A stress expert shown video taken undercover at one of Amazon’s warehouse and distribution facilities has said working conditions appear to be so harsh that employees face an “increased risk of mental and physical illness.”
The remarkable claim follows an investigation by the BBC’s investigative Panorama show, which sent undercover reporter Adam Littler to take a closer look at what it’s like to work at one of the company’s warehouses.
During his time at the 800,000-square-feet facility in Wales, UK, Littler worked as a picker, walking up to 11 miles during each of his 10.5-hour night shifts. Orders were communicated to Littler via a handset, which also displayed a countdown timer showing how many seconds he had to pick the order and put it in his trolley.
According to a BBC News report, the handset “tracked Mr Littler’s picking rate and sent his performance to managers. If it was too low, he was told he could face disciplinary action.” Littler said the nature of the work made him feel like a robot, adding, “We don’t think for ourselves, maybe they don’t trust us to think for ourselves as human beings.”
Having watched the footage, Professor Michael Marmot, a leading expert in the UK on work-related stress, concluded that the conditions at the facility in Swansea were “all the bad stuff at once,” adding that with “the characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”
Marmot continued, “There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual’s health and wellbeing – it’s got to be balanced.”
The Panorama report isn’t the first to show Amazon UK in a less-than-flattering light. In August, workers at a facility in Rugely, England, complained to Channel 4 News of being given lunch breaks lasting only 30 minutes, with the enormous size of the warehouses meaning up to 20 minutes were wasted walking to and from the break room.
Amazon has strongly refuted Marmot’s claims, saying that official safety inspections had not shown up any issues, while an independent expert has also pointed out that Amazon’s picking job is not unlike similar positions in other industries and “does not increase the risk of mental and physical illness.”
The company says it is up front with potential new recruits about the physical demands of some positions, with some happy to stay active and benefit from the exercise. It added that it was of the belief its working methods “comply with all relevant legal requirements.”
The Panorama show was broadcast Monday night as Amazon gears up for what’s likely to be its busiest holiday season ever. The company is taking on 70,000 seasonal workers in the US, and an extra 15,000 in the UK, to cope with the expected surge in demand from online shoppers.
Seasonal workers at Amazon earn around $10 an hour in the US, while their UK counterparts pick up £6.50 an hour, rising to £8.25 an hour for night work. The Internet giant currently operates 89 warehouses around the world, employing some 20,000 full-time workers in the US and around 5,000 in the UK.