Monday, December 15, 2008

Amazon accused of shoddy working practices

I have been trying to talk to my boss since Friday regarding a discrepancy in my last pay slip, but she has not been there on the same days that I have been. I am not sure how it happened, but I seem to have been paid for only 30 hours a week since I started at this new store rather than the 32 which I am contracted to do, and have worked. It is true that Sunday is a shorter day of 6 rather than 8 hours, but I was told that we were paid for a full day. Even if they have averaged these Sundays over the month (I work every other one) I should have been paid for 31 hours and not 32.

Neither has the increase from £5.73 to £5.90 an hour that I believed I was due in October materialised. I spoke to her about this last week, and was told that I had made a mistake, and I was not eligible for this, since I had not another review. This did not sound right to me, so I went home and re-read the letter I was sent in July detailing how the increase worked.

It was awarded to all those who received a good score on their annual review of which I did, in two stages. The first stage took place in August when our salary was increased from £5.53 to £5.73 an hour. When the minimum wage increased to that same rate (£5.73) in October, qualifying staff, so the letter states, would be awarded a further increase to £5.90 an hour (in other words, another 3 percent on top of the minimum wage). In order to qualify, you needed to have had six months service (which I have) and to have successfully completed the new training scheme (which I have also done). The rise though has not been forthcoming, and I need to know why.

The good news is that my Manager is in tomorrow, so I should be able to speak to her then. If I get no joy, then I shall just have to ring the Payroll Department myself and query things.

Despite these hiccups, compared to Amazon employees I am relatively well off. An article in The Times today details the truly awful conditions that these people have to work under. Many of them are Eastern Europeans, who are sadly all too easy to exploit. The most shocking thing of all is that none of this is actually illegal, although in my opinion, Amazon are sailing pretty close to the wind, especially with their insistence that staff work a compulsory night shift after doing a full weeks work.

The gist of the article is that despite global profits exceeding £2.2 billion, Amazon insist that their staff work seven days in row and threatens them for taking time off sick.

An undercover reporter spent a week working at Amazon's distribution centre in Bedfordshire and found:

That the company refuses to allow sick leave, even if the worker has a legitimate doctor’s note. Taking a day off sick, even with a note, results in a penalty point. A worker with six points faces dismissal.

Employees are made to work a compulsory 10.5 hour overnight shift at the end of a five day week. The overnight shift, which runs from Saturday evening to 5am on Sunday, means they have to work every day of the week.

That employees are set quotas for the number of items to be picked or packed in an hour that even a Manager described as “ridiculous”. Those packing heavy X-box games consoles (and they are heavy - I have trouble lifting them) had to pack 140 an hour to reach their target.

That employees are set against each other with a bonus scheme that penalises staff if any other member of their group fails to hit the quota.

That staff have to walk anything up to 14 miles during their shift to collect items for packing.

That staff get one break of 15 minutes and another of 20 minutes per eight hour shift and have to ask permission to go to the toilet.

The reporter spent seven working days at Amazon’s warehouse in Bedfordshire as a packer after signing up with Quest Employment, an agency based in Northampton that supplies it with temporary staff. She was told that the hourly rate for a day shift was £6.30, 57p more than the minimum wage (which is incidentally 57p more than I get). She worked on an evening shift until midnight, earning £6.80 an hour, but was told that she would have to pay £8.50 a day to use a communal bus laid on by Quest unless she could arrange her own travel to Amazon’s warehouse.

Of course Amazon are playing things down and eating humble pie in copious amounts, as one would expect. It is all an exercise in PR, and in the scheme of things pretty meaningless. The most shocking thing about all of this is the fact that none of it is actually illegal.

The Working Time Directive states that staff are entitled to a 20 minute rest break if they work 6 hours or more, and Amazon employees actually get a lot more than this. The Directive also states that staff are entitled to a 24 hour uninterrupted rest break every 7 days, which they also get - assuming they finish work before 6.30pm on a Friday and do not start again until 5am on Monday, they actually get twice that. Technically they do work seven days a week, as that night shift starts on the Saturday and finishes on Sunday, but they do get the rest to which they are entitled and this is not outside the law.

The one possible area for concern would be the pressurising of staff to work that extra night shift, which may push them over the 48 hour working week that the Directive states should not be exceeded. While staff can opt out of this and agree to work more, they cannot be pressured into doing so, or disciplined if they refuse. Since I do not have detailed information about the exact number of hours worked during the week, and whether this exceeds the 37.5 that would be necessary to push them over this 48 hour limit, I cannot comment either way.

Not surprisingly this had led to a flurry of protests against the company on The Bookseller and other sites with many vowing never to buy from the company again. The trouble is that as one poster commented, in a few months time when we see something at reduced price on their site that we really want (and persuade ourselves that we need), we will forget all of this and order it anyway. The public are nothing else if not fickle.