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It was quarter past six in the evening and the siren had just sounded for lunch: a loud noise pumped through loudspeakers into every corner of the cold and drab warehouse. It sounded like a cheap musical doorbell, or a grotesque parody of the tune a plastic ballerina plays as she slowly spins on top of a jewellery box.
While I stood in the queue, hands in pockets, waiting to get out, a well-built security guard darted forward and made a signal for me to put my arms in the air. 'Move forward, mate, I haven't got all afternoon,' he said firmly in a broad West Midlands accent. I moved along and received a brisk pat-down from the guard. I was followed by a long undulating line of around thirty exhausted-looking men and women of mostly Eastern European nationalities who were shuffling through the security scanners as fast as the three guards could process them. We were in too much of a hurry to talk. We were also emptying pockets and tearing off various items of clothing that were liable to set off the temperamental metal detectors – a belt, a watch or even a sticky cough sweet clinging limply to the inside of a trouser pocket.
There was some sort of commotion at the front of the line: a quarrel had suddenly erupted between a security guard and a haggard-looking young Romanian man over the presence of a mobile phone. We all looked on in befuddled silence.
Romanian: I have to wait for important call. My landlord want to speak with me.
Security guard: Why can't you make personal calls in your own time like everybody else? For the umpteenth time, I'll tell you again. No ... mobile ... phones ... in ... here! Do you understand me? Now, I'll have to tell your manager.
The place had the atmosphere of what I imagined a prison would feel like. Most of the rules were concerned with petty theft. You had to pass in and out of gigantic airport-style security gates at the end of every shift and each time you went on a break or needed to use the toilet. It could take ten or fifteen minutes to pass through these huge metal scanners. You were never paid for the time you spent waiting to have your pockets checked. Hooded tops were banned in the warehouse and so were sunglasses. 'We might need to see your eyes in case you've had too much to drink the night before,' a large, red- and waxy-faced woman named Vicky had warned us ominously on the first day. 'Your eyes give you away.'
For hour after sweating hour we had traipsed up and down this enormous warehouse – the size of ten football pitches – tucked away in the Staffordshire countryside. Each day this short break came as temporary relief.
Lunch – we still called it lunch despite it being dished out at six o'clock in the evening – marked the halfway point in a ten-and-ahalf-hour shift. After going through the usual rigmarole of security, the men and women would spill into the large dining hall and fan out in every direction like an army of ants in flight from the nest. Most of us rushed headlong into the hall to grab a tray and establish a respectable position in the lunch queue. The whole panicked dash was punctuated by a chorus of yells and fiery laments. The best of the hot food had usually gone by the time the first twenty or so men and women had hurriedly passed through the canteen. It was therefore of great importance to secure a spot in the queue as quickly as possible, even if it meant shoving one of your coworkers out of the way in order to do so. Solidarity and the brotherhood of man did not exist in this world. You trampled on the other guy before he walked over you. If you were that sorry unkempt Romanian who had fallen foul of security – yelled at incoherently in a language you barely understood – you might be waiting six or seven hours before you got to see another inviting plate of mincemeat soaked in gravy and stodgy carbohydrates.
Eastern European languages filled the air of the shiny-floored dining hall, which was brightly lit like an operating theatre and always smelt strongly of disinfectant. There were around fifty men and women perched at the canteen tables, hunched over little black lunch trays furtively shovelling huge dollops of meat and fistfuls of chips into their mouths. The Romanians would always unfailingly clean up after themselves. They were, in fact, the most fastidious workers I had ever come across. Along with those of us who sat at the tables, another ten or so men stood milling around next to the coffee machines – head to toe in sportswear, hands in pockets and surreptitiously following every woman who shimmied past with leering eyes. On the opposite side of the dining hall was a huge window which looked out onto the big grey cooling towers of the local power station. 'Proper work,' you would think as you gazed up at the vast chimneys that puked white clouds of steam into the sky as jackdaws glided round and round like burnt pieces of paper.
One of the perks of the job was the relatively cheap food and the free teas and coffees available from the many vending machines. Mincemeat, potatoes or greasy chips plus a can of drink and a Mars bar for £4.10 – not a great deal more than the cost of preparing food beforehand, and most of it piping hot, unlike sandwiches made at home. The challenge was finding sufficient time to eat and drink during the short window allocated for break. I could count on one hand the number of times I managed to finish a full cup of tea.
We were allocated half an hour for lunch, but in practice spent only around half of that in a state of anything resembling relaxation. By the time you made it to the canteen and elbowed your way through a throng of ravenous workers, you had around fifteen minutes to bolt down the food before you started the long walk back to the warehouse. Two or three English managers would invariably be waiting for you back at the work station, pointing at imaginary watches and bellowing peremptorily at anyone who returned even thirty seconds late: 'Extended lunch break today, is it?' 'We don't pay you to sit around jabbering.'
This was life at Amazon, the world's largest retailer. I was an order picker in one of its huge distribution centres in the small Staffordshire town of Rugeley. The warehouse employed around 1,200 people. The majority of my co-workers were from Eastern Europe and most of those were from Romania. The Romanians were often dumbfounded as to why any English person would want to degrade themselves doing such lowly work. 'Excuse me if this sounds offensive, but are you English? Born here?' Yes, I am English. 'Then why are you picking? No offence,' asked a chubby young red-haired girl on my second day. A week later the same girl grabbed me by the arm, shook me violently and told me she wanted to pack her bags and return home as soon as possible. 'I hate it, I hate it here,' she hissed through chipped teeth. She said that she had only planned to stay at Amazon for a month, and that she had come here with her boyfriend to save money to take back to her small village just outside Transylvania. But neither the work nor the city she had ended up in – Birmingham – had matched her expectations of what Britain was supposed to be. 'I hate the people, I hate the dirt and I hate the work ... I don't like this country ... Too many Indian people. Indian people everywhere!'
Amazon's vast warehouse sat on waste ground between the local canal and the power station. Down the road was a company that bought and sold dead cattle. The massive shoebox-like structure of the building in which we worked was the pale blue colour of a swimming pool, and looked incongruous amid the industrial landscape of belching chimneys and sodden green fields. It contained four floors, and Amazon's workforce was similarly split up into four main groups. There were those who checked and unpacked the incoming orders; those who stowed the items on shelves; another group – which I was part of – that picked the orders; and finally the workers who packed the products up ready for delivery. It was the picker's job to march up and down the long narrow aisles selecting items from the two-metre-high shelves before putting them in big yellow plastic boxes – or 'totes', as they were called. These totes were wheeled around on blue metal trolleys before being sent down huge, seemingly never-ending conveyor belts that followed the length of the building the way a stream makes its way towards the sea. On an average day you would expect to send around forty totes down the conveyors, each one filled with books, DVDs and assorted miscellanea.
We lacked a manager in the usual sense of the word; or a flesh and blood manager, at any rate. Instead, each of us carried around with us a hand-held device that tracked our every move as if we were convicts out on house arrest. For every dozen or so workers, somewhere in the warehouse a line manager would be huddled over a desk tapping orders into a computer screen. These instructions, usually an admonishment to speed up, would filter through to our devices in an instant: 'Please report to the pick desk immediately' or 'Your rates are down this hour, please speed up.' We were ranked from highest to lowest in terms of the speed at which we collected our items from the shelves and filled our totes. For example, I was informed during my first week that I was in the bottom 10 per cent in terms of my picking rate. 'You'll have to speed up!' I was told by one of the agency reps. When you allowed your mind to wander, it was easy to imagine a future in which human beings were wired up to devices like this twenty-four hours a day.
As well as a potential forewarning of things to come, this algorithmic system of management was a throwback to the 'scientific management' theories of Frederick W. Taylor. In seeking to root out idleness and inefficient toil, in 1911 the wealthy mechanical engineer from Philadelphia published a monograph on what he saw as the potential for the scientific perfectibility of labour activity. Scientific management held that every workplace task ought to be meticulously monitored: watched, timed and recorded. Workers were units of production whose output ought to be measured in the same way as the machines on which they worked, and were to be directed down to the finest detail. Along with other prominent intellectuals of his day, Taylor did not consider the working class to be fully human: they were more usefully viewed as a resource to be exploited for profit. 'The writer firmly believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient pigiron handler than any man can be,' Taylor wrote disparagingly of the men whom he believed 'incapable' through 'lack of mental capacity' of understanding the theories they were to be subjected to. The 'boss-class' has enthusiastically embraced Taylor's theories. In 2001, the Fellows of the Academies of Management voted The Principles of Scientific Management the most influential management book of the twentieth century.
Twentieth-century communism also finds its echo in the modern workplace, both in modern corporatese and in the admonishments to feel joyful at the prospect of struggle. Socialist realism has mutated into rosy corporate uplift. Feel-good slogans were plastered across the interior walls of Amazon's warehouse next to photographs of beaming workers whose radiant countenances proclaimed that everyone at work was having a wonderful time. We love coming to work and miss it when we're not here! declared a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a woman named 'Bez'. Similarly, almost everything that had a name was given a euphemism. Even calling the place a warehouse was a minor transgression. Instead, you were informed on the first day that the building would henceforth be known as a 'Fulfilment Centre' – or FC for short. You were not fired or sacked; instead you were 'released'. Significantly, the potentially antagonistic categories of Boss and Worker had also been abolished. You were all 'Associates' – both high and lowly alike.
Over the course of a single morning the average picker could earn around £29 carting totes back and forth along the dimly lit aisles of the warehouse. Meanwhile Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, who at the time of writing is worth around $60.7 billion, once increased his wealth by a cool £1.4 billion over the course of a similar amount of time. Calling everyone 'associates' was, it seemed, a ruse designed to foster the illusion that you were all one big happy family. 'Jeff Bezos is an associate and so are all of you,' an Amazon supervisor cheerily informed us on the very first day. Which is fine as far as it goes; though the vernacular seemed purposely designed to blur the distinction between the life of a seven-pound-an-hour picker and the sort of life you can lead with £1.4 billion in the bank. The 'associates' who walked home at midnight, heavy legs supporting suppurating feet which over the course of the day had puffed up half a size bigger, were treated at every juncture as lesser human beings than men like Jeff Bezos. This was all the more reason, perhaps, for those who do so well out of such a state of affairs to create a rhetorical universe distinct from the flesh and blood reality.
Amazon's recruitment process ran strictly through two agencies – PMP Recruitment and Transline Group. I landed the job at Amazon through Transline. This agency shot to notoriety in 2013 after one of the company's employees was suspended for cruelly boasting about her apparent ability to 'stop' Jobseeker's Allowance: 'If people from the JC [job centre] don't turn up to an appointment, I stop their benefits for thirteen weeks ... suckers ... I get so much pleasure knowing what I can do if [they] mess me round. I'm going to be shot for it one day I bet!' The employee would later be suspended and never returned.
I encountered a similar relish for lording it over subordinates from several people in minor positions of authority at Transline. Petty führers were ubiquitous, and if you had the temerity to ask why you had not been paid your full wages for that week they would talk to you as if you were something they had scraped off the bottom of their shoe.
Every contract that we pickers were on at Transline was zero-hours and temporary. Despite requesting it several times, I was never given a copy of my actual employment contract, and was eventually told by a Transline rep that a contract did not exist because I was on a zero-hours contract. The documents I did see on the day I was invited in for the interview were quickly whisked away as soon as I had filled out the requisite details. After nine months, Amazon would either take you on permanently or cast you aside with no more compunction than if you had been a sack of rotten potatoes. In practice, you were extremely lucky even to make it to nine months. We were informed on our first day that if we were 'outstanding' then Amazon might conceivably retain us. However, we were also told that we should be 'under no illusions that this is a temporary job'. This was drummed into us ad nauseam over the course of the first afternoon. A reward was dangled in front of us – 'we do keep on the best performing staff' – and quickly snatched away like a juicy steak pulled from the jaws of a salivating dog. 'About seventy people are waiting for these jobs, so don't get your hopes up,' a Transline rep said with supercilious relish during the induction. The stream of eager-looking men and women who flooded into the brightly lit office seemed to lend force to the rep's gloomy message.
To be kept on by Amazon as a permanent employee was to find oneself in possession of a coveted 'blue badge'. I was told by several Amazon employees that the prospect of attaining a badge was often used to coax workers into doing things they would not have otherwise entertained.
'Basically, they lie to everybody to get them to do things,' said my housemate Chris, a balding thirty-three-year-old Romanian with soft eyes and the husky voice of a heavy smoker. 'There were some blue badges [available], and [the Amazon managers] said to me, "Hey, you have to change your shift to get a blue badge. Not for a long time, but for a few weeks" ... It turned out to be for three months. Oh, and they gave the blue badges to everyone else anyway.'
We were stood about in the kitchen of the small house we were renting along with three others. It was a blackened red-brick shoebox at the end of a gap-toothed terrace which half a century ago would have housed local miners: the 'barracks of an industry', as such settlements were once called. There were clusters of these cramped and huddled houses spread right across the Cannock Chase district. Rugeley was situated in the north, and down the A460 were the towns of Cannock and Hednesford.
It was early spring, and due to the dilapidated state of the house you could never fully escape the dank and filthy weather outside. Everything on the side of the kitchen nearest the window had the same silver film of dew that glazed the small lawn and the black and wet pavement outside. At the bottom of the front garden was a tall hedge where little black bags left by dog-walkers would hang until the sacks broke and spilled their foul contents onto the pavement below.
Excerpted from "Hired"
Copyright © 2018 James Bloodworth.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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