campaign for communities to have a powerful say in decisions about data. “Companies shouldn’t be able to introduce data and AI to the workplace without negotiation with the workforce. Workers aren’t slaves, or automatons, they’re people. We need to ensure new technologies serve them in the workplace, not the other way round. And that’ll only happen if workers get a say in how they’re used.”

Workers at the Coventry warehouse have gained international support from Derrick Palmer, Vice President of the US Amazon Labor Union, and founder of the retail giant’s first union in New York Chris Smalls. Despite the giant battle ahead of them, they are confident and committed to winning.

 “We’ve all hit breaking point,” says Nick Henderson, 44, who has been at Amazon for six years. As a worker in ‘Outbound’ station of the warehouse, Nick loads trucks for distribution, and can see how much targets are stretching workers’ abilities to the brink.

“We are pushed more and more until we hit the numbers and targets, working 60 hours, and still struggling to pay the bills – and they don’t care,” he adds. “I am determined to keep going with the strike so we can build more members from Coventry and hopefully from Other Amazon sites across the UK.”

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