‘I just want to live’: how UK Amazon workers came to brink of strike

Worker describes conditions in the Coventry warehouse and why he ended up joining a union

“I don’t want Jeff Bezos’s boat, I definitely don’t want his rocket – but I just want to live,” says George (not his real name), who works at Amazon’s vast Coventry “fulfilment centre”, and has become involved in organising workers there.

“I shouldn’t have to work 60 hours a week just to pay bills,” he says. “I’ve got kids. Kids need shoes, school uniform; they need to eat. I had a debt collector send me a letter. I phoned them back and we went through my wages and my outgoings and she said, ‘I don’t know how you’re staying alive’.”

Describing the working environment inside the warehouse, he says: “To be fair, I’ve worked in worse places. The facilities are quite good.”

But he adds: “It’s more about how you are treated; so having to stand for 10 hours a day. If you’re caught sitting down, you get what’s called an ‘adapt’, which is like a six-week warning. That sits on your record, and if you’re caught doing it again, you’re out the door. It just plays mind games with you.”

The staff, who work round the clock in shifts, sort thousands of products into “totes”, to be sent on to another Amazon fulfilment centre, packaged up into individual orders, and then dispatched out to customers – and are given strict targets to meet.

“It changes by the size of the item. So if you’ve got small items like jewellery or something, you’ve got to do about 350 an hour. It’s like dealing cards. And then if you’re doing big items, like a toaster, it’s probably 45-50 an hour.”

He recalls one day in the summer when he and his colleagues, who worked throughout the Covid pandemic, were told their annual pay increase would be 50p an hour. Outraged, they staged a spontaneous protest, gathering in the staff canteen.

“The management came down, and said – through a bullhorn – you need to nominate five people to come upstairs and negotiate your demands. And I put my hand up and said, ‘We can’t, because Amazon doesn’t allow unions. If we elect five people to represent us, that by definition is a union.’

“We started talking and we came up with a plan. We just took a day off, didn’t come to work, and we decided to meet in Coventry.

“And the GMB got wind of it and said, ‘Can we speak to you and tell you what we’re offering?’ I joined that day and I’m surprised now just how many union members there are.”

After their protest, he says, “we had a proper briefing at the start of the shift, to say, ‘Amazon doesn’t negotiate with unions, will not recognise unions, and the 50p’s the 50p.’ And then the ballot for industrial action started”.

“No other Amazon in the UK has got this far with the union before, and we’re on the brink of striking. I know everyone’s watching us,” he says. “They might not want to negotiate with us or even talk to us – but the rest of the world is watching.”

Contributor

Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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