Today Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna introduced the Stop BEZOS Act, that would tax large corporations like Amazon and Walmart for every dollar their low-wage workers receive in government assistance. The bill is named after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and stands for: Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act.
In Part 2 of our interview with U.K.-based journalist James Bloodworth, he describes how he went undercover as an Amazon warehouse “picker” and found impoverishment and mistreatment. His new book is Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.
More from this Interview
- Part 1: As Amazon Hits $1 Trillion in Value, Its Warehouse Workers Denounce “Slavery” Conditions
- Part 2: Exposed: Undercover Reporter at Amazon Warehouse Found Abusive Conditions & No Bathroom Breaks
- Part 3: Sen Sanders Introduces BEZOS Act, Named for Amazon CEO, as Retailer Impoverishes & Mistreats Workers
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with our Part 2 on Amazon. It made headlines this week when it became the second American company, after Apple, to reach $1 trillion in value. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world, with a net worth of more than $167 billion. But what’s behind that wealth? What about its workers?
For more, we continue our conversation with James Bloodworth, British reporter, author of the new book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.
In Part 1 of this discussion, James, you talked about urine bottle that you found in the plant because people are penalized if they go to the bathroom too quickly at these large warehouses for Amazon products. Lay out for us again what you found when you worked at Amazon undercover.
JAMES BLOODWORTH: So, I mean, the urine bottle was the most kind of pertinent example of one of the things I found. But it was effectively a consequence of the productivity obsession in the Amazon warehouse. So, what I mean by that is—we worked in this huge warehouse; it was the size of 10 soccer pitches. So, Amazon would boast about how big this warehouse was. It had four floors. And I would be working on—I was working on the top floor of this warehouse. And so—and there were two toilets at the other end of the warehouse. So, if you—you know, if you were working on the top floor, where I was, and you needed to use the bathroom, you have to walk down four flights of stairs, you have to go through airport-style security, to use the bathroom. And this would take, you know, five to 10 minutes to kind of do this. And so, you have a situation where workers, many workers, are afraid to go to the bathroom, because they were constantly being admonished by management for taking so-called idle time, as they would call it, when there’s kind of three, four, five minutes on your handheld device which says you haven’t been productive during that time.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, that’s the question—that’s a question I have—
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Just three, four minutes, which, in any other job, would be using a bathroom.
AMY GOODMAN: James, just for people to understand, I mean, I’m thinking, “How do they know you’re going to the bathroom? How do they monitor you?”
JAMES BLOODWORTH: So, yes, that’s a good question. So, what happens is, every Amazon shift for an order picker, you have this handheld device which you take around with you. And what it does is it directs you around the warehouse. It’s like an algorithm. And it tells you which items you have to pick and whereabouts in the warehouse those items are. But it also—management also monitor these—it also sends things, sends information down to kind of central computers at the bottom of the warehouse. And management can also send you messages through about, you know, your productivity rates, etc., to these devices.
So, obviously, if you go to the toilet, the device is—you know, it’s clear that you’re not picking orders during that time, because you’re taking so-called idle time, as they would call it. And Amazon didn’t make any allowance for things like toilet breaks, things like water breaks. Even chatting with colleagues, we were told off for while I was working in this warehouse. Everything is centered around productivity. I mean, in that sense, it’s almost a throwback to the kind of scientific management theories of Frederick Taylor from a hundred years ago. Everything is about productivity. And anything whatsoever, any human, you know, foible, which happens to all of us—the need to use the bathroom, the need to take a day off sick occasionally—Amazon takes a very dim view of this, because it damages their productivity, supposedly.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the workers compared it to modern-day slavery?
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes. I mean, I went back to the Amazon warehouse in Britain, where I worked at, recently. I went to speak to some workers, some Romanian workers who were still there. And they said to me—they compared it, to me, to modern slavery. And, I mean, that sounds really shocking. And again, it’s aspects of the job, I would compare it to that. But again, this is their lived experience working in this warehouse. So, I mean, these are people—the people who said that to me were from Eastern Europe. They’ve worked in factory jobs. They’ve worked in poorly paid laboring jobs. And they’re comparing life in a rich Western country at this company to modern slavery. I mean, I think that’s absolutely damning.
AMY GOODMAN: In Part 1 of our discussion, we started to talk about the number of times workers have called ambulances to the warehouse that you worked in. Explain.
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes. So, I mean, there was some data that came out today from one of the trade unions in—the biggest trade unions in Britain, which showed that ambulances had been called to the Amazon warehouse I worked in over a hundred times in three years. And this was for things, women—you know, women working through heavily—while heavily pregnant, having to be rushed to hospital to have babies. Essentially, it stemmed from people afraid to take days off sick, because, I mean, when I worked there, there was—you were given a disciplinary for being sick. If you took a week off sick, you were very, very close to losing your job, however—for whatever reason, you know, if you had a note from the doctors, whatever. So, it seems—again, similarly with the finding of the bottle of urine, I mean, that happens because people are afraid to take toilet breaks. Ambulances being called to the warehouse, again, it happens because people are afraid to take a day off sick.
AMY GOODMAN: Vice reported that in May, ambulances were called to Amazon’s British warehouses at least 600 times in three years.
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes. I mean, again, it’s the same thing. I mean, what this shows is—I mean, the report that came out from the GMB trade union today showed that ambulances were called over a hundred times to one warehouse, the warehouse I worked in. But the fact—this information from Vice, what it shows is that it’s not an isolated thing. It can’t be blamed on the management in one warehouse, because it seems to be happening all over, at least in Britain. And as we heard earlier in your program, there were similar examples coming from the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about workers’ efforts to unionize?
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes. I mean, it’s very, very hard to unionize at Amazon, in Britain at least, because the trade union laws are quite strict. It’s very hard for even trade union representatives to get anywhere near the premises of an Amazon warehouse to actually hand out leaflets or even to speak to workers to tell them what their rights are. So, the GMB union has been to warehouses like the place—the warehouse I worked in, in Britain, and security chases them out of the car park. Amazon threatens to call the police if they’re just inside the car park, if they’re within kind of a quarter of a mile of the Amazon warehouse. So it’s very hard for trade unions to even get inside these places and actually, you know, speak to workers, hand out leaflets and tell workers what they’re entitled to at work.
And there’s also such a high turnover of workers. So, one, people are being fired for, you know, very—for all kinds of things. So, if you’re being—losing your job because you’ve taken time off sick, you’re losing your job because you’ve—you know, you’re missing productivity targets, that’s a huge turnover of staff. So, it’s very hard to set up a union in an environment where the workplace is constantly turning over.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, $167 billion they say he’s worth—not that a person is worth any amount of money, but that’s what they say is his value.
JAMES BLOODWORTH: The level of wealth that Jeff Bezos now has, the size of Amazon, it’s become kind of obscene. It’s become kind of—for the average person, I mean, for all of us, I imagine, that level of wealth is unimaginable. But, again, it’s important to, you know, just not to treat this as this entrepreneur who’s done this fantastic thing, and this is why all of this money has kind of—he’s accumulated all of this money. It’s built on the impoverishment of his workforce. It’s built on the kind of—the mistreatment of, in my opinion, of vast, vast numbers of his workforce.
I mean, when we order something on Amazon, we click on the screen. We don’t really see the chain behind that and what goes on. And, you know, I think it’s imperative on us, as citizens, but it’s also imperative on governments. I mean, Bernie Sanders has been rightly talking about this. But it’s been—it’s absolutely imperative on us, as citizens, to actually take an interest in what goes on behind this kind of facade of entrepreneurialism, Jeff Bezos on the TV, in the news, you know, fulminating over how he’s going to spend all his money. But we have a responsibility as citizens to look at how our fellow citizens, who work for Amazon, are being treated. And my experience was that they’re being treated appallingly.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he has talked about beginning to give away some of his money. What about to workers?
JAMES BLOODWORTH: I mean, that would be nice. I mean, it’s—you know, philanthropy is all well and good, but how about Amazon just, you know, pay—for a start, pay the taxes that they ought to be paying in Europe at least? At the moment, we have a situation where the richest, the biggest multinational in the world, headed by the richest man in the world, is receiving government subsidies for—I mean, in the U.S., for things like food stamps; in the U.K., for workers on tax credits and also workers who—and also for the subsidization of warehouses in certain places. So, the government here, local authorities in Britain, have actually used government money to entice Amazon to come to their area, by building the warehouse, building the special roads that Amazon needs for its lorries. And yet, Amazon is a company which—you know, biggest multinational in the world, which has been found not to be paying, you know, what most people would consider a sufficient rate of taxes.
I find the whole situation to be obscene. And I really hope that the politicians will actually do something about this, because it’s—I mean, it’s not just—it’s crony capitalism. You don’t have to be, you know, a socialist. You don’t have to be a—someone who wants to kind of abolish capitalism. But it’s completely crony capitalism, where the state is subsidizing this company, which does all it can to avoid taxes, and does all it can to kind of treat workers with a lack of dignity and respect.
AMY GOODMAN: You have cities incentivizing Amazon to come there, to build their vast warehouses there, so they subsidize them, for example, oh, building special roads for their trucks to get there. Talk about both cities subsidizing Amazon and the fact that Sanders is focusing on now, Senator Sanders here in the United States unveiling legislation this week requiring large employers like Amazon to cover the cost of federal assistance received by their workers—
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes, I—
AMY GOODMAN: —subsidizing Amazon in all different ways.
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes. So, I mean, one thing that happens here with the state subsidizing Amazon to—incentivizing Amazon to kind of come to their area, is we have—we have the equivalent in Britain of what would be called the Rust Belt areas in the United States, so areas where industry had kind of disappeared in the ’80s and ’90s, so coal mining, you know, power stations, steel works and places like this. They disappeared, and they left big swathes of kind of unemployment and social problems. And so, what happens is, Amazon, this is like—the Amazon warehouse I worked in was in just one of those places, a former coal mining area.
So, what happens is, Amazon looks for a location to put its warehouse or its fulfillment centers, as it calls it. And some of these local authorities, you know, they’re desperate for jobs. They’re desperate for—as one local politician put it to me from one of these areas, you know, “We’re desperate for our people for any kind of jobs.” So Amazon comes in promising to create all these jobs. And the council then—the local authority then offers—you know, there’s several instances of this happening in the U.K.—offers to pay for, you know, the warehouse for Amazon to use, to build it, to build a special road that it needs for, you know, the heavy goods vehicles to the—to go back and forth from the warehouse. And this is because they’re absolutely desperate for jobs.
And then, later on, they find that, you know, very few local people are doing some of these jobs. It tends to be migrants who are bused in from Eastern Europe, because the local—you know, as a kind of British citizen—and I imagine it’s the same to some degree in the United States—you don’t expect to be treated like that in a modern workplace. And the fact that Eastern Europeans, very often impoverished Eastern Europeans, are willing to do that job over here, all that says is it’s simply a sign that they are more desperate for—they are just more desperate, more impoverished, than many British citizens, so they end up doing the work.
And it’s with food stamps, again. I mean, we have something in the U.K. called tax credits, which is a similar thing, so it’s topping up the wages of low-paid earners. And when you have people working for, you know, the wealthiest—the biggest multinational, the wealthiest man in the world, they’re working for him, and they’re having to get their wages topped up by taxpayers, by the state, by all of us, all the rest of us, every working person. Again, that seems completely back to front. It’s very much obscene that this is happening.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the speed with which you had to work in the warehouse. And you were saying you’re very physically fit. You go to a gym. You were extremely challenged by what you had to do. Talk about the length of time you have to work, and then whether this also applies, Amazon offering 1- and 2-hour delivery for its Prime subscription customers. How does it affect delivery rates when people, you know, think, “Oh, I’d like to get it fast”? What does that mean for a worker?
JAMES BLOODWORTH: I mean, the point about, you know, my own fitness, I make because sometimes after, when my book came out, you’d have some people who defend Amazon on the basis that, you know, “Well, you know, you just don’t like hard work. You’ve never been in a warehouse before,” etc. I mean, I’ve literally come back from the gym before I did this interview, hence wearing the sweat clothes. But it was a case of we had walk about 10 to 15 miles, so anything up to 20 kilometers, a day in this warehouse, picking orders off the shelves. You had to run, very often, in order to hit your productivity targets. I’ve mentioned, you know, it was very hard to take breaks for things like toilet, to drink water, to eat properly. So it’s exhausting work. And I found it very hard to keep up with the productivity targets, as someone who, you know, goes running, who hits the weights.
And I felt that, you know, this is the biggest employer in this town. There’s no longevity for someone who is maybe a little bit older, maybe who has a disability, who’s a little bit overweight. There’s no longevity in a job like that for that person, because you’re not going to be able to keep up with the kind of absurdly fast productivity rates. You’re not going to be able to keep your job. And yeah, so it’s incredibly hard to see how that’s sustainable, you know, as a kind of—as a working job in our economy, for people to kind of keep their head above water.
AMY GOODMAN: So, when you were writing your book, what was Amazon’s response? And how do they respond to—are you calling for something like a boycott of Amazon?
JAMES BLOODWORTH: I mean, they’ve—since the book came out is when they’ve really responded, because, since then, they’ve kind of pursued me around television studios. And anytime I’ve been in the media, they’ve kind of put out statements saying that all their workers are happy, etc., etc.
Yeah, I mean, consumer boycotts are, I think—I think that’s one kind of arm of this kind of fightback against the way Amazon are treating their workers. So, I mean, the problem is, it’s small fry. I mean, consumer boycotts—those people who can afford to shop ethically, I think, should do. I think—I mean, I don’t use Uber and Amazon anymore, whereas I did before I wrote the book.
But I think, you know, the bigger issue is things like a change in the law to make it easier to get trade unions into some of these workplaces—and actually, in Britain at least, the enforcement of existing law. So, when I was working at Amazon, some of the employment agencies that Amazon used, they weren’t paying people the minimum wage. I mean, that’s already the law. But it simply needs to be enforced.
And again, there’s another kind of—I mean, you mentioned Amazon Prime, etc., before, and the speed of this. I mean, there’s another kind of side to this, which is Amazon delivery drivers, who, again, are really under pressure. There’s kind of the Uberization of delivery driving more generally, and Amazon is just one kind of branch of that, where you’re having drivers at some of these companies having to—if they take a day off sick, they have to find someone else to cover their shift, or take 150 pounds out of their own pocket to pay—to give to the company for just a missed shift.
And this is—you know, this is a real throwback to some of the labor issues that we had a hundred years ago. It’s as if the second part of the 20th century—you know, the New Deal in the United States, the welfare state in Britain—it’s as if those things almost never really happened. And the big financial crisis of 2008 has been used by companies like Amazon, companies like Uber, to kind of chip away, again, at many workers’ rights and get around them, because, on the one hand, they’ve been allowed to do that by the laws that exist, the strict laws that exist on things like trade unions, and also because the governments haven’t been—haven’t had enough of an appetite to actually crack down on companies like this.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen Sorry to Bother You, the new film by Boots Riley?
JAMES BLOODWORTH: No, I haven’t. I do need to see this, because I’ve heard about it several times: “Oh, you really need to watch this.”
AMY GOODMAN: He calls the company Worry Free. Finally, in the United States, Amazon is building its second headquarters, and cities are vying for this all over the country. What do you think people need to know as their city vies for Amazon to come to town?
JAMES BLOODWORTH: I mean, I think what I kind of want people to know is that there’s a dark side to this company. I mean, there’s—it spends so much money on public relations. I mean, we’ve seen the story last week that Amazon has been paying people to say positive things about it, the company, on social media. I mean, imagine if it spent some of that money on treating staff better instead. But it’s—I mean, there’s a dark side to this company—
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, can you—I just want to interrupt. Explain what you mean, what you just said. They’re paying who to say nice things?
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes. So, there are so-called Amazon ambassadors who are now being paid to go on social media and say positive things about the company. I mean, I have several of them who follow me around on Twitter, who will appear on my threads saying how wonderful it is to work at Amazon. And yet, if I go to the—if I go to the warehouse, I’ll speak to some of the Romanian workers there, and then they tell me it’s like modern slavery.
So, yeah, I mean, they spend a lot of money evidently on public relations, so it’s easy to get sucked in by that. Same with Uber. It’s easy to believe that this is just an example of great entrepreneurialism. And if you don’t look too closely, if you don’t speak to the people who work in the warehouses, if you don’t do, you know, what I did, and go in yourself and kind of see for yourself, as difficult as that is, what’s going on, it’s easy to kind of buy into the public relations stuff. But there is very much a dark side to this company. And the bigger it gets, the harder it’s going to be to fight. And I find that incredibly worrying, to be honest.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting that they’re paying people, an army of workers, to say nice things about them on Twitter. It indicates they clearly see they have a reputation problem.
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Yes. I mean, definitely. Again, I find—it gets to the point where a company is doing this much with work on their PR, that it would seem almost easier to actually just treat people decently so they don’t have this image problem in the first place. But at the same time, the fact that they’re doing that seems to betray that there is a kind of image problem there. I mean, Jeff Bezos, every time he now takes to Twitter to fulminate about how he’s going to spend, you know, all his money, whether on space travel or whatever, there’s now kind of a blitz of comments appear underneath, you know, criticizing him and his company for the way they treat some of their staff. This is one of the great things about social media, in fact, that we can—that we can make a noise in this way. But at the same time, it’s very difficult, because we all—the other side of this is we’re all becoming increasingly reliant on companies like Amazon, companies like Uber. So, it’s increasingly difficult actually to do anything about this.
AMY GOODMAN: James Bloodworth, I want to thank you for being with us, a reporter based in the U.K.
JAMES BLOODWORTH: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Author of the new book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.