Business, Finance & Economics

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

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REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

An Amazon warehouse in the UK. 'Pickers' are allowed a set number of seconds to locate and pick up individual orders.

If you're doing your shopping online, it might be less stressful for you. But put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of the worker processing your order.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

"It's a very physically demanding job," says Sarah O'Connor, an economics correspondent for the Financial Times.  She wrote an investigative piece on working conditions in Amazon warehouses in the UK. If you're a 'picker,' picking goods off the warehouse shelves, "you could be walking 7-15 miles a day."

"One man I interviewed was called Chris Martin - a middle aged man," says O'Connor. Martin was very pleased to get one of these jobs in a town with very high unemployment, says O'Conor. "But he was shocked to find the work was not only very demanding, but the shoes he was given did not really fit, so he instantly developed very bad blisters; took a day off (and) came back to find the shift he'd been on had been cancelled and there was no more work for him."  The shoes were reinforced safety shoes, required for certain types of work.

Many of the workers are technically employed by third party companies on temporary contracts, so hirings and firings are common.

The workers are also under a considerable amount of pressure. Pickers carry hand-held computerized scanners that constantly monitor their productivity, down to the second.  If you're late you get 'points.' Too many points and you get referred to 'counseling,' which usually leads to termination.  Tardiness and absence also accrue 'points.'

Amazon UK refutes the charge that they exploit their employees in any way. And they say they had retained an independent expert who had concluded that their jobs aren't mentally or physically harmful.

O'Connor says many people in the towns where Amazon operates are pleased to see new jobs.

"But, this more insecure, temporary, low-wage work, is something new for them."

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