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Amazon Working Condition Claims Of 'Exploitation' Prompt Calls For Inquiry

Labour's Frank Field says an inquiry should be launched.

12/12/2016 16:05 | Updated 12 December 2016

Amazon is facing calls for an inquiry into working conditions in its warehouses after a series of damaging revelations prompted accusations of “abuse and exploitation”.

The American retail giant, which last year made sales of £6bn in the UK, has faced condemnation from politicians after at least one member of staff was found to be living in a tent beside one of its warehouses.

And under a policy which echoes that of competitor Sports Direct, Amazon staff were ‘docked’ points for time off sick, including one employee who was penalised for spending time in hospital with a kidney infection, a Sunday Times undercover reporter found.

“I do think given the evidence we now have that there should be an inquiry,” Labour MP Frank Field told The Huffington Post UK. “Groups like Amazon should be held to account. The government should take action.”

MP Iain Wright, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee said: “These latest reports on Amazon point to growing evidence of agency workers and those working in the ‘gig economy’ being exposed to poor working conditions.”

SWNS
A makeshift camp found near to Amazon's Dumfermline warehouse

Amazon said it provides a safe and positive workplace, and that workers who receive points are not automatically dismissed.

However, the Sunday Times found workers were paid less than the minimum wage by Amazon’s agencies after being forced to pay for transport to a remote Scottish warehouse. 

SWNS
Amazon's Dumfermline warehouse, near to where the tents were found

And the undercover investigation also found:

  • Staff were held to strict targets for every task, with the threat of disciplinary action for those who could not keep up;

  • Workers faced disciplinary if they  spent too long in the bathroom;

  • Staff had to work ‘compulsory’ extra days and hours – and were given short notice of shift changes;

  • Warehouses were kitted out with the latest surveillance technology with handheld scanners tracking workers’ whereabouts, CCTV cameras monitoring the warehouse and staff, and stringent security checks;

  • Staff suffered blistered and swollen feet after walking up to 14 miles each shift.

Iain Wright told the Sunday Times: “It is a terrible example of the exploitation and abuse of workers that you have to go in even if you’re sick because if you don’t you’ll get a point.”

The MP has also indicated that the Committee will look at the latest claims against Amazon within its Future World of Work Inquiry, due to report next year.

He continued: “We are seeing repeated signs of an systemic problem in our economy, with several companies appearing to pursue a business model which means low-pay, job insecurity, and miserable and degrading working conditions.

“In the BEIS Committee’s Future World of Work inquiry we shall be examining these issues, questioning how this business model is consistent with the Government’s commitment to building an economy that works for all and what changes to employment legislation may be necessary to combat this apparent systematic exploitation.”

Nick Ansell/PA Archive
An Amazon warehouse in Hemel Hempstead

The Sunday Times investigation was published soon after a makeshift camp including tents were discovered alongside Amazon’s Dumfermline distribution centre in Fife, Scotland.

The Courier reported that those living there appeared to be avoiding fares of more than £10 a day for transport from cities including Dundee.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP told the paper: “Amazon should be ashamed that they pay their workers so little that they have to camp out in the dead of winter to make ends meet.”

Ken Jack via Getty Images
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP said Amazon should be 'ashamed'

Rennie commented on allegations the firm charges staff for transport, saying: “The fares the company charge for transport swallow up a lot of the weekly wage which is forcing people to seek ever more desperate ways of making work pay.”

Mick Rix, GMB National Officer, told HuffPost UK: “These reports are nothing short of disgusting and outrageous in 21st Century Britain.

“We already knew that Amazon staff were on a precarious merry-go-round of short-term employment, poor treatment, with poor working conditions and stealth deductions from low incomes.

“But to hear that Amazon workers are camping in squalid conditions near their warehouse in a desperate bid to avoid draconian penalties for being late by just a few minutes, and being penalised for being ill is absolutely disgusting.”

It comes after MPs rallied against Amazon’s competitor Sports Direct for conditions a kin to a Victorian workhouse.

The FTSE 100 firm used a six-points system under which staff were penalised for transgressions including being late back from a toilet break or being off work to look after sick children.

Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley emptying wads of fifty pound notes during a PR tour of a warehouse

Warehouse staff were also paid below the national minimum wage due to bottle-necks in queues at the entrances.

The firm has since apologised and promised to improve its practices.

But just last month, members of the Business Select Committee arrived with just one hour’s notice at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire.

The MPs watched on as a member of staff allegedly planted a recording device in a private meeting, hidden in a tray of sandwiches.

Scott Barbour via Getty Images
Iain Wright, Labour MP for Hartlepool, is chair of the Business Select Committee

And Iain Wright said at the time: “It’s really indicative of the culture which is mistrustful of staff and outsiders. We didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms but to behave like this is unbelievable. It really is disgusting.”

Sports Direct deny attempting to record the MPs private meeting.

Amazon told the Sunday Times that an employee with six points under its attendance system would be spoken to for an understanding of why those points had been accrued, but not automatically be dismissed.

Nick Ansell/PA Archive
A worker packs an order at Amazon's Hemel Hempstead warehouse

An Amazon spokesperson said: “Amazon provides a safe and positive workplace.

“The safety and wellbeing of our permanent and temporary associates is our number one priority.

“We are also proud to have been able to create several thousand new permanent roles in our UK fulfilment centres over the last five years.

“We pay competitive wages — all permanent and temporary Amazon associates start on £7.35 an hour or above regardless of age and £11 an hour and above for overtime.”

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