The massive online retailer, Amazon, employs more than 20,000 people scattered across their 8 warehouses during the company’s peak holiday season.  However, not all of the workers are as happy as they may first appear.  A BBC Panorama investigation into a UK-based Amazon warehouse has discovered working conditions that a stress expert has said could cause “mental and physical illness”.

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Secret filming of night shifts involving up to 11 miles of walking was shown to Prof. Michael Marmot.  Staff working under these conditions, are expected to collect orders every 33 seconds, as an undercover reporter has discovered.  This news investigation comes as the company is set to employ 15,000 extra staff to cater for the Christmas holiday period.

The undercover reporter was 23 year old Adam Littler.  He was employed through an agency at Amazon’s Swansea warehouse in Wales, U.K.  Whilst being undercover, he took a hidden camera inside the warehouse to report for the BBC Panorama program.  This was done to record information about what happened during his shifts.  Adam was employed as a “picker”, collecting orders from 800,000 sq ft of storage.

His tool of the trade was a handset that told him what to collect and put into his trolley. The handset allotted him a certain amount of time to find each product. If Adam made a mistake the scanner would beep.  “We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves…We don’t think for ourselves, maybe they don’t trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don’t know.”  The scanner Adam used tracked his picking rate and sent his performance to managers. If the rate was too low, he was told he could face disciplinary action.

Amazon Issues?

Prof Marmot, one of Britain’s leading experts on stress at work, said the working conditions at the warehouse are “all the bad stuff at once…The characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness…There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual’s health and wellbeing – it’s got to be balanced,” he said.

Amazon has said that official safety inspections had not raised any concerns and that an independent expert appointed by the company advised that the picking job is “similar to jobs in many other industries and does not increase the risk of mental and physical illness”.  Amazon said in a statement, worker safety was its “number one priority”.  Amazon said it had invested £1bn in the UK and has created 5,000 permanent jobs.  The company added that it relied on the good judgement of employees, “Together we’re working hard to make sure we’re better tomorrow than we are today.”

Panorama: The Truth Behind The Click, BBC One, Monday 25 November, 20:30 GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

[Images via channel4 and amazongenius]