Undercover Reporter at Amazon Warehouse Found Abusive Conditions

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders has targeted Amazon for its role in widening the wage gap in the United States, and this week he is expected to unveil legislation requiring large employers like Amazon to cover the cost of federal assistance received by their employees. We speak with journalist James Bloodworth, who spent a month working undercover as a “picker” in an Amazon order fulfillment center and found workers were urinating in bottles because they were discouraged from taking bathroom breaks. His new book is Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: And just as we watch that report, independent Senator Bernie Sanders has targeted Amazon for its role in widening the wage gap in the United States. Senator Sanders spoke Monday at an AFLCIO Labor Day breakfast and called out Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos by name.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I am not comfortable when one person, wealthiest guy in the world, Jeff Bezos, is today seeing his wealth increase, today, $250 million every single day, but there are thousands of workers who are employed by him who are earning wages so low, they are on food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Amazon responded to ongoing criticism from Sanders last week in a blog post, saying, quote, “Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone. In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15/hour before overtime. … We encourage anyone to compare our pay and benefits to other retailers.”

AMY GOODMAN: This week, Senator Sanders is expected to unveil legislation requiring large employers like Amazon to cover the cost of federal assistance received by their workers.

For more on working conditions at Amazon, we’re going to Britain right now to speak with journalist James Bloodworth, who spent a month working undercover as a picker in an Amazon order fulfillment center and found workers were urinating in bottles because they were discouraged from taking bathroom breaks. His new book is Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, James. Lay out what you found about Amazon. You’ve been tweeting nonstop about it hitting a trillion dollars, its CEO, its founding head, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world.

JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been tweeting about it and doing things like this in the media, because it’s really important, I think, to recognize what that huge wealth, that Jeff Bezos and Amazon have accumulated, what that’s built on.

So, before, I went—in 2016, I went into an Amazon warehouse here in Britain. And before that, I mean, I used Amazon myself. It was kind of a first place I’d go to buy books or DVDs, say. I didn’t really know much about what goes on in the warehouses. I kind of, like other people—I mean, I kind of—I wouldn’t say I idolized Jeff Bezos, but he was someone in the culture who was—you know, you had some respect for, because he had set up this organization that so many of us used.

And when I went into the warehouse in 2016, it was—I mean, I was really, really shocked by some of the things I saw there. I have worked in warehouses before this. It’s not as if I was afraid of hard work or as if this was I had never been in a kind of warehouse environment. But the atmosphere of the Amazon warehouse I worked in was what I imagine the atmosphere of a low-security prison would feel like. So, and again, this isn’t an exaggeration. So, for example, we had to be drug- and alcohol-tested before we started work, which I’d never had to have that done before. We had to pass in and out of giant airport-style security gates every time we even went to the toilet during the day.

If you took a day off sick, you were given a disciplinary for that. And if you received six of these disciplinaries, you would effectively lose your job. And this was taking a day off sick even if you had a letter from the doctor, even if you phoned in beforehand to say that you were going to be sick. So, if you took six days off sick, you would effectively lose your job. And this was the biggest employer in this town.

Other things, I mean, the people were afraid—people were receiving disciplinaries for taking toilet breaks. The productivity targets were so high that workers were afraid to go to the bathroom. I mean, a survey came out at the Amazon warehouse I worked in, recently, which found that 74 percent of workers there, order pickers, were afraid to use the bathrooms because of the productivity targets. And one—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, James—James Bloodworth—

JAMES BLOODWORTH: —this culminated in, one day, I found a bottle of urine on the shelf.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: James Bloodworth, on the productivity issue, the students in my class reported from their interviews that pickers were required to pick 300 items per hour from the various shelves in these huge warehouses. That comes to about 12—one item every 12 seconds?

JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yeah. I mean, it was astonishing. So, I mean, the first week I was working there, I was—an Amazon supervisor came around to find me, and told me that I was in the bottom 10 percent of productivity. And I’m someone who’s relatively healthy. You know, I run. I go to the gym. I am still reasonably young. And someone like me was, you know, at the bottom of the productivity pecking order. So, imagine what it’s like if you’re older, if you’re overweight at all, if you have a disability. It was just impossible to keep up with the targets.

And so, what happened was, people were running around this huge warehouse, which is dangerous, for a start. And then, you can also—you also received a disciplinary for running. So, to hit your target—if you didn’t hit your target, you’d receive a disciplinary. But to hit your target, you had to break the rules, by running around, for which you’d receive another disciplinary.

So what happened was, you have this huge turnover of staff. No one’s hanging on to their jobs, because people are just being fired for anything. And people are also leaving then, before their full kind of employment rights kick in. So, this is agency staff. We’re all agency staff. And this turnover of staff, it’s almost as if—you know, you can’t prove it, but it’s almost as if it’s intentional. They try to get rid of you quite quickly, because then they can bring more people in who don’t have the same employment rights as a full-time employee.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, James, you said you found urine bottles, people afraid to go to the bathroom, to take time?

JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yeah. So, I mean, this has kind of blown up since the book came out, but it was something that I saw when I was working in the Amazon warehouse. So, one day, or one afternoon, walking around the top floor of this huge warehouse, and, yeah, I found an empty Coca-Cola bottle with urine in it on the shelf. You know, yellow liquid. Smelled it. It’s very clear straightaway what it is. And you put two and two together, and this has happened because there’s a climate of fear, and you’re afraid if you go to the toilet, which can take five, 10 minutes—you know, huge warehouse, through security—and people are being told—being accused of taking so-called idle time, by Amazon, for doing this. Everything which takes away from productivity at Amazon is seen as you’re doing something wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

JAMES BLOODWORTH: So it wasn’t really a surprise, at the end, to find this.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds. You said at one warehouse in the U.K., Amazon workers called ambulances more than 115 times in three years?

JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes. That was the warehouse I worked in, yeah. So, that says it all, really, in my view.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2 with you, and we’re going to post it online. We want to thank you for being with us. And, Juan, thanks so much for that report. And again, we’re going to link to your reporters’ investigative pieces, the print pieces—they are multimedia talents—at democracynow.org. James Bloodworth, U.K.-based reporter, author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.