When Amazon sent its Australian website live in December, the global e-commerce giant promised it would bring millions of low-price products to consumers and create thousands of local jobs.
By Patrick Hatch
“We hope to earn the trust and the custom of Australian shoppers in the years to come,” its country manager, Rocco Braeuniger, said at the time.
By that stage Amazon – which this week followed Apple to become history’s second-ever $US1 trillion company – had already quietly brought something else new and unique to our shores.
In Melbourne’s outer south-east, Amazon had opened its first local “fulfilment centre”. This massive shed is where thousands of products wait to be plucked off shelves, packed into boxes and mailed to customers by workers.
Saying they are watched closely for speed among other things, employees at Amazon’s Australian fulfillment centre describe their working life.
They are almost all casual employees engaged not by Amazon, but through a third-party labour hire firm Adecco. Some of these workers have now described how the same technological precision that made Amazon founder Jeff Bezos the richest person on the planet ($US167 billion according to Forbes) is also used to monitor and analyse each second of their working day.
Combined with insecure casual employment, workers have told Fairfax Media they feel under unsustainable pressure to meet performance targets or they will lose their jobs.
“It’s a hellscape,” said one of the workers, who all sat down with Fairfax Media but declined to be identified for fear of losing their current jobs or damaging future work opportunities with labour hire firms.
“I’ve never worked anywhere as harsh, and it’s frustrating because the head of Amazon is the richest man on the planet.”
The relationship between workers’ bargaining power, casualisation and Australia’s stubbornly low wages growth is a hot topic in policy circles.
Labour hire is commonly used in the warehousing industry, but National Union of Workers national secretary Tim Kennedy says it is “unprecedented” for the arrangement to make up 100 per cent of a workplace, which workers say is effectively the case at Amazon’s facility in Dandenong South, with only a handful of senior managers employed as staff.
“I’ve never worked anywhere as harsh, and it’s frustrating because the head of Amazon is the richest man on the planet”. Amazon worker
Amazon started operating out of a second, larger, facility in Sydney’s Moorebank last month, where it is understood workers are engaged on the same terms. “Amazon is introducing a very concerning employment practice to Australia,” Mr Kennedy said.
The NUW says that casual workers at Amazon’s Melbourne warehouse got a starting pay rate of $25.36 an hour (before weekend or other penalties) under the Road Transport and Distribution Award, compared with casual rates of between $30 and $37 an hour at nearby warehouses where workers have been able to negotiate collective agreements.
Workers – or “associates”, as Amazon calls them – have described a cult-like corporate culture at the warehouse, where each day begins with group stretching exercises and workers having to share an “Amazon success story”.
Managers then lead a team chant, such as “Quality!”, “Success!”, “Amazon!”, or “Prime!”, sometimes while jumping in the air.
Warehouse pickers are issued with handheld electronic scanners that direct them to different aisles of the warehouse to collect products, and load them onto carts to be dispatched to customers.
As soon as one item is scanned, a solid bar on the bottom of the screen immediately starts to count down, showing how much time they have to reach their next item, which could be anywhere in the 24,000-square-metre warehouse.
If an item is not scanned within the required time, the worker’s “pick rate” is marked down.
At the centre in Dandenong South, pick rates are handed out to workers once or twice a day, and those falling below benchmark targets have to explain to their managers why.
“You always have KPIs [key performance indicators] but the line on that gun, I’ve never had that before,” said one experienced warehouse worker.
Amazon is pushing merchants on its website to sell into other countries to better compete with rival marketplaces run by eBay and Alibaba.
“You end up not being able to function because you’re so nervous and stressed out.”
Workers told Fairfax Media they thought Amazon used casual employment and demanding KPIs to push workers’ productivity to the limits.
Another said workers who did not meet performance targets would leave for the day and then be sent a text message telling them their next shift had been cancelled.
“You notice people just disappear if they don’t reach their pick rates,” a worker said. “You just have one bad day and you’re gone. Everyone works hard anyway but sometimes you have a bad day, and you could lose your job for that.”
An Amazon spokeswoman said the company “set productivity targets objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce”, and that workers’ performance was evaluated over a “long time”.
But workers said there was a palpable fear of falling behind performance targets.
One worker said a colleague advised them not to drink water before or during a shift because going to the toilet outside designated break times would affect their pick rate.
“There’s a water cooler in the corner, but nobody uses it,” they said.
Amazon said workers were allowed to use the toilet “whenever needed”.
Two workers said employees were reluctant to report injuries for fear of not getting shifts on the physically demanding job, where workers are told to operate at “Amazon pace” – just below running speed – as they cover 20 kilometres on foot each shift.
“My manager told me [jokingly] we got a free gym membership with the job,” one of the workers said.
Workers say there is a pool of about 200 workers engaged at the factory in Dandenong, with about three-quarters of those being recent migrants to Australia.
Amazon said it had a “mixture of permanent and agency staff” at its warehouses “to enable us to move quickly, access talent and manage variations in customer demand”, but would not give specific numbers.
Documents lodged with the corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), show that Amazon’s retail business in Australia had just 89 staff at the end of December, including across management, sales, marketing, IT and engineering support.
Workers said it was common for shifts to be cancelled at short notice depending on how many orders had been placed, leaving workers expecting to work five shifts a week having to survive with only two.
Meanwhile, managers routinely called staff at 7.30am and asked them to come in to the factory as soon as possible when it needed more people to fulfil the day’s orders, they said.
Amazon said it was not usual practice to cancel shifts at short notice, but that as a new business it needed to “manage significant variations in customer demand”.
Amazon’s spokeswoman said the company had a culture based on safety and a positive working environment. A spokeswoman for Adecco said it took the health and safety of its “associates” seriously, and that their welfare was its “number one priority”.
ACTU president Michele O’Neil said: “The use of labour hire to deny people fair pay rises and rights at work is not new, but Amazon’s behaviour is particularly outrageous.”
The NUW’s Mr Kennedy said that people “should have a job that provides leave when you are sick, financial security to get a home loan and the ability to collectively bargain with your workmates to improve wages and condition”.
Questions about Amazon’s treatment of workers have followed it as it has expanded across the world, and in July staff at warehouses in Germany, Spain and Poland walked off the job to protest their pay and conditions.
Amazon says its average hourly wage for full-time warehouse workers in the US is more than $US15 ($21) an hour.
Michael Rawling, a workplace law expert and senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, said that while workers at Amazon’s factory had the right to bargain with Adecco, they may not be able to access Amazon, the wealthiest and most influential company in the arrangement.
“It becomes very difficult when there’s a fragmented workplace and there’s casual employees working in more precarious circumstances,” Mr Rawling said.