Downton Amazon: is the online retailer driving inequality?


As Amazon announces it will be hiring 1000 new permanent staff at its UK warehouses in the coming months, concerns are growing about the way the company treats its army of low-paid workers.

The new jobs will bring the total workforce at the company’s UK warehouses, or distribution centres, to 7,000.

But former staff, anti-poverty campaigners and unions say that these staff face poor working conditions and low pay, and that Amazon’s business model itself is contributing to increasing inequality.

Graham, a former Amazon warehouse employee, is one of many who say they feel “relieved to have left” but angry at the way the company continues to treat its workers, many of whom Graham says are “desperate people, who are long-term unemployed or in severe debt.”

He told Equal Times how bosses at the distribution centre would “degrade” employees, “every morning in a group.”

“They told us how poorly we had performed the day before,” he says. “I have never felt such depression from work in my life, and felt so isolated.”

“I felt unable to do anything about how I was being treated, we were forced to just accept it, if we give any stick about it, we get sacked and someone takes our place.”

Widespread reports of Amazon’s poor labour practices earned its CEO Jeff Bezos the title of “World’s Worst Boss” in an International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) poll this year, and the company continues to attract criticism.

Most recently, Amazon’s TV sponsorship deal with the makers of the British period drama Downton Abbey hit a sour note with campaigners, prompting them to compare working conditions of low-paid workers in the show to those of Amazon warehouse staff.

“It is unacceptable that a programme about social inequality in 1924 is being sponsored by a company that creates inequality in 2014,” says a campaigner with Amazon Anonymous, a protest group pointing out what it calls the company’s “bad habits”.


“Pushing back progress”

Campaigners at Amazon Anonymous say the multinational online retailer is “pushing back the progress society has made” by blocking trade unions and denying workers’ job stability.

“It’s pretty hard to tell the difference between some of Amazon’s working practices now, and what was going on a century ago in the 1920s,” says the campaigner, who gives her name as Bex.

“Workers in the warehouse have ten hour days, with compulsory overtime,” she says.

“Their toilet breaks are timed and monitored. They also use a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ system: you get half a strike against your name if you’re one minute late for work. Three strikes and you’re sacked.”

This comes after TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady described the UK as becoming “a Downton Abbey-style society, in which the living standards of the vast majority are sacrificed to protect the high living of the well-to-do” and where, under the current government, “class prejudice is becoming respectable once again.”

Bex adds: “Big companies like Amazon have used the recession, and government austerity measures, as an excuse to drive down wages and labour standards. The gap between the highest earners in this country, and the ordinary workforce, is increasing at a terrifying rate.”

Owen Espley, senior campaigner with London-based anti-poverty group War on Want, points out that the UK is the only G7 country where inequality has risen this century.

This, he says, is because of a combination of public sector cuts and the rolling back of labour protections, as well as the “increasing demonisation of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.”

“Women face the brunt of public sector cuts, while the wage gap continues to expand,” he tells Equal Times. “This is largely due to the so-called-recovery’s rise of low-paid, part-time work, as the minimum wage falls in real terms.”

“With real wages stagnating, more than half of Britain’s poor are now in working households,” he says.


Polarisation of work

The increase in inequality is being driven by the polarisation of the types of jobs available, according to

Dr Jan Drahokoupil, a senior researcher focusing on multinational corporations, at the European Trade Union Institute.

“What has happened in the UK is that very low-paid jobs and very highly-paid jobs have been created, but what’s in between – the medium-income jobs such as in retail or manufacturing – have been destroyed,” he tells Equal Times.

“There’s a clear link between the rise of companies like Amazon and these trends that you see on the labour market.”

“Because of its business model, Amazon is exactly the sort of company that will lead to this job polarisation. It will destroy traditional retail jobs and create what I see as logistics jobs, which are lower-paid.”

The company also creates very well-paid jobs at the other end of the spectrum, he explained, in sectors like technology.

After protests by Amazon workers in Germany, unions expressed their concern that Amazon and other “new economy” tech companies are looking to export their business model and set the same low labour standards around the world.

Dr Drahokoupil also points out that unions are struggling to reach agreements with Amazon over pay and conditions for those staff because the jobs they create are in logistics rather than retail.

“The unions are asking for a qualitative agreement which is linked to the retail sector, and Amazon can say no, because these are not retail jobs,” he says.

Amazon Anonymous is demanding that Amazon allow unions access to its workforce, and start paying employees the UK Living Wage, which has been calculated according to the cost of living.

On the minimum wage, Bex says, people in work are often forced to top up their wages with working tax credits. “That is, effectively, the taxpayer picking up the cost of the company’s inability to pay fair.”

Apparently responding to pressure, Amazon recently agreed on a small increase to some workers’ wages earlier this year.

Campaigners say this is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough.

“Amazon make huge profits in the UK on the basis of the work done by their employees. The least they could do is pay their workers enough to be able to feed and clothe themselves and their families,” says Bex.

She points out that other major UK employers are now paying the living wage, “for instance, 16 of the FTSE 100. And local businesses provide stable employment, as relationships are built between business owners, employees, and customers.”