For many Amazon pickers, you may have a job one day, but be out of work the next

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Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: If you're doing your shopping online, it might be less stressful for you, but yourself for a moment in the shoes of the guy fulfilling your order. Sarah O'Connor is economics correspondent for the Financial Times. She wrote an investigative piece on working conditions at Amazon warehouses in the UK.

Sarah O'Connor: It's a pretty extraordinary setup. I mean these warehouses are absolutely enormous. The warehouse that I went to visit, I timed myself. It took about sorta 10 minutes to walk from one end of it to the other, and if you're one of the pickers, so if you're one of the people receiving instructions one which items to pick off and put on your trolley...and you can expect to walk between 7-15 miles a day, so it's a very physically demanding job.

Schachter: So tell us if you would the story of one of the people you interviewed for your piece in the Financial Times.

O'Connor: Yeah, sure, so one of the people I interviewed was called Chris Martin was a middle-aged man living in this small town in England called [inaudible 00:56], a coal mining town. It was very prosperous once upon a time, but like many of these sort of post industrial places, had sort of slipped into decline. Lots of people, including Chris, was very excited when Amazon decided to setup the warehouse because they promised they would create a huge number of jobs, which indeed they did do, so he managed to get one of these jobs, but was sort of shocked to find that not only was it demanding, but the shoes he was given didn't really fit, so he instantly sort of developed very bad blisters. Took a day off, came back to find that the shift he was on had been cancelled and there was no more work for him. And I think that's sort of indicative of the very sort of flexible nature of this work is that all these people are on temporary contracts or a large number of them are, and so very quickly you can go from having a job one day to not having one the next.

Schachter: What do you mean he was given shoes?

O'Connor: So the recruitment agency that sort of recruited him handed out sort of safety shoes for certain workers in certain parts of the warehouse. These are kind of like [inaudible 01:57] boots, I suppose, something to keep your feet safe, but the problem that lots of people complained about to me was that the sizes weren't great and so lots of people developed blisters. In fact, one of the shop managers told me that the advice that he gave employees was to cover their feet with Vaseline before they put their socks and shoes on to try and avoid that problem as best...

Schachter: Surely they could have gone out and gotten their own steel-toed boots if they wanted.

O'Connor: Absolutely, of course they could have done [that], but they're not cheap.

Schachter: So this man you were talking about, he did a job called a picker. Tell us what that job is about.

O'Connor: So picking/a picker is a person who has a sort of hand-held computer that gives them directions, step-by-step directions, go to this part of the warehouse, walk to this aisle, pick this particular item. Amazon warehouses have just gotten full of shelves of what looks like very sort of randomly arranged products. And these computers are quite extraordinary because they not only sort of direct you in real time, they also let you know how you're doing in terms of productivity, so whether you're running behind or ahead of your productivity targets. And they allow the managers at the warehouses to send you a message to tell you to speed up if you're not picking fast enough.

Schachter: Now, Amazon has been saying to different media outlets that they refute this charge that any of their jobs are mentally or physically harmful in any way. I can appreciate, as you say, the working conditions at Amazon are less than optimal, but the work is inside, the pay is not bad ($10-$15 an hour there in Britain), it sounds like a fairly good deal for people there in the UK and in Europe as a whole.

O'Connor: Yeah, I mean I think a lot of the people that I spoke to for my story who were living in this town that didn't have many jobs certainly were grateful that Amazon had come and had created work where there hadn't been any, but I think they were just disappointed that the quality and the security of the work wasn't what they had hoped for. And remember, these are people who were used to mining jobs, which were obviously sort of dirty and dangerous, but also had great pensions, good benefits. So this insecure, temporary, low wage work was new to them.

Schachter: Sarah O'Connor is the economics correspondent for the Financial Times. Sarah, thanks a lot for joining us.

O'Connor: Thank you very much.