February 14, 2013

In England, Amazon is the new coal mine


It used to be a center of British mining: Rugeley, Staffordshire, where the “first mine planned and sunk by the Coal Board, the body set up after the second world war to run Britain’s newly nationalised coal industry” was established. But the mines have closed, and a new industry has come to town: Amazon, which has built a massive fulfillment center in the town, the size of “nine football pitches.”

But according to a feature in the Financial Times, the conditions at the new Amazon warehouse aren’t much different than what residents found working in the coal mines.

“The feedback we’re getting is it’s like being in a slave camp,” said Brian Garner, the dapper chairman of the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre and Social Club, still a popular drinking spot.

One of the first complaints to spread through the town was that employees were getting blisters from the safety boots some were given to wear, which workers said were either too cheap or the wrong sizes. One former shop-floor manager, who did not want to be named, said he always told new workers to smear their bare feet with Vaseline. “Then put your socks on and your boots on, because I know for a fact these boots are going to rub and cause blisters and sores.”

Others found the pressure intense. Several former workers said the handheld computers, which look like clunky scientific calculators with handles and big screens, gave them a real-time indication of whether they were running behind or ahead of their target and by how much. Managers could also send text messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up, they said. “People were constantly warned about talking to one another by the management, who were keen to eliminate any form of time-wasting,” one former worker added.

And there are additional problems: few employees actually work for Amazon itself, and the jobs on offer pay much worse than those at the shuttered mine. Most employees actually work for an employment agency, which pay “£6.20 an hour or so (the minimum adult wage is £6.19).” Employees that work for Amazon directly don’t make much if anything more, but they do get benefits and have some degree of stability.

Indeed, local workers fear that the jobs Amazon has brought to the town may eventually depart like the mining jobs that came before. “People are cautious because they don’t know how long their agency jobs with Amazon will last,” notes a local real estate agent.



Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.