Journalist James Bloodworth spent six months working in low-wage jobs across Britain, penning a biting critique of the gig economy and precarious employment. Here he reports on his gruelling job as a picker at an Amazon warehouse in the midlands, where ‘idle time’ is seriously frowned upon.
You discover almost as soon as you begin the job that the admonishment to ‘never run’ was not meant literally. Rather, it was an illusory prohibition of something which was a necessary requirement if you were to avoid the sack. Like a totalitarian state, rules were laid down that it was impossible not to flout. Dashing around was obligatory if you were to meet the exacting targets set for every worker. Similarly, water breaks were permitted, but to go off in search of a water dispenser was to run the risk of ‘idling’, another transgression you were often warned about. There were around twelve water machines on each floor, yet in a labyrinth of aisles spread over 700,000 square feet it was nearly always impossible to locate one nearby when you needed it.
I would begin work each day at one o’clock in the afternoon along with the rest of my shift cohort. We would swipe through the outer security gates, walk to our lockers and dispose of our belongings – mobile phones, keys and anything else liable to delay your exit through security later on – and head towards the pick desk. It was impossible to take a recording device into the warehouse (or to be more precise, it would have been impossible to get it back out through the security gates at the end of a shift), and so I carried an innocuous-looking notepad and pen around with me in my back pocket. The security guards at Amazon were endowed with a great deal of power, which included the right to search your car if they suspected you of stealing something. Such was the weight of suspicion falling on you from day one that even carrying the little pen and paper in my pocket felt like I was committing some disgraceful crime.
There is something unusually oppressive about an environment like that. I suspect it makes a person more rather than less likely to misbehave. The entire time I was working at Amazon I felt as though I was under a dark cloud of suspicion. I would find myself cringing under the accusatory questions of a supervisor or security guard when I had done nothing wrong. The sheer oppressiveness of the place built up over time to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: you soon began to fantasise about scheming against the company and its petty rules. The first time you were accused of idling you felt a burning sense of injustice. The second or third time it happened you would be annoyed only because you had been caught. You would soon find yourself carrying out small rebellions against authority: a misplaced item you would once have picked up, you now left on the floor. You would snack in the warehouse and defile the floor with the empty wrapper, or deliver a satisfying boot to the spines of a row of tightly packed books or DVDs.
Arriving at the pick desk to start a shift, you would typically receive something between a briefing and a telling-off from one of the Amazon line managers. Prizes would be offered for the best-performing pickers – though I never did see anyone win anything – and a manager would run through all the mistakes your shift had made on the previous day. These would include things like not stowing boxes properly after picking an item and taking too much idle time. Most of what was disparagingly called ‘idle time’ involved things like going to the toilet, yet the wickedness of ‘idling’ was brought up unfailingly at every briefing, as if the need to perform bodily functions would eventually melt away in the name of productivity. ‘You need to get your productivity up, guys,’ intoned various managers in the corporate jargonese that seeks to sugar-coat admonishments. ‘You’re clocking up too much idle time.’ Rather than complaining when people had the temerity to go to the toilet, productivity-obsessed Amazon might instead have installed more toilets. For those of us who worked on the top floor of this huge building, the closest toilets were down four flights of stairs. So far, in fact, that on one occasion I came across a bottle of straw-coloured liquid perched inauspiciously on a shelf next to a box of Christmas decorations.
‘They put me on pick the other day and asked me why I had fifteen minutes’ idle time,’ Claire had told me in the pub. ‘I was like … I needed to go to the toilet. I had to walk all the way down the stairs – like four floors – to go to the toilet. It’s like, what do you expect?!’