With Amazon in the middle of its busiest season, Radio Sputnik’s Fault Lines spoke with investigative reporter Alan Selby about the frequent allegations that the shipping giant mistreats its workers around the world.
Selby, who worked undercover at Amazon, writes for the Sunday Mirror and has authored four pieces on Amazon and the working conditions within the company. He told Fault Lines hosts Garland Nixon and Lee Stranahan that he contacted delivery drivers from various parts of the UK and discovered that, like Amazon’s warehouse workers, they were given production goals that were virtually impossible to meet. In trying to achieve those goals, drivers have to drive dangerously — otherwise they just won’t make enough money.
In accordance with Amazon’s employment contracts, it is the drivers who have to pay vehicle rent and insurance, as well as a number of other related fees. This sum is eventually deducted from their pay, Selby explains.
“At the end of the week, the drivers might earn less than minimum wage,” he says.
“If the driver does not get enough shifts, at the end of the week they end up owing Amazon money to work for them,” one of Selby’s reports reads.
Drivers told Selby that to save time making deliveries, they often don’t even turn their engines off when leaving their vehicle, which has, on a number of occasions, led to the vehicles being stolen.
Many drivers don’t wear seatbelts, either, because unfastening them also takes up valuable time. Considering the amount of deliveries a driver has to make per day, “those seconds add up,” Selby says.
The conditions that the drivers are working in have been described by one lawyer as “almost Dickensian,” referring to the Victorian era when laborers worked under “absolutely terrible” conditions, Selby notes.
Selby’s reports on the treatment of workers at Amazon’s Dunfermline warehouse in Scotland required direct intervention from the Scottish Parliament and the economy secretary of Scotland to be corrected.
Selby believes that the reports he and his colleagues have done have “broken the barrier” between Amazon and consumers, who now understand the human costs behind Amazon’s deals, making them vote with their money.
“Consumers and politicians alike are unhappy with [working conditions],” he said.
Amazon has clever schemes to avoid responsibility for some of its exploitative practices. For example, drivers don’t pay fees to Amazon directly, but instead send their rent and insurance money to the third parties.
This creates a kind of “plausible deniability,” enabling Amazon to hide behind the pretense of not knowing if the third party contractors are giving the drivers a hard time, Selby says.
“They can say they are acting ethically, morally, legally and try to blame everything on someone else,” he said.
The actual conditions that Amazon imposes on third parties are a topic of Selby’s ongoing investigation.
“The conditions are set by Amazon. There are no two ways about it,” Selby insists.
Amazon’s record of labor exploitation abuses is lengthy.
Currently, Amazon is under legal processing for another practice that emerged back in 2016: demanding that the employees be available seven days a week and — wait for it — fining employees who call in sick $150.
Arguably the most shocking report comes from earlier this December, when a 13-year old Manchester girl found a note in an Amazon parcel literally saying “Help me.”
“Help me please, PMP staff are evil,” the note read, according to MSN, referring to Amazon’s recruitment agency.
“That’s when we saw it. I thought ‘this isn’t right.’ Then I thought it must be a prank and I was overreacting, but then people pointed out all the stories about Amazon lately,” the girl’s parents told reporters.
“Staff also said their toilet breaks were monitored and they weren’t allowed to go outside of scheduled break times,” the MSN report on the issue read.
The shocking discovery of the note happened just in a month after another of Selby’s reports was run by the Mirror. This story described workers falling asleep on their feet trying to reach impossible goals at a warehouse in Tilbury, Essex.
Interestingly, Amazon reacted to the Mirror’s December publication by giving two tiny, 7-pence chocolates to every employee at the warehouse.
“This week our managers started coming round with a box of Celebrations for the first part of the shift, and gave us a chocolate each,” one employee told the Mirror.
“Then they did the same at the second part of the shift. Me and my colleagues were saying this was down to the Sunday Mirror. We all thought it was an insult.”
In a bitter joke, Selby said that while people working for Amazon have not yet attempted to ship themselves in a box, but “give the company a couple of months and we might start seeing that.”
“You just need to start with finding a box big enough,” he said. And hey, “at least you will be delivered in two days.”