‘To them, we are like robots. The things that make us human are ground out of you’: the inside story of a strike at Amazon

When staff in Coventry downed tools, they kickstarted a David v Goliath battle against one of the most powerful companies on Earth. This is what happened next

It takes a lot to frighten Zee. The 35-year-old father of two rarely gets flustered: not when he first set out on the 4,000-mile journey from his family home in Pakistan to the UK more than a decade ago; not during the years he spent struggling for survival on the fringes of Britain’s formal economy; not when the Home Office threatened to deport him, plunging his young family into uncertainty. But the cold, foggy, final hours of 24 January this year – they felt different. “My heart was pounding,” Zee remembers. “My mind was scared.”

That was the night Zee and his colleagues at Amazon’s BHX4 warehouse in Coventry decided to make history, abandoning their workstations and launching an unprecedented stoppage to demand higher wages. They had walked out before, in a spontaneous, ad hoc protest. But this was different: a carefully planned and legal effort, the likes of which Amazon UK had never faced. Standing in their way at the exit gates was a line of senior managers who had the power to make or break each worker’s future, staring down anyone who might dare to pass. “As midnight struck, I kept catching other people’s eyes: do we go, or do we stay?” Zee recalls. “We didn’t know what would happen if we crossed that threshold. But we did know that somebody, somewhere had to be the first to try.”

In comparison with many recent industrial actions, with thousands of nurses, teachers and civil servants protesting en masse, this was a modest affair: just Zee and about 300 fellow nightshift employees congregating in the darkness, slapping each other’s backs, sipping coffee and taking turns to huddle around a brazier on the edges of a nondescript industrial park in the city’s suburbs. But by running that final gauntlet, a precarious and fragmented workforce had done what nobody in this country had done before. They had formally entered battle with one of the biggest, richest and most vehemently anti-union companies on Earth.

The tale of how they got there stretches far beyond Amazon, or Coventry, and reveals much about the cracks running through British society. But it’s a story, too, of those on the wrong side of the economic status quo finding ways to fight back, upending old assumptions about the limits of collective organising. Now, against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis and renewed attacks by the government on the right to protest, Zee and his colleagues are scaling up their ambitions: scheduling more strike action, spreading their dispute to other Amazon sites. The stakes are enormous. Lose, and all that hope and momentum drains away. Win, and they demonstrate that workers anywhere can unionise, take on their employers, and triumph.

“We’re part of something bigger,” Zee observes. “Looking around the UK, it feels as if almost everybody is like us – at boiling point. And eventually, when a saucepan is left like that, it boils over.”

* * *

BHX4, a state-of-the-art logistics hub boasting nine miles of conveyor belts and 120,000 sq metres of floor space, opened in 2018. Zee – not his real name (many of those interviewed here asked to remain anonymous) – started work there in early 2020. His new role involved less walking than a previous temporary job he’d done at another Amazon plant nearby. “At first, I thought it was heaven,” he tells me. “Then Covid hit.”

Coronavirus and its lockdowns acted like a growth hormone on Amazon and sent it on an extraordinary hiring spree. By late 2020 the company was recruiting 1,400 new staff a day, pushing the size of its international workforce up to 1.2 million. Amid record demand for home delivery, that workforce helped Amazon harvest enormous riches. Between 2019 and 2021, annual net profits from the company’s global operations nearly tripled to more than £25bn, while the personal wealth of the founder, Jeff Bezos, soared by more than £57bn during the first 12 months of the pandemic alone. With that windfall, Bezos could have given a bonus of £38,000 to every single Amazon worker on the planet and still remained one of the world’s wealthiest people. Instead, he commissioned a rocket to fly him into space and back. “I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer,” Bezos declared upon landing, “because you guys paid for all this.”

Within the largely windowless walls of BHX4, life under Covid was turning out to be a wild ride. Shifts had never been more plentiful, or punishing, and though many employees appreciated the overtime – and an initial pay rise of £2 an hour, granted in recognition of the increased workload – frustrations were mounting. Staff were subject to mysterious daily targets and exceptional surveillance, with any time spent “off task” measured to the second by their work devices and reported back to bosses. Alterations to work patterns – as a result of illness, family emergency, or any of the messy complications that come with real life – were assessed by rigid, unsympathetic computer programs, overseen by seemingly rigid, unsympathetic managers.

One worker says they were threatened with disciplinary action upon returning to work after weeks of chemotherapy; another says the same thing happened after they were stuck in hospital with their sick newborn daughter, despite informing Amazon of the situation (Amazon insists no formal disciplinary action was carried out in either case). Each day, the proprietary productivity-monitoring software would automatically generate league tables ranking employees by how close they came to meeting ever-changing daily targets, the details of which were never shared with workers. Anyone near the bottom could expect to be flagged for attention by management, the first step down a road that could lead to the sack. Sudden dismissals were common. “To them, we are like robots rather than people,” one employee says. “The little things that make us human, you can feel them being ground out of you.”

Discontent was bubbling at BHX4, and Zee was able to command a better of view of it than most. By 2021 he was a “problem solver” – roaming the warehouse with a mobile computing unit, fixing any issues with stock or supply lines along the way – which gave him the opportunity to chat informally to colleagues in multiple departments. He had also been elected to Amazon’s “associate forum”, an internal employee group ostensibly set up by the company to provide a link between staff and management – though critics accuse it of being little more than a toothless body designed to insulate Amazon from demands for genuine union representation. “I’ve always been outspoken; if I see something’s wrong, then I have to do something about it,” Zee says. “People were coming to us with the same kind of problems, again and again, but when I brought these up with management, nothing changed.”

Striking workers gather around a fire pit on a picket line at the Amazon.com Inc. fulfilment centre in Coventry, UK, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023
Amazon workers on the picket line at Coventry. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

One problem, Zee realised, loomed large over all the rest. A few months into the pandemic, even as Amazon staff were being feted as “key workers”, their £2 an hour bonus pay was quietly withdrawn. With most employees inside the warehouse now back earning about £10 an hour before tax, a regular full-time shift pattern – four 10-hour stints a week – was becoming increasingly hard to live off. Workers were forced to compete for one or two extra shifts, even though the impact of a 60-hour working week on family life was severe.

“My kids don’t know me like they should know me,” one longstanding worker says. “On the one day of the week I have off, they want to ride their bikes with me but I’m too tired to do anything but worry about money and sleep.” Another asks why they should have to choose between financial security and the basic building blocks of a decent life. “I don’t have hobbies,” they say. “I’ve lost friends, social connections – all so I can stand here six days a week, scanning parcels, to pay my rent.” An estimated 75% of the workers at BHX4, according to a GMB union survey, say they can’t afford to pay their bills; some have become trapped in cycles of high-interest debt. Last year, Amazon’s core UK division posted a profit of £222m and paid no corporation tax for the second year running. In that time, Zee and his colleagues received a real-terms pay cut of 8%.

By the summer of 2022, it wasn’t just staff in Coventry reaching breaking point, but Amazon employees across the country. For months, managers had been trying to placate a restless workforce by saying a significant pay rise was on the way, but when the details were finally announced in early August – an increase of only 35p-50p an hour – it provoked uproar. In Tilbury, Essex, hundreds of furious workers spontaneously left their posts to rally in the staff canteen. The following day, copycat protests erupted in Dartford, Chesterfield, Avonmouth, Hemel Hempstead – and Coventry.

View of an Amazon warehouse in DartfordLego boxes are seen on a conveyor belt at an Amazon warehouse, which opened in August 2021, in Dartford, Kent, Britain May 3, 2023
Inside the Amazon warehouse in Dartford. Photograph: Reuters

Within a few days, order appeared to have been restored: workers were back on normal shifts, and no concessions on pay had been granted. In Coventry, management’s only response was to temporarily upgrade a few associate forum members – Zee included – to “staff representatives”, in the hope that this would mollify employees’ concerns about not being listened to. But below the surface, something fundamental had shifted. It wasn’t just that many workers had openly defied their bosses for the first time and, in the words of one participant, “rediscovered our worth in the process”. What had also changed was that, in the midst of this haphazard revolt, another group of people had turned up to talk with Amazon staff about how they could do it again – more powerfully, durably and legally.

Thanks to those conversations, when Zee encountered colleagues outside the warehouse, and they inevitably began complaining about Amazon’s low wages, unresponsive bosses and unfair working conditions, he finally felt as if he had a real solution to offer. “Bro,” he would reply, with a wide smile, “join the union!”

* * *

Amanda Gearing was driving when she got the call. “Someone from the team said, ‘They’re walking out at Amazon’ and I just turned the car around there and then. We were blindsided. But we got ourselves on the scene and from there, everything built.”

Gearing, who is now a senior GMB organiser in the Midlands, began her first job for the union in 2007 – just as the global financial crash hit, unleashing an era of austerity, rising inequality and electoral turmoil that continues to convulse our politics today. “To be honest, it’s felt constant,” she says of the union’s attempts to firefight the consequences. “We’ve always faced cuts or crisis somewhere.” The past decade and a half has seen the value of private assets – disproportionately held by the wealthiest in society – grow by 70%, while British workers have endured the longest squeeze on wages for more than 200 years. Until recently, this mass transfer of resources away from ordinary people had not been met by a rise in labour militancy: by the early 2020s, the number of UK trade union members had fallen to about 6 million – half of the late 1970s peak. In the past few years, however, that trend has slowly started reversing. “You’re seeing growth because we’ve hit the bottom,” Gearing says. “There’s nothing left to lose.”

Workers on strike outside an Amazon warehouse in Coventry
On the picket line in Coventry. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The Jaguar Club in Allesley, where Gearing and I sit down to chat, exemplifies this economic story. Once part of a sprawling manufacturing complex at the heart of the region’s motor industry, its wood-panelled bar and framed prints of classic cars are now relics of an age in which many in the local working-class community could depend upon a secure, skilled career path when leaving school, and a social life – dancehalls, football matches, self-improvement societies – to go with it. A sense of collective identity helped fuel strong trade unions, too, but by the early 80s – when Coventry ska revival band the Specials released Ghost Town, a biting commentary on deindustrialisation and urban decay – the tide was turning. Production of new vehicles on the site gradually declined before ceasing in 2005. Within a few years the factories had been replaced with a generic out-of-town business park. Amazon’s BHX4 warehouse now stands where E-Type sports cars once rolled off the assembly line, and the nearby Jaguar Club has become the unofficial HQ of staff seeking to unionise it.

Within a new world of precarious labour, Amazon’s workforce – fragmented by middleman recruitment agencies, shift patterns and multiple languages – has long been seen by traditional trade unions as the hardest to penetrate. Not only is Amazon fiercely opposed to them (the company spends millions on “union-busting” consultants, and the US National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly accused it of illegally coercing and intimidating staff over unionisation efforts, a claim Amazon denies), but establishing a solid base of union members in any single facility is rendered almost impossible by the incredibly high staff turnover: at some centres, the worker replacement rate is estimated to be 150% a year. This level of churn isn’t a flaw in Amazon’s business model, but a central feature: according to one former vice-president, Bezos believes large, entrenched workforces represent “a march to mediocrity” and if employees – particularly lower-paid ones – stay around for too long, they will become a threat to the corporation.

Bezos is no longer CEO – he became executive chairman in 2021 – but labour insecurity continues to affect workers inside the company and beyond, because Amazon’s gargantuan size means its way of doing things has a heavy influence on sector norms. As a retailer Amazon has always sought to become the “everything store”, but now – not least because of its cosy relationship with the British government (which has signed hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of contracts with the company, including the provision of data services for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) – the concern is that many industries will undergo “Amazonification” of the labour market, with employers engaging in a race to the bottom on workers’ wages and rights.

“It’s just wrong,” Gearing says. “You’ve got a big American company worth billions of pounds that has imported itself into this country, pays its workers a pittance and treats them like robots, all while getting state support for its infrastructure and winning public sector contracts. We’ve got to change this culture.”

That, however, is easier said than done. Over the past decade, precarious workers the labour movement once struggled to reach have racked up some notable victories, such as the Uber drivers’ bid to be reclassified as employees rather than self-employed. Many of these battles have been led by radical trade unions such as the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) or United Voices of the World (UVW), which tend to represent lower-paid, often migrant workers and argue that labour disputes are best led by workers themselves (UVW represents a group of outsourced cleaners at an Amazon warehouse in Dartford). The relationship between these smaller movements and larger, legacy unions such as the GMB has sometimes been fractious; after the GMB signed a deal with Deliveroo last year, for example, giving its couriers collective bargaining rights but no guarantee of earning the minimum wage across the whole working day, IWGB dismissed the agreement as an “endorsement of exploitative practices”.

Despite these tensions, it’s clear traditional unions have been learning lessons from their younger, anti-establishment siblings. By the time workers at BHX4 walked out last August, GMB organisers had been circling the warehouse for years: patiently engaging staff in conversation on park benches, riding the buses that ferried people to work and loading up trestle tables with drinks and snacks just outside the gates. “We tried to come every week, and at first no one took any notice of us,” Gearing remembers. “Then a few people would nod and smile in recognition. Then a few stopped to take a packet of crisps. Then a few more began to chat. It was about slowly, steadily building up trust.”

Gearing and her team realised that among such a diverse workforce (about 80% of Amazon’s Coventry staff were born outside the UK), a one-size-fits-all approach was doomed to fail. In Romania, for example, many trade unions have a closer relationship with government than they do in the UK, so to allay any suspicions among Romanian workers, myth-busting materials were prepared, stressing the GMB’s autonomy. “It was about listening to workers, rather than telling them we know what they need,” Gearing says.

On the surface, the immediate gains were limited: a handful of sign-ups and the occasional opportunity to get inside the Amazon facility when representing members at disciplinary hearings (giving organisers the chance to surreptitiously leave leaflets in the canteen). But when the wildcat action erupted, all the GMB’s hard work finally paid dividends. “It kicked off and someone said, ‘Let’s phone a union,’” Gearing says with a smile. “We had always been there, so it was us they called.”

In the months that followed, GMB recruitment at the fulfilment centre grew rapidly. By December – largely thanks to the efforts of Zee and other new members like him – a formal strike ballot delivered a thumping majority in favour of industrial action: 98%, on a 63% turnout. At that stage, about 300 workers had signed up to the union, but membership has more than tripled since. “People used to be scared. Amazon told us the GMB didn’t have our best interests at heart,” one worker says. “But after our pay shrank with inflation, and the company ignored our cries, we started to realise the union wasn’t this distant body, it was us: I am the union, we are the union. Amazon didn’t change, so we did.”

* * *

The sky is just beginning to lighten as I turn into Sayer Drive, the long, straight approach road to BHX4, and the moon hangs low over the warehouses. It’s the early hours of a wet, windy morning in mid-March and through the gloom I can just make out figures in orange hi-vis jackets banging stakes into the grass verges up ahead. The first lorries of the day are beginning to rumble in from the tangle of A-roads and motorways that crisscross this corner of the Midlands, but before they can reach the Amazon gates they find themselves brought to a halt by a thicket of people clutching coffee cups, megaphones and placards. “Official picket” the signs read.

With three separate 24-hour strikes already under their belts, Zee and his colleagues are upping the ante with a week-long stoppage, one that will cumulatively cost the company £2m, according to GMB estimates. Despite the apocalyptic weather, the mood is exuberant. Small groups of strikers buzz up and down the long line of traffic, pleading with hauliers to turn their trucks around and letting out joyful shouts of recognition when they encounter a fellow employee heading into work. “Come on, man, we’ve got them shitting themselves – it’s time to join us!” one worker says, fist-bumping two friends through a car window. “We need a Polish speaker over here!” someone yells. Soon vehicles line both sides of the road, bumper to bumper. Their occupants crowd under a flapping gazebo where Gearing and other GMB organisers sit with laptops, signing up new members.

Striking Amazon workers speak to a lorry driver at a picket line during a strike over pay at the Amazon.com Inc. fulfilment centre in Coventry, UK, on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023
Striking Amazon workers speak to a lorry driver from the Coventry picket line. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Overlooking them are new CCTV units, installed by Amazon around the entranceway in the run-up to the strikes, ostensibly to improve safety in the car park. On one of the strike days I attend, a senior manager walks out with a camera and appears to be photographing workers on the picket line (he claims he was recording the lines of traffic), only to be chased away by the GMB organiser Tom Rigby – a large, lively Salford native with a self-described “asbestos ego” – accompanied by jeering strikers. On other days, police cars are summoned to the site, seemingly at Amazon’s request, though there was no suggestion of any illegal behaviour by anyone on the picket line; Amazon says it always calls the police if there are “traffic issues” on the site.

There are parts of the drama playing out in Coventry that are specific to Amazon and its hostility to organised labour – and parts that raise wider questions about the disconnect between the frictionless consumer nirvana tech giants such as Amazon are selling us and the gritty, physical and (to most of us) invisible world of warehouses, conveyor belts, pallet trucks and real humans it all depends on. “I think this is unimaginable to customers,” one worker tells me on the picket line. “They don’t see or think about the work inside those walls. To them it probably feels as if their parcels arrive by magic.”

In truth, the battle at BHX4 is bigger than all of that, as I realise when I visit Zee at his home in West Bromwich – a 25-mile drive from the Amazon facility, on the other side of Birmingham. It’s his birthday, Zee reveals, as he sits me down on the sofa next to a giant panda and opposite a sagging helium balloon. He apologises for the cold: with energy prices soaring, he and his wife have turned the radiators off and now rely on a single electric heater to warm whichever room everyone is cramming into.

Zee’s normal working day starts at 5.30pm, when he sets off for Coventry on a journey that can take anything from 45 minutes to over an hour. After his 10-hour night shift at Amazon, he gets home at about 6am – and almost immediately heads out again to take his wife to her day shift at the HelloFresh warehouse in Nuneaton (the couple can’t afford two cars). He’s home around 8am, assembling lunchboxes and finding exercise books before driving the children to school. By 9am he can finally try to get some sleep, but because parents need to be contactable in an emergency and his wife can’t use her mobile at work, he leaves his phone on and is regularly woken by messages and calls. On a good day, Zee squeezes in about four and a half hours’ rest, but by 1.45pm he must be back on the road to collect his wife at 2.30pm. An hour later, having picked up the children from school, everyone is finally back in the house. They have two precious hours in which to eat, play and socialise, then 5.30pm comes around and, for Zee, the whole energy-sapping cycle starts again.

As he is telling me all this, his phone rings several times: on the line are letting agents, and once someone from the local council’s housing department. With each conversation, Zee’s brow furrows deeper. The family have lived here for nearly two years, but are about to be evicted; the landlord claims he wants to sell the property but Zee believes he simply wants to hike the rent and knows the family will not be able to afford it. With tenants’ rights in the UK among the weakest in Europe, there is little Zee can do once the mandatory two-month notice period expires, but he is struggling to find an affordable alternative within a manageable drive of his children’s school. He has informed his local authority and officials have promised to try to help, but they’re not optimistic. As in many regions around the country, the social housing waiting list has tripled in recent years; it stands at more than 7,000 people.

The prospect of imminent homelessness would be more manageable if they had any savings to fall back on, but those have long been wiped out by the Home Office fees – about £10,000 last year – they have had to pay for residency visas, renewable every two and a half years. At times over the past decade, Zee has had to rely on credit cards and sometimes missed repayments, which means his credit score has been shredded and it’s almost impossible for him now to access emergency loans.

“Every minute of the day and every penny of our pay is accounted for,” he says. “Every day, we’re juggling to get through. And every day it feels like it could all come crashing down.” So many of the Coventry workers tell similar tales, each inflected with different failure points of 2020s Britain: partners and parents at home who depend on them for care; illnesses requiring regular medical appointments that are ever harder to come by; stifling student debts. The low wages Amazon pay are part of the problem but so, too, are Britain’s broken housing system, woeful childcare provision, crisis-ridden NHS and a Home Office that appears geared more towards revenue generation than human decency.

It’s that pernicious cocktail of private exploitation and public decay that forces Zee, whenever he can, to do two 10-hour overtime shifts each week at Amazon – a six-day schedule he kept up for five months nonstop at the end of last year. It’s why, when an old friend recently encouraged Zee to join a regular weekend cricket club, he had to turn them down – even though he grew up perfecting his medium-fast bowling and the prospect of being back out on the field made his tired eyes shine. “I think everyone needs some time to themselves, to do their thing and mentally recharge,” Zee says. “But life for me now is just work, work, work.” It’s why, on strike days, despite all the other stresses crowding in on his time and headspace, Zee still makes the long drive all the way from West Bromwich to Coventry: simply to stand with his colleagues on the picket line and feel for once that he is taking the shape of his life into his own hands, rather than being forced to watch it pass on by.

* * *

In an upstairs room at the Jaguar Club, a strike strategy meeting is taking place. Sheets of paper have been taped to the wall, with headings such as, “What have we learned?”, “What is our message?”, “What have we achieved so far?” On this page, below references to membership growth, confidence and news coverage, someone has written: “A family”.

The asymmetry of power between Amazon and its workers relies on the latter’s isolation. Managers are fed real-time data on every aspect of the logistics chain: packing rates, the number of items moving through the facility, the optimum destination for each. Employees, by contrast, are given only one piece of information: how fast they are performing in comparison with their colleagues, a metric sometimes expressed graphically in the form of racing cars. When employees are ordered by their work devices to pick objects from the shelves, they are told to follow a route designed to minimise contact between them that might impede their progress. Individually, each worker is a single cog with little insight into Amazon’s vulnerabilities. Collectively, they are capable of mapping and disrupting the entire system.

Amazon workers sort and pack items at the Amazon Fulfilment Centre in Peterborough, east England on November 27, 2019, as preparations are underway for the annual Black Friday Sale
Workers at the Amazon fulfilment centre in Peterborough. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

BHX4 is one of only two “cross-dock” facilities: warehouses where raw product is received and sorted before being distributed to the 20 or so other fulfilment centres that will prepare customer orders for delivery. Disturbances at this location have an outsized impact on the rest of Amazon’s operations – something the striking workers are keenly aware of. “We need to think about where the pressure points are,” one says, prompting nods around the table. “The run-up to Prime Week is going to be really busy here.” Someone else jumps in to point out that the warehouse often struggles for staff around religious holidays such as Eid. “If strikes hit both the cross-dock facilities in that period, it would pretty much bring Amazon UK to a standstill,” they say.

Chris Smalls – the former Amazon worker who was fired from his Staten Island warehouse job in 2020 and went on to lead a successful Amazon unionisation effort in New York City – has observed that, when facing staff acting in concert, the corporate behemoth is weaker than one might think. “Amazon prepared me for this,” he says, arguing that workers can repurpose its internal mantras – such as “see it, own it, fix it” – as weapons in their labour struggles. “I’m using a lot of the principles I learned at Amazon, against them.” BHX4 staff say they have discovered ways of exploiting the fundamental contradiction between their productivity targets and Amazon’s health and safety instructions, for example by strictly following the injunction to carefully check every side of a box before picking it up; the result is that the conveyor belt slows to a crawl and managers become infuriated. Earlier this year, Smalls came to Britain and met some of the Coventry strike leaders; they are now hitting the road to visit other Amazon warehouses and spread their own newfound self-belief. “Everything you have done, we would have done differently,” Stuart Richards, a GMB organiser, tells union members at the strike strategy meeting. “And that’s what’s brilliant.”

In recent weeks, the battle lines between Amazon and its workers have hardened. Having signed up more than 800 members in Coventry from what GMB believes is a workforce of 1,400 – more than the 50% needed to force the company into formally acknowledging and negotiating with it – the union submitted an application for statutory recognition, only to withdraw it again after Amazon claimed there were actually 2,700 employees at BHX4. (Union membership has since risen to over 1,000.) Workers say hundreds of new recruits have suddenly appeared in the warehouse, part of what GMB calls a concerted campaign of union-busting – a charge Amazon denies. Meanwhile, the Coventry workers have just voted to renew their strike mandate for another six months and their radicalism is proving infectious: new strike ballots are being planned by Amazon workers in two other sites in the Midlands: Mansfield and Rugeley. “Amazon have been ramping up the anti-union rhetoric, and trying to buy out the contracts of workers they know are GMB members,” Gearing says. “I think they’ve massively misjudged the mood internally, and they’re only just realising what they’re up against.”

Amazon says its wages and employee benefits are competitive and points to two recent national pay rises, each worth between 20p and 50p an hour to its lowest paid staff – and both awarded since worker unrest at Coventry began. In a statement, the company strongly denies its workers are subject to excessive surveillance or employment insecurity, or that it is hostile to trade unions. “Our people are supported by managers with daily face-to-face briefings and access to onsite HR teams, employee forums and site leadership teams,” it says. “We assess performance based on safe, achievable expectations and take into account time and tenure, peer performance, and adherence to safe work practices. If we think someone needs support, we offer coaching.

“Amazon respects our employees’ rights to join, or not to join, a union … We are enormously proud of our employees and the great work they do every day,” the company adds. “We place enormous value and emphasis on engaging with our employees directly and empowering them to pursue the career they want.”

On my final full day in Coventry, a public rally is staged by GMB outside the gates of BHX4 at which the organisation’s general secretary, Gary Smith, delivers a rousing address. “A thousand fires are being lit across this country by ordinary working people, people who have never been organised in their workplace before,” he booms, to wild applause. Afterwards, he approaches Zee, who has been watching quietly from the sidelines, shakes him by the hand and asks him to record an inspirational message for other Amazon colleagues and global supporters of the strike, which will be put out on Twitter. Zee looks simultaneously embarrassed and proud, but after a couple of false starts makes an impassioned plea. “Wherever you are,” he says, “start by just talking with your colleagues, because you will realise you’re stronger together. That’s what we did.”

Later, I joke with Zee that he is becoming a celebrity. He shakes his head and laughs, then falls silent, gazing out at the bright lights of the Amazon warehouse ahead and the night sky beyond. “It’s not like I wanted any of this,” he says. “And I don’t know what the consequences will be.” He turns back to me with a weary smile. “All we ever wanted was some security and decency at work. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.”


Jack Shenker

The GuardianTramp

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