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December 1, 2021 27 mins

In this first episode we’ll be starting at the ground floor, with the most important employees holding everything together—the warehouse workers. We’ll hear what it’s like to work long shifts whilst being constantly monitored and timed in the toilet.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:01):
I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon
customer because you guys paid progress. You guys paid problems.
This is Megacal, an investigative podcast exposing some of the
world's most unethical corporations. This series is about Amazon. I'm

(00:22):
Jake Hanrahan, journalists and documentary filmmaker. Mega Corp is produced
by H eleven for Cool Zone Media. So right now

(00:43):
I'm outside one of the Amazon warehouses in the UK.
They look pretty similar anywhere you go, really, I just
kind of wanted to get an idea of the scale
of one of these places. I mean that absolutely massive, big,
ugly corrugated metal looking thing. It's got the Amazon with
its little smile symbol logo on the front. In this area,

(01:04):
it used to be a kind of woodland and then
they just obviously tarmact it and turned it into an
industrial estate and built warehouses. Um, it is what it is.
But I just wanted to get an idea of the
scale of the place, and I sort of wanted to
start this series here at ground level, if you like.
Right now here outside of this warehouse where I am,
there are workers in their working twenty four hours obviously

(01:28):
different shifts, but they're constantly working and getting treated horribly
very often. So why don't we start here. Let's start
at the ground level, where the workers are inside the warehouse.
Jeff Bezos made eleven and a half million dollars every
hour of the pandemic. He shared almost none of it
with the warehouse workers. Amazon's working conditions hundreds of points

(01:51):
on zero as contracts are subjected to a regime described
as horrendous and exhausting. They're monitored at all times, Toilet
visits are regulated. Amazon On, which has over one hundred
seventy five fulfillment centers around the world and more than
half a million employees, was ranked one of the twelve
worst companies to work for. On average, Amazon warehouse workers

(02:12):
are paid around seventeen dollars an hour in the US
and around fourteen pounds an hour in the UK. These wages,
employers will often work ten to twelve hour shifts, constantly
on their feet, where they're expected to hit never ending targets.
A package must be dealt with every thirty seconds. If
you work in as a picker, you're expected to process
three hundred items per hour. You've given nine seconds to

(02:34):
take each item from a robot that delivers shelf upon
shelf of Amazon packages. Staff are constantly filmed in the
warehouse as they work and their toilet breaks at even time.
Workers get two fifteen minute breaks, much of which can
be taken up by just walking to the toilet through
the vast expanse of the warehouse. People often fall asleep
standing up will become injured at work, As reported by

(02:58):
a journalist Brian Monegus, Leaked documents revealed in that New
York Staten Island Amazon warehouse reported injuries over three times
the industry average. To put that into context, the injury
percentages at the Amazon warehouse were worse than that steel
refineries and sawmills all over the world. Workers have voiced

(03:20):
anger at these horrific working conditions. I'm not talking about
some kind of modern day gulag here. This is the
ground floor of Amazon, a company that's made its founder
Jeff Bezos the richest man on Earth. Bezos is worth
an estimated one hundred and seventies seven billion dollars. On

(03:44):
working conditions that we've just mentioned at Amazon, Bezos has said, quote,
I'm very proud of our working conditions. For context, here's
what that quote is from It's a twenty eighteen Business
Insider interview. Today was um it's employing five hundreds sixty
six thousand people. You're probably the biggest drop crid of

(04:08):
recent times. At the same time, you're aggressively criticized by
unions and by media for being low wages, for inappropriate
working conditions. How do you deal with these accusations? Well,
first of all, any criticism, My approach to criticism and
what I teach and preach inside Amazon is when you're criticized,

(04:32):
first look in a mirror and decide are your critics right.
If they're right, change, don't want my list, No, but
not in this case. But we've had critics be right
before and we've changed. We have we we have made mistakes,
and you know, I can go I can go through
a long list of probably the one of the early
most painful ones. Let's give this forward a bit because

(04:56):
basically he just diverts very quickly away for the criticism
that was leveled at him and the issue of working conditions.
I'm very proud of our working conditions and am very
proud of the wages that we pay, very proud of
our working As I said that clip, is from mayen

(05:20):
full six months since some of the most noteworthy investigations
into Amazon working conditions began to surface. And that's what
Bazos had to say. I spoke to journalist James blood
Worth about the conditions inside Amazon warehouses across the UK.
Blood Worth went undercover working in one of the warehouses

(05:41):
in sen for his book Hired six Months undercover in
low wage Britain. So I got a job with Amazon
through an employment agency called Transline. Um, it's very easy
to get the job, So you just essentially had to
fill out a pile of forms. You also had to
take a drug and alcoholture, which was slightly bizarre because

(06:01):
it's I mean, I've never had a job where I
had done had to do that before. Um, and then
you know, I was given a job kind of a
week later. The job itself, I mean, my first impressions
off the Amazon warehouse when I was going in, I
remember writing in my diary that the atmosphere of the
Amazon warehouse had the atmosphere of what I imagined a
prison might feel like. Now that seems like hyperbole and

(06:22):
and it is to an extent, but I I did
think the place there was this awful like fearful atmosphere.
In the UK, there were currently twenty one Amazon warehouses.
One of their largest is here. It's situated in Essex
and it ships around one point two million items a year.
Amazon employees fifty five thousand people in the UK, the

(06:42):
majority of them working long shifts on the warehouse floor
is James Bloodworth did. The one thing that struck me
as very unjust was amazon sickness policy. So when I
worker was off sick, you'd you'd essentially be punished for
taking a day off sick, even if you had a
note from the doctors. So I tested this policy out myself.
So I was actually ill one day I was working

(07:04):
at Amazon. I had a very heavy cold. I phoned up,
you know, the morning I was during at one o'clock
for my shrift one pm. I phoned up early in
the morning and said, I won't be able to make
it in today. I'm feeling ill. I said, you know,
I can bring a note from the doctors if if
you want me to, because I was, Yeah, I was
actually ill, And they said, no, that's fine. You've you know,
you've phoned up enough time before as as requested. So

(07:26):
so it won't be a problem. And then when I
returned to work the next day, I was told by
an Amazon supervisor who came to find me, he gave
me a disciplinary point. Um, so you had this point toys,
some six of these disciplinaries, you lose your job. But
they gave me a disciplinary point. He did before taking
the day are sick, and I explained my situation that,
you know, I offered a note from the doctor, and
I asked, you know, how is this even fair because

(07:48):
it felt profoundly unjust because I've been ill and you
can't help getting sick, you know sometimes. But they said,
you know, this is what Amazon have always done, and
that was one of the policies that was happening at
the warehouse I was working in and other warehouses Amazon warehouses,
because I've heard similar things from other workers. It was
if you were off sick, you know, however good your
reason you would you would be given a disciplinary for that.

(08:08):
But the hell is a disciplinary point. There's a point
that they would just call them a point, but each
point is that it is a disciplinary So you Amazon
management would give you points for breaking their rules in
some way or not breaking their rules just because they felt,
you know, particularly capricious on that day. So I remember
people would were threatened with disciplinary points, for example for

(08:30):
spending too much time in the bathroom. So we were
in this warehouse that was seven hundred thousand square feet.
This warehousing rusually in Staffordshire and there would be signs
boasting that it was the size of ten football pitchures.
So it's a huge, huge warehouse with four floors, and
we only had access in the in the warehouse to
two bathrooms which was situated at one side of this

(08:52):
big warehouse. And to reach the bathrooms you had to
go through airport starts security anytime you left the anytime
you of the warehouse, because there was always this this
fear that we were somehow trying to steal things, that
workers were trying to steal it from the Amazon has
Now I'm sure it did happen sometimes, but but it
also meant that every time you wanted to go to
the toilet, every time you wanted to go on your

(09:15):
lunch break, you would have to pass through the airport
style security. So or so curiousy you know, in a
in a high end nightclub where you have to take
your belt off, they go through your wallet and stuff.
You put it on this like tray you know that
slides slides next to the slides, they slide it across
next to the you know this kind of frame you
walk through to scan you and all of this, you

(09:36):
know take it takes time. So like anytime you wanted
to use the bathroom, all of this time is not
accounted for. You don't get time for toilet breaks. This
is called idle time. And then if you clock up
too much quote quote idle time, as they call it,
you would be given a disciplinary point. So you had
effectively work as being given disciplinary points for going to
the bathroom. So just imagine that for a second. You

(09:58):
work in twelve hours shifts in a huge warehouse where
productivity is literally monitored constantly via video cameras, and you're
timed on how quickly you work. You're earning a low wage,
and then every time you need to go to the toilet,
you're searched as if you're boarding a flight somewhere. To
add insult to injury, you're also highly likely to incur

(10:21):
a disciplinary point if you're laid back due to all
the time spent going through security. Imagine that every day,
all day for five days a week just to earn
barely enough to get by it. That's how the richest
man on earth treats what are, in my opinion, his
most important workers. Without the warehouse staff moving out all

(10:42):
the products on time, his whole business collapses. Now due
to the ridiculous time restrictions and the constant monitoring of
all staff productivity, even when they go to the toilet,
many Amazon workers are forced to literally piss in a
bottle to avoid stopping their work. So during one of

(11:03):
my shifts at Amazon at the warehouse, um, I was
the one who found the bottle of urine in a
coke bottle. It was very obvious by the color of
the liquor. What's what's happened. And it was also obvious
because people were afraid to take bathroom breaks in the
warehouse because they were being given, uh given and threatened
with disciplinary points for what was called idle time by Amazon.

(11:26):
And yeah, I mean there was a survey when I
was working in the warehouse by a group called Organize,
which surveyed a hundred workers in the way wherehouse I
worked with, and it found the survey found that of
workers questioned said they were afraid to take bathroom breaks
because of productivity targets. Earlier this year, when U S

(11:46):
Senator Bernie Sanders went to support Amazon workers who were
trying to unionize, then Amazon executive and now Amazon CEO
Dave Clerk taunted Sanders. As documentary by journalist Ken Klippenstein.
In the intercept on Twitter, Dave Clark said, quote, so,

(12:07):
if you want to hear about fifteen dollars an hour
and healthcare, Senator Sanders will be speaking downtown. But if
you would like to make at least fifteen dollars an
hour and have good healthcare, Amazon is hiring. End quote.
US Representative Mark Percan replied, saying, quote paying workers fifteen
dollars an hour doesn't make you a progressive workplace when

(12:30):
you union bust and make workers urinate in water bottles.
End quote. To this, the official Amazon News Twitter account,
which has two hundred thousand followers, replied saying, quote, you
don't really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?
If that were true, nobody would work for us. The

(12:51):
truth is that we have over a million incredible employees
around the world who are proud of what they do
and have great wages. And healthcare from day one. End quote,
as we've just heard from James Bloodworth. Actually it is
true people do piss in bottles whilst working for Amazon

(13:11):
because they're worried that simply going to the toilet will
earn them a disciplinary point if they don't do it
quick enough. Now, James Bloodworth saw this in six and
in one it is still going on. This practice is
actually more common Amazon warehouses than the Amazon used Twitter

(13:32):
account would like you to believe. In the same article
by Ken Clippenstein that I just mentioned, he provides evidence
showing that pissing in bottles at Amazon warehouses is so
widespread due to pressure to meet quotas that managers frequently
referenced it during meetings and in formal policy documents and emails.

(13:56):
Clippenstein obtained some of these Amazon documents and eight quote.
The practice these documents show was known to management, which
identified it as a recurring infraction, but did nothing to
ease the pressure that caused it. In some cases, employees
even defecated in bags end quote. It's grim, it's brutal,

(14:18):
but it's the reality. A confidential Amazon email is also
provided in Clippenstein's article. It's from May twenty just last year,
and it was sent by an on road area manager
in Pittsburgh in America. I'll read the whole thing out
as I think it's yet another item of interest here

(14:40):
that seriously undermines Amazon's claims that the peeing in water
bottles thing is untrue. Quote Hello. This evening, an associate
discovered human feces in an Amazon bag that was returned
to station by a driver. This is the third occasion
in the last two months when bags have been returned

(15:01):
to station with poop inside. We understand that the d
as may have emergencies while on road, and especially during
COVID d as have struggled to find bathrooms while delivering. Regardless,
das cannot must not return bags to station with poop inside.

(15:22):
We've noticed an uptic recently of all kinds of unsanitary
garbage being left inside backs, used masks, gloves, bottles of urine.
By scanning the QR code on the bag, we can
easily identify the d A who was in possession of
the bag last These behaviors are unacceptable and will result

(15:43):
in Tier one infractions going forward. Please communicate this message
to your driver's I know it may seem obvious or
like something you shouldn't need to coach, But please be
explicit when communicating the message that they cannot poop all
eave bottles of urine inside bags. The health and safety
of all the as and Amazon associates will always be

(16:05):
our top priority. None of us should have to deal
with these kinds of messes. Please respond and confirm that
you have received this email. Thanks for your support. End quote.
Now I get it you're gonna say, well, yeah, obviously
people should not ship in bags and pissing bottles. Whether
it worked, that is absolutely disgusting. Well, yeah, it is

(16:26):
absolutely disgusting. But ask yourself if someone could have the
time to go to the toilet and wouldn't risk losing
their job for it, do you think they would really
take a ship in a bag and pissing a bottle instead?
I doubt it very much. A lot of this is
due to pressure from the quotas put on the workers
by Amazon. To get a more recent firsthand account of

(16:52):
the working conditions inside Amazon warehouses, I spoke to Brian Denning.
Denning worked well Amazon in the p d X nine
warehouse in trout Dale, Oregon, in America. He was there
from my to December, so just last year. Flu Center

(17:13):
pd X nine is a little under a million square
feet about forty football field in size four stories and um, yeah,
so I worked there in inbound stow. I was doing
um stowing into the robotic cabinets and also I worked
as a lead water spider and water spider and that's
basically just pulling palettes of freight to the floor where

(17:34):
I'm working. I hired on on a night shift there. Um,
the hiring processes as post people are pretty aware. It
was us almost entirely hands off. The only time I
was interacted with the human beings when I came in
to get a photo form my uh my photo badge
and then got in and uh, it's ten hour shifts
is when I started there. And then they pretty much

(17:56):
almost immediately went to mandatory extra times when they call
m E T. There's no mandatory over time, and that
was often with anywhere from a couple of hours notice
to four days notice was pretty average, so you wouldn't
know what your day's offered necessarily until you got You
knew which day was supposed to be your m ET day,
but it would be scheduled pretty short notice on that.

(18:18):
The other thing I noticed was we went from ten
hours to eleven hours almost right away as well, So um,
I went up to fifty five hour weeks. Most everyone
else in the in the FC was fifty five hour weeks,
and that during those um seven months I worked there,
we had four and a half months of mandatory over time.
Just just be clear. So you could literally turn up
for work and they're like, right, you're working an extra

(18:39):
four hours a day or whatever. Sorry off your god. Yeah,
not necessarily an extra four hours, but they could definitely
um end the shift with almost little or no notice,
and also add a shift with the little or no
notice a couple of hours and you find out, oh yeah,
by the way, you're working tomorrow or um yeah, it
would be pretty short noticed for for changes in your
schedule for sure. And what were the working of ours like,

(19:00):
uh so it's all concrete and steel inside with um
a ton of conveyor belts. It's relatively loud because everyone's
pulling pallette jacks. But but a couple of things that
I noticed right away also was there's definitely a mix
of people in the in the Villain Center, from young
to old, all kinds of different groupings, um, different ethnicities
and everything else that said, But I noticed the most

(19:22):
common thing was how many injuries there were, people limping,
people of bad shoulders, bad knees, bad feet. Uh. And
then seeing how fast the attrition rate was. So I
hired on there in May. The group I hired on
with was maybe ten people, and by like July, three
of them were gone. And then um, by December, I

(19:45):
think I was maybe there's one other person in my
hiring group that I still see the building. Um, everybody
else had left Amazon and six weeks it was a
pretty average turnover while I was there. Um. And certainly
the other thing was that about it And this is
just kind of my own part experience, and the people
mentioned this in different reference as well. But I so,
I've done five years in prison in the United States

(20:06):
and worked in prison furniture factories and prison kitchens. I've
worked on my feet in jobs, including my first baker
jobs like a twelve hours shifts, like a twenty minute
break in the middle. Um. And so I'm used to
like hard work. I'm used to heavy labor. I'm used
to like shitting conditions. Um. This job in Amazon was
the most humanizing job I've ever worked in my life. So,

(20:28):
just in case you were wondering there, I did ask
Brian Denning why was he in prison? And it turns out,
as a much younger man, he went in with a
gun into a bank and did one man armed bank robbery.
Didn't work out, obviously, he ended up in prison. You know,
that's life. But I think the most interesting thing about
this is that this guy is literally saying he's done

(20:48):
five years in serious prisons in America and he found
the working conditions in Amazon more oppressive than the work
he had to do in prison, and he was zing
in a sense of like just um, I didn't know
my manager was for the first three months. There was
a picture like on my on the app of someone
who's mostly my manager that I never met. The only

(21:09):
time you interact with another person is whether they're coming
to tell you that either you're not sewing fast enough,
or you're making errors or something along those lines. Mostly
so it's really isolating, really dehumanizing. In a lot of ways.
Everything is through apps. Everything's like a computer screen that's
constantly counting down what you're doing. This is another negative
aspect of the work conditions I've been seeing in reports

(21:29):
from people who have worked at the Amazon warehouses the
creeping dystopia of only communicating with managers through apps, having
your productivity timed by robots in the warehouse, and being
constantly monitored right now during COVID especially, it's not conducive
to mental health if you're isolated at work, watched over

(21:51):
by robots, and only spoken to by your managers through
a phone screen. However, Amazon insists in productive. It's the
above all. The other thing I noticed almost right away was, um,
this is a trillion dollar company, right, Like, they have
unlimited money to spend on whatever they want. Six times
the injury rate of the national average for the industry

(22:11):
that they're in, you know in Washington State. Uh, Amazon
is now ranked is more dangerous a job to work
at one of their fcs than mechanized logging or law enforcement.
Because it's just like, their injury rate is so high. Um,
and that's because there's no incentives in there to actually
um like, for safety, it's all about speed so everything

(22:32):
also than all this material. Basically, they don't have enough
tools through the job consistently, so never enough hand scanners,
never enough radio is never enough palette jacks. Never enough,
gay lord, it's never enough of like the basic materials
you need to do your jobs. You're scrambling from Florida
FLOORA trying to hunt down the basic equipment. UM. Also,
every time you open up a hand scanner, every time

(22:53):
you to interact with the computer screen, not every single time,
but like at least three or four times during your shift,
your UM to go to actually access or use that material,
you have to answer a survey. So surveys like tell
me about your manager, tell me about your co workers,
how are the bathrooms are they open? Um? How would
you you know? How is everybody maintaining social distancing? That

(23:15):
kind of stuff, And so it was really just kind
of a very dystopian, um funked up place to work
in a lot of ways. But this is like, yeah,
just amazingly how just to humanizing and how disconnected from
the workforce the actual company and the messaging is constantly
basically there's the there's a service messaging, which is kind

(23:37):
of like, oh, yes, we value customers, we value what
we're doing, and we're a great company, blah blah blah.
But the underlying message constantly is you are completely disposable.
You're the part of the equation that we're going to
use up and throw away. And um, here on this
app if you want to quit, you can put anytime.
Here's the button to quit, like like you know, we um,
we hate to see you go, but there's the door
as fast as you'd like to get out. Which I

(23:58):
think it's kind of by them in the ASP as
they're having trouble recruiting now because they've burned through so
many people. Considering all that, how do you feel when,
for example, Bezos said in an interview, UM, you know,
it's not true that there's any problem with the working conditions.
Are working conditions are find that sort of thing? Um, yeah,
when basics and stuff like that, I think that's basically

(24:19):
him blowing smoke up his investors asses. Um uh, you
know the working conditions. Certainly there are places within Amazon,
and I'm certainly there's people with an Amazon that probably
do okay where they're at, whether they're whether the hours
aren't crazy, whatever else. I haven't met those people necessarily,
but I'm sure they exist somewhere, right. But because it's
a big company. And that said, the majority of conditions

(24:40):
I see when I talk to drivers, when I talk
to people who work in the scs, when I talk
to people who work in the flex delivery sites, overall
conditions are not good. So we've heard it here in
this episode. Many examples of unfair, unsanitary, and even dangerous
working conditions inside Amazon warehouses from the UK to the US.

(25:04):
This is not a rumor. It's not bitter workers kicking
up of us for no reason. It's not people expecting
the world for their warehouse job. It's just normal workers
wanting a bit of dignity whilst they worked their asses
off for Amazon, which, let's remind ourselves again, is one
of the most profitable corporations on Earth. They reported a

(25:27):
net income of more than twenty one billion US dollars.
The net profits sowed by eight one this year, with
sales hitting the three hundred and eighties six billion US dollars.
Surely Bazos can stop going to the moon for two
minutes and do something to improve the conditions in the

(25:49):
warehouses for the people that helped him make this much money.
Next episode, we'll find out what happened when Amazon warehouse
workers tried to unionize in a bid to improve the situation. Themselves.
This has been Megacorp. Megacorp is made by my production

(26:12):
company H eleven for Cool Zone Media. It's written, researched
and produced by myself, Jake Hanrahan. It was also produced
by Sophie Lichtman. Music is by some Black, graphics by
Adam Doyle and sound engineering by Splicing Block. If you

(26:33):
want to get in touch, follow me on social media
at Jake Underscore Hanrahan. That's h A N A h
A n
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