- Robert Cianflone/Getty
- The author who found that Amazon warehouse staff members were peeing in bottles for fear of punishment for missing productivity targets says the working culture there was like a “prison.”
- James Bloodworth worked undercover in 2016 at an Amazon warehouse in the UK to do research for a book on low-paying jobs in Britain.
- He described to Business Insider how he had been collecting items as a “picker” when he came across a bottle of urine on the shelf.
- Bloodworth also said workers didn’t have enough time for a proper lunch break and were often penalized for taking sick days.
- Amazon pushed back on Bloodworth’s descriptions, saying that workers could use the toilet whenever they needed and that they were not monitored.
Working in an Amazon warehouse is like a prison, says an author who worked undercover at a fulfillment center and found that staff members were peeing in bottles because they didn’t have enough time to go to the toilet.
James Bloodworth investigated casual work and its effect on people’s lives for his book “Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.” To research how people cope, he took low-paying jobs at an Amazon warehouse, in social care, at a call center, at a building site, and as an Uber driver.
Bloodworth spent just under a month in 2016 working as a “picker” at an Amazon fulfillment center in Rugeley, in central England, which involved retrieving items that people had ordered for delivery.
Bloodworth said he was employed through Transline, an agency Amazon cut ties with last year after a 2015 investigation by The Guardian found it had sent about 1,500 people to work in poor conditions at the warehouse of Sports Direct, a major British retailer.
Bloodworth said Amazon staff members had to meet high productivity targets that were feasible only if they ran around the warehouse – something Amazon didn’t allow for health and safety reasons.
“The job itself is really bad,” he told Business Insider. “I’ve worked in warehouses before, but this was nothing like I had experienced. You don’t have proper breaks – by the time you get to the canteen, you only have 15 or 20 minutes for lunch, in a 10-1/2-hour working day. You don’t have time to eat properly to get a drink.
“You have to go through security when you leave the warehouse, and that adds five minutes. It’s like an airport – belt off, watch off. The atmosphere is what I imagine a prison feels like. You felt like you were walking on eggshells.”
Bloodworth says he came across a bottle of urine
Bloodworth had told The Sun that workers often didn’t take a break to go to the toilet because they were too sparse to get to quickly and they feared punishment for missing productivity targets. So they peed in bottles instead, he said.
- REUTERS/Phil Noble
In a follow-up conversation with Business Insider, Bloodworth said he didn’t resort to doing so partly because he knew he could leave the job at any time.
“I’d just take the bollocking for idle time,” he said. “If you’re on the top floor, you know it will take five minutes to go the toilet, and all the time you’re being admonished for taking too much idle time.”
He said he discovered the problem when he came across a bottle of urine while looking for items on an upper floor of the warehouse.
“One day I’m walking down the aisle, and I go to pick up an item, and there’s a bottle of straw-colored water on the shelf. And at first I thought, ‘Oh, what’s that?'” he said. “And then it was very obvious what it was. And there was a pool of water next to it. It struck me – it was so obvious why someone would do that.”
Amazon says that it doesn’t time warehouse workers’ toilet breaks and that it ensures they can reach the bathrooms easily.
Bloodworth says he was penalized for taking a sick day
Bloodworth also outlined Amazon’s penalty points system – he said that racking up six points for issues like unexplained absences could lead to disciplinary proceedings and dismissal.
A separate investigation by The Times in 2016 similarly found that Amazon workers were penalized for taking sick days.
Bloodworth said he received a point after telling his manager he needed a sick day, despite giving more than the required one hour’s notice and being able to provide a note.
“It’s the sheer oppressiveness of management regime there,” he said. “It’s the most oppressive place I had ever worked, easily.”
In a lengthy statement to Business Insider, Amazon pushed back on Bloodworth’s descriptions of the work environment at its warehouses. Amazon also said that it no longer has a “points-based attendance policy” and that it coaches people who aren’t hitting their productivity targets fast enough.
Here’s the full statement from Amazon:
“Amazon provides a safe and positive workplace for thousands of people across the UK with competitive pay and benefits from day one. We are committed to treating every one of our associates with dignity and respect. We don’t recognise these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.
“We have a focus on ensuring we provide a great environment for all our employees and last month Amazon was named by LinkedIn as the 7th most sought-after place to work in the UK and ranked first place in the US. Amazon also offers public tours of its fulfillment centres so customers can see first-hand what happens after they click ‘buy’ on Amazon.
“Amazon has a range of initiatives to support our people if they become ill at home or at work and we recently extended these to include improved on-site support. We recognize that there are times someone cannot come to work, even if they want to. If someone is ill, we want to help them get back to work when they are fit to do so. We no longer have a points-based attendance policy – we changed it following feedback from out our associates. If someone is sick, we will have a conversation with them to understand their own individual circumstances. We completely support our people, and use proper discretion when applying our absence policy.
“As with nearly all companies, we expect a certain level of performance from our associates and we continue to set productivity targets objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce. Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour. We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.
“Amazon ensures all of its associates have easy access to toilet facilities which are just a short walk from where they are working. Associates are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed. We do not monitor toilet breaks
“The pay rate for permanent Amazon’s fulfillment centre employees in the UK increases over their first two years of employment, after which time all employees earn £8.35 an hour and above. All permanent Amazon fulfillment centre employees are given stock grants, which over the last five years were on average equal to £1,000 or more per year per person. Employees are offered a comprehensive benefits package, including private medical insurance, life assurance, income protection, subsidised meals and an employee discount, which combined are worth more than £700 annually, as well as a company pension plan.
“Amazon also offers employees an innovative programme called Career Choice that provides funding for adult education, offering to pre-pay 95% of tuition and associated fees for nationally recognised courses, up to £8,000 over four years.”