Are Amazon digging a hole for themselves at Tilbury?

Since the Amazon distribution facility opened in Tilbury at the start of October, over 600 workers have either quit because the working conditions are so bad or they’ve been sacked for failing to meet onerous productivity targets. See this report in the Thurrock Independent for full details: Sacked worker backs report into poor conditions at Tilbury Amazon.

This piece in the Thurrock Independent was based on an interview with an ex Amazon worker, Gary. This is a sample of what he had to say…
“You are constantly timed on how much you do, and if you don’t stow 3,000 items a day they basically kick you out the door. A lot of people walked out on the first day it was so bad.”
“The way management speak to you is so condescending, and as soon as you step away from your station they are asking where you’re going and timing how long you’re away.”
“They basically just want to have a team of robots working for them. You get two half hour breaks and if you’re back a minute late they scan your badge and deduct 15 minutes from your wages. It could have been a great place to work, but I don’t agree with how they’re trying to work this, I don’t agree with their philosophy and I don’t agree with their working standards.”
“You can’t talk to people, you can’t have a bit of fun, with this you’ve pretty much just got to work in silence. What they want are people who don’t have backbone and you’re not going to find a lot of people like that in Thurrock.”

The more we look into this, the more it seems that Amazon don’t give a toss about the number of workers walking out the door because they’re being treated like shit. This is because Amazon take the view that in the post industrial Thames estuary employment landscape where there are more potential workers than there are jobs, there will always be a queue of people willing to take the place of those who quit or are sacked.

If for some odd reason, Amazon believe the myth that migrants from Eastern Europe are more compliant and start to try and recruit them to replace the workers they’re shedding like there’s no tomorrow, they may be in for a massive disappointment… One of the consequences of the Brexit vote is that inward migration from the EU is already falling and many EU workers, pissed off at the reception they’re getting in this country, are heading homewards back over the Channel: Immigration figures have dropped by almost a third in the last year, as EU workers begin to pack up and leave following the Brexit vote – If they think non EU migrants would be a pushover, they’re in for an even bigger shock because they’re not a pushover in any way, shape or form.

Amazon in their arrogance are digging a hole for themselves. There are only so many workers they can piss off before it has consequences for them. As indicated above, it could be argued that Amazon are running out of workers they can screw over. Which leaves them with the option of completely re-fitting facilities such as Tilbury so they are largely automated. It can be done – the new super-port at London Gateway is largely automated but that was only possible because the owners, Dubai Ports have very, very deep pockets. Whether Amazon are willing to spend heavily on re-fitting and automating a facility they’ve only just opened is open to question…while there’s still a source of cheap, exploitable labour, automation will remain on the back burner…

What options do Amazon have? Relying on an ever punitive benefits system that forces people into jobs they’re not suited for but end up having to endure because if they quit or are sacked, the option is no benefits and destitution. In other words, a modern form of slavery. Given how people on benefits, even those who are working, are demonised, those who can’t stand the relentless, inhuman pace of work Amazon expect from their staff will get little sympathy from the mugs who’ve brought into the ‘hard working families’ rhetoric coming from the right wing media and too many politicians across the spectrum. However, how many people are actually buying into that myth about ‘hard working families’?

Thurrock with it’s industrial heritage has historically had a reputation of being a place where a lot of people are not afraid of a hard day’s graft. The qualifier is that workers in places such as Thurrock still generally want to a) be treated with respect and b) get paid a decent rate. On that basis, even though many people in Thurrock see themselves as grafters, they can see that Amazon are taking the piss something rotten…

This means there’s an opening to take on the likes of Amazon and win. In continental Europe, workers are not taking the shit they’ve been getting from Amazon lying down – they’re fighting back.

Granted, the situation in the UK is very different from continental Europe in that here, the process of smashing any form of collectivity and atomising people is more advanced than over on the other side of the Channel. Despite this, people still have a sense of fairness and they can see that Amazon are crap employers and they’re getting angry about it. If we can recognise the difference between here and continental Europe, tailor our rhetoric and tactics accordingly, there’s everything to play for in taking Amazon on and sending out a signal that no employer can get away with treating their workers in this way…

This article first appeared on the South Essex Stirrer Blog