In "The Truth Behind The Click" Panorama promised to shock us by uncovering working conditions at Amazon that have been condemned as amongst the "worst in Britain" but did they succeed?
Amazon is not only a massively successful retailer, it is also a huge employer of people in the UK providing work for 20,000 people on the run up to Christmas. As fantastic as that is it doesn't provide them with any excuse for creating working conditions that put people's health at risk or for setting unreasonable targets. The trouble is that I felt Panorama failed to show much evidence of either.
So what were the main arguments? Much was made of people being "treated like robots" and "racing a computerised clock." This is all very dramatic but actually describes the use of a hand-held terminal (HHT) to guide a picker where to go next and give them an indication as to how long each task should take. The work rates were compiled from historical performance levels. Apparently the mental health of the picker was put at risk due to the sound the HHT made when they scanned the wrong pick location or item.
This is all very standard technology. I have been working with HHT's in similar environments for at least 25 years and given the size of the picking area and number of items I'm not sure that there is much alternative to using them to guide the picker. As for the work rate, surely it is reasonable for any employer to set productivity targets and encourage people to achieve them? Ok, I would have expected the targets to be set using work study data rather than past performance and the "encouragement" was a little on the threatening side for my liking but I wouldn't have thought either of these things out of the ordinary.
If the undercover journalist was scanning the wrong thing with so much frequency that the error "bleep" was keeping him awake at night then this probably had much to do with why he was struggling to hit the performance targets on the grounds that if you waste time doing the wrong thing you have less left in which to do it right. And why was he scanning the wrong pick locations so often? They looked clearly enough labelled to me.
The distance walked was also mentioned repeatedly with 11 miles covered in a 10.5 hour shift. Again, having worked in similar environments I would have thought this neither unreasonable or out of the ordinary. After all a brisk walking pace is closer to 4 miles an hour.
So what about the legality of the shifts? Well to my knowledge the regulations demand that night workers do an average of 8 hours in any 24 hour period. Amazon comply. Only if the work "involves special hazards or heavy physical or mental strain" must they be restricted to 8 hours work in 24. Although I'm quite sure that the work is tiring (work tends to be) I really can't see that this applies to what we were shown.
The programme also showed us the impact Amazon has had on a smaller retailer. They might as well have talked about the effect of the Internet on HMV or the supermarkets on corner shops. The retailer talked about "if you can't beat them, join them" but surely therein lies his problem. He can't join them. To survive he has to offer something different, the kind of product knowledge, personal service and outstanding shopping experience that Amazon can't provide.
Anyway, what did this have to do with working conditions in the distribution centre?
Referring to the pressure people are under Paul Kenny from the GMB said that he has "never seen anything like it" and Martin Smith claims that the TU has been "driven underground and has to operate like the French Resistance." Again, we weren't shown anything to suggest that this is any more than sheer hyperbole. I think the TU would have much more to say if Amazon decided to invest heavily in automation, something I am surprised that they haven't already done.
To be honest I really didn't like the way a points system was used to control absenteeism and would suggest that there are better, and more effective, ways to achieve the same thing but that aside all I saw was an extremely large scale business being well, if toughly, managed and run.
In other words, pretty much what I expected.
Written by Mike Gamble: Director JEM Retail Consultants.