This week’s strike at an Amazon depot in Coventry is throwing the spotlight on to a hidden army of workers in the UK’s retail sector, many of whom face “particularly gruelling” conditions, according to recent research commissioned by the TUC.
Five academics at the Centre for Research on Employment and Work (Crew) at the University of Greenwich analysed data about the retail workforce during and after the Covid pandemic, and carried out in-depth interviews with 30 workers.
They found that the pandemic “intensified existing trends” in online shopping, which meant a renewed shift from traditional shop-floor jobs towards work in warehouses, away from direct contact with customers.
The analysis suggests these warehouse roles often provide more regular hours, and that competition for staff has pushed up wage rates – but some interviewees said they found the jobs extremely demanding.
“Warehouse work was considered by research participants as particularly gruelling (‘the job is not human’),” the authors say in a summary of their findings, adding that there was “a suggestion that automation and robotisation might be necessary to save the cost to human physical and mental health”.
The TUC’s deputy general secretary, Kate Bell, said it was easy for consumers to forget that what feels like the “miracle” of rapid home delivery relies on “real human labour, and real human labour which is increasingly tough – monitored, repetitive, gruelling”.
A member of staff at a distribution centre said: “It’s a very physical, demanding job and if you’ve never been in that situation before, it either makes you or breaks you to be honest.” He said staff needed to be “fit enough to get through the pain barriers”.
High-profile companies including Sports Direct have come under fire over the conditions faced by workers in their warehouses. The fashion retailer Boohoo recently rejected claims made in the Times that staff could walk 13 miles in a single shift, in sweltering temperatures.
The TUC-commissioned report provides fresh first-hand testimony from retail staff. One Amazon worker who worked night shifts told the researchers: “It’s just mentally stressful because you just are working, working, working constantly. Literally, you have no social life.” A warehouse operative described the rapid turnover of staff at their workplace as a “leaky bucket”.
One operations manager who had worked at three different firms over a number of years said the growing automation of warehouses had increased the pressures on workers.
“I wouldn’t advise a friend of mine to be a … warehouse operative for a long period of time. Healthwise it’s not advisable, psychologically wise it’s not advisable, because at some point warehouses will be expecting [the] efficiency of robots from humans, so to speak,” she told the researchers.
Warehouse staff across different companies described having their performance closely tracked, including the routes they take around the distribution centre. “They’ve already timed how long it will take you. And if it takes you five or 10 minutes longer, you may get questioned, ‘why has it taken so long?’,” said one worker.
Adrian Jones, the national organiser at Unite, said: “Employers seem to be relying more and more on automated performance management tools in warehouses to set standards – and it doesn’t take into consideration the massive issues that workers face on a day in, day out basis”. A recent TUC guide on these issues for union reps was called “When AI is the boss”.
The researchers suggest surveillance of staff is used differently in workplaces where unions have a seat around the table. “Where trade unions are recognised, workplace representatives play a key role in mediating technology and constraining its use in disciplinary measures against workers,” the report says.
Some interviewees said they did not mind being intensively monitored – by CCTV or smartwatch, for example – seeing it as about safety as well as performance.
Jones said: “Where we see employers who recognise that fact that this is human beings not robots who are doing it, the performance is better, the commitment is better from the workers and ultimately the company’s more profitable.”
But he pointed to the difficulties of warehouse work, including the sheer weight of goods that must be moved, and the prevalence of night shifts.
The TUC is calling for collective bargaining across the retail sector, including in distribution, to strike standard-setting “fair pay agreements”, and a right for employees to be consulted before new technologies are introduced.
When challenged about staff discontent, Amazon, which refuses to recognise unions, pointed to a recent increase in starting pay, to “a minimum of between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour”, and what it called “a comprehensive benefits package” worth thousands of pounds. But the TUC’s Bell, welcoming this week’s strike action, said: “What these people need first is a voice in their own workplace.”
Retailers say they have to offer staff the right incentives to work in these jobs. Tom Ironside, the director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, said: “The need for warehouse staff has been rising in recent years, so retailers have worked hard to provide the necessary financial and non-financial total reward to attract the necessary talent. As with all parts of retail, good working conditions are a key way of attracting and retaining staff, and warehouses are no exception.”