What it’s like to work at an Amazon “fulfilment centre”

Amazon workers in Italy and Spain dish the details on Amazon’s poor labour practices and why trade unions are the key to decent work at the E-Commerce giant.

Francisco has worked at Amazon for 5 years. According to him, this makes him one of the company’s longest-serving workers.

“Nobody retires at Amazon,” he laughs. “Probably not even Bezos will retire there.”

“Most people are out after 5 years or so. The pressure is pretty intense at Amazon and eventually, it takes a physical and mental toll.”

Francisco Jose Hervias Jimenez works at an Amazon fulfilment centre in Madrid.

Francisco is speaking at the UNI Amazon Alliance in Barcelona. Over 30 trade unionists and Amazon workers have gathered in the Spanish city to plot the way forward for dignity, decent working conditions and decent pay at the E-Commerce behemoth.

According to a New York Times exposé in 2015, Amazon has a particularly bruising and brutal office culture. When an “Amazonian” hits the brick wall, there is only one solution if they want to keep their job — climb it. At company level, employees are incentivised to excoriate their colleagues in a Battle Royale type survival-of-the-fittest working environment.

In Amazon’s Orwellian-sounding “fulfilment centres”, the intimidating and pressurised working culture is exactly the same.

Managers play on workers’ fears of job loss to work them harder, faster and longer. 10 hour-a-day shifts from Sunday to Wednesday with minimal breaks are not uncommon. In the UK, where fulfilment centres are miles away from any real communities, workers are charged extortionate rates by bus companies to be ferried in to work on time. Some workers are so afraid of losing their livelihoods that they sleep in tents near worksites to avoid turning up late for work.

If you think it sounds tough working at Amazon, being a trade unionist at Amazon is even more challenging. Francisco is a CCOO member in Spain, and Amazon made it patently clear that his involvement with the union is distinctly unappreciated by the company.

“Managers at Amazon are experts at playing on workers’ fears,” explains Francisco. “ Most people at Amazon want to get a promotion, but the company is crystal clear — join a union, and you can forget that promotion. In fact, you’ll be lucky to keep your job.”

“Even if workers feel the physical and mental strain of working for Amazon, quite a few resent you for trying to do something about the situation. Even with the best intentions, some people are so scared that any hint of unionisation (even if they’re not involved), makes them fear for their jobs.”

The job is a physically demanding one. During their 10 hour shifts, workers often walk up to 15 kilometres picking packages at an alarmingly accelerated rate. Without proper health and safety regulations or a union, many workers suffer from work-related injuries and illnesses.

“The pressure is always on to work faster,” says Francisco. “If a manager sees that you have slowed down, they tell you : ‘Either your numbers go up, or we’ll have a problem”. Mentally, physically and emotionally, they are always demanding more from their workers.”

“We aren’t robots or elite athletes. There comes a point where our bodies can’t handle this level of constant pressure. Amazon are always vying for faster delivery or higher productivity, but at some point, workers will hit the brick wall. How are we supposed to climb that brick wall if we are injured, or have worked a 10 hour shift with 1 or 2 breaks?”

Amazon workers from Italy and Spain at the UNI Amazon Alliance meeting in Barcelona.

Filippo Marchesi is a safety officer at an Amazon centre in Italy. He has repeatedly tried to alert management on health and safety issues, but so far, workers complaints have been met with a deafening silence.

“In Italy, Amazon have made a big show of saying that the safety of their workers is their number one priority. We know that’s not the case,” argues Filippo. “Last year, many workers were complaining of back issues. The company’s response? ‘You don’t have to bend your backs to pick parcels’. They pretend to care, but their answers are always deflections or they simply ignore the complaints.”

Filippo Marchesi is a safety officer at an Amazon worksite in Italy. He says management routinely ignore health and safety warnings.

“The level of absentees due to work-induced stress is really high at Amazon, and without a union, workers are scared to talk about these issues for fear of reprisals.”

Iryna Korotyeyeva, who also works for Amazon in a fulfilment centre in Italy, continues, “When I started at Amazon, they seemed really attentive to the health of their workers, but now I know it was all for show. For the company, it’s all just a facade. That’s why I joined the union.”

Working at Amazon in Italy, Iryna joined the union because she felt health and safety issues were being ignored by management.

“When I joined the union, the managers stopped me and said, ‘Iryna, why did you sign up to the union? If there was a problem, you could have just come and talked to us!’ They has already proved to us that this was completely false. After several complaints about the safety of their workers, they had nothing to rectify or even address the issues. From then on, as a trade unionist, management made life difficult for me.”

Ignoring the health and safety of their workers is part-and-parcel of Amazon’s anti-union model. But something is happening — all around the world, workers and trade unionists are starting to stand up to Amazon to demand safety at work and decent pay.

In Germany, UNI affiliate ver.di have been successful in organising workers, with over 4,000 Amazon workers signed up to the union. With 38 % union density, ver.di have organised over 40 successful strike actions this year and German Amazon workers have seen pay rises and benefits. These hard-fought wins have served to galvanise Amazon workers and unions around the world.

German Amazon workers have taken the fight to management, with over 40 strikes this year.

“For us, international solidarity is not an abstract concept — it is an absolute necessity,” urges Thomas Voss from ver.di. “If we are unable to fight beyond Germany, we will never be able to win against an international company like Amazon. We have common cause and we are convinced that only together can we move forward against this giant.”

In the UK too, something is stirring. The GMB are launching several waves of organising at Amazon sites across the country with the pledge to get Amazon workers a payrise, respect and health and safety at work. An innovative tactic of working in tandem with organisers from Polish union Solidarnosc is a great example of international collaboration. Polish organisers will work together with the GMB to organise the predominantly Polish workers at UK fulfilment centres. UK unions are linking with political campaigns, civil society and faith groups to try and organise at Amazon.

In the UK, the GMB are launching several waves of organising at Amazon sites across the country.

The UNI Amazon Alliance is helping to form a coordinated global response to this most international of companies.

“The UNI Amazon Alliance is a huge help to Amazon workers on the ground,” explains Francisco. “The stories from Germany, the UK and Italy, as well as other countries, show that we suffer from the same problems. Together, we can fight for ourselves and for each other. The Alliance shows that unions are breaking through to organise at Amazon and the example of the German strikers gives us hope and courage going forward.”

The UNI Amazon Alliance in Barcelona is helping Amazon workers organise on the ground.

For now, it’s only a start. Amazon is a huge, multinational beast, but every success the labour movement has won started with people getting together to build networks, exchange knowledge and challenge the status quo. Amazon have been forced on to the back foot in Germany — through international cooperation and unity, unions can build and consolidate their strength at Amazon. Working together globally, unions and workers may just be able to “climb the brick wall” and organise for dignity, decent work and respect at Amazon.

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UNI Global Union

UNI Global Union, based in Nyon, Switzerland, represents more than 20 million workers in the fastest growing sectors in the world — skills and services.