February 10, 2013

WORK WHITE PEOPLE WON'T DO:

Amazon unpacked : The online giant is creating thousands of UK jobs, so why are some employees less than happy? (Sarah O'Connor, 2/08/13, Financial Times)

Amazon's warehouse in Rugeley, Staffs, looks like huge blue box. It is the size of nine football pitches

Between a sooty power station and a brown canal on the edge of a small English town, there is a building that seems as if it should be somewhere else. An enormous long blue box, it looks like a smear of summer sky on the damp industrial landscape.

Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle - the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today. It is almost Christmas and the people working in this building, together with those in seven others like it across the country, are dispatching a truck filled with parcels every three minutes or so. Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything. They also walk past a life-sized cardboard image of a cheery blonde woman in an orange vest. "This is the best job I have ever had!" says a speech bubble near her head. [...]

There was an electric atmosphere in the big blue warehouse that autumn as the operation geared up for the first time. "At the start it was buzzing," said a member of the Amazon management team at the site, who did not want to be named. "Brothers, sisters, neighbours, everyone was just so pleased to have jobs. Everything was new."

Workers in Amazon's warehouses - or "associates in Amazon's fulfilment centres" as the company would put it - are divided into four main groups. There are the people on the "receive lines" and the "pack lines": they either unpack, check and scan every product arriving from around the world, or they pack up customers' orders at the other end of the process. Another group stows away suppliers' products somewhere in the warehouse. They put things wherever there's a free space - in Rugeley, there are inflatable palm trees next to milk frothers and protein powder next to kettles. Only Amazon's vast computer brain knows where everything is, because the workers use their handheld computers to scan both the item they are stowing away and a barcode on the spot on the shelf where they put it.

The last group, the "pickers", push trolleys around and pick out customers' orders from the aisles. Amazon's software calculates the most efficient walking route to collect all the items to fill a trolley, and then simply directs the worker from one shelf space to the next via instructions on the screen of the handheld satnav device. Even with these efficient routes, there's a lot of walking. One of the new Rugeley "pickers" lost almost half a stone in his first three shifts. "You're sort of like a robot, but in human form," said the Amazon manager. "It's human automation, if you like." Amazon recently bought a robot company, but says it still expects to keep plenty of humans around because they are so much better at coping with the vast array of differently shaped products the company sells.

What did the people of Rugeley make of all this? For many, it has been a culture shock. "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.

In a statement, Amazon said: "Some of the positions in our fulfilment centres are indeed physically demanding, and some associates may log between seven and 15 miles walking per shift. We are clear about this in our job postings and during the screening process and, in fact, many associates seek these positions as they enjoy the active nature of the work. Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazon employee - managers, software developers, site merchandisers and fulfilment centre associates - and we measure actual performance against those expectations."

The reality is that labor sucks and we long to be free of it.  We want jobs, not work.

Posted by at February 10, 2013 9:35 AM
  
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