Amazon’s ‘disposable’ Scottish workforce left struggling to pay bills

Amazon hired thousands of agency workers across Scotland in the lead-up to Christmas last year, breaking its own commitment not to use zero hours contracts and leaving its “disposable workforce” struggling to pay the bills.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism investigation also found many Amazon warehouse workers taken on by agencies Adecco and PMP had shifts cancelled at the last minute, and had hundreds of pounds in wages left unpaid.  

The workers had no guarantee of getting 20 hours of work a week, which is also in breach of Amazon’s stated policies.

While many retailers have struggled to survive during the pandemic, Amazon has thrived with its UK sales increasing to £19.4bn. The company used a third of all warehouse space across the UK this summer and now has a presence the majority of Scottish local authority areas.

Jeff Bezos, who recently announced he would soon be stepping down as CEO, has a net worth of more than $190bn.

Last year an investigation by The Ferret found that Amazon’s flagship Scottish centre, which received millions of pounds in publicly funded grants, is now owned in a tax haven.

With unemployment rising, particularly among low-paid workers – and nearly 10 million people across the UK on furlough – some said the Amazon jobs offered many vital income. But concerns were raised that many were given little choice but to accept the jobs, despite the insecurity of the employment they offered.

Amazon took on more than 20,000 seasonal workers in the UK last year, recruiting nearly half that amount in the three months leading up to Christmas.

The Bureau recorded the details of nearly 9,000 ads posted for Amazon jobs on Reed.co.uk during that period. Every single ad was posted by two agencies hired by Amazon – Adecco and PMP Recruitment.

Analysis of the Scottish data by The Ferret revealed a total of 2,152 Amazon jobs were advertised in Scotland from October to December, the vast majority through Adecco though 19 were also advertised by PMP.

Figures highlighted the dominance of the company in the Scottish employment market – 92 per cent of all warehouse jobs advertised in Scotland were for Amazon. The company took on staff for locations in 21 out of 32 local authority areas.

In West Lothian – home of the Bathgate Amazon warehouse – 58 per cent of all job ads were for Amazon warehouse jobs. In late January there was a Covid-19 outbreak at the warehouse.

More than 10 per cent of all jobs advertised in 11 local authority areas were for the multinational company.

Though the majority of the jobs were advertised as full time, workers told the Bureau shifts dried up, sometimes entirely, or even claimed they were not contacted after the initial training day.

Some workers have been summoned by text and fired or have turned up to work only to find out they no longer have a job.

Others said they were not paid holiday pay or final shifts after being let go.

When they started cancelling a lot of shifts you couldn’t really plan to do anything because you would think you’d be on, you think you’d be working the next day.

Nathan Bone, Amazon worker

One Scottish worker – Nathan Bone, 25, from Ayr – said that he took on a job with agency Adecco to work in the Amazon Fulfilment Centre in Motherwell believing it offered around 40 hours a week.

He said his first full week in November was five shifts as expected but then became erratic. By the first week in December he had stopped receiving texts notifying him of shifts. He claims it was then weeks before he heard anything from the agency.

“In that second week, I think I did about two shifts, the rest got cancelled, so it would have only been about 12 hours,” he said. “I think the week after I got four but then it would fluctuate around that. There was definitely at least one week when I only did one shift so that would have only been the six hours.

“When they started cancelling a lot of shifts you couldn’t really plan to do anything because you would think you’d be on, you think you’d be working the next day.”

Yet he was unable to leave the job – under conditions imposed by Universal Credit he would have been sanctioned if he had, leaving him with no income at all.

Agency workers are sometimes treated as a disposable workforce – don’t stand for this. You have strength in numbers and rights just like other parts of the workforce.

Tam wilson, Better than zero

Tam Wilson, an organiser at Better than Zero, which represents precarious workers across Scotland, called on other agency workers to get in touch.

He added:  “It is of no surprise that one of the world’s richest companies is building their profits off the back of poor workplace rights and conditions. Agencies are doing well out of the pandemic, providing a flexible workforce to companies looking to capitalise on high consumer demand.

“Agency workers are sometimes treated as a disposable workforce – don’t stand for this. You have strength in numbers and rights just like other parts of the workforce.”

Mick Rix, GMB national officer, claimed that Amazon had “exploited the use of temporary labour, by hiring and firing at will” for years.

He said: “Temporary agency work can be one of the worst forms of exploitative employment methods.

“Amazon basically fires the vast majority of its agency labour it takes on prior to seasonal peak, and does so without notice. It is unfair, it is exploitative and it demonstrates that Amazon treats workers as a commodity.”

However the companies refuted the allegations.  A spokesperson for Adecco said it “offers its employees a range of work opportunities from up to 40 hours per week, part time or flexible shifts”.  It continued: “We are in regular communication with all our associates to ensure they have a clear understanding of their work assignments.”

‘Flexible requirements’

PMP Recruitment said it “exist to support the flexible labour requirements of customers”.

A spokesperson said: “In this specific case, our colleagues are not employed under zero-hour contracts and are provided with a guaranteed minimum number of shifts per week.

“We recognise the importance of ensuring our workers are paid correctly first time, every time, and work tirelessly in achieving this goal – we have robust procedures in place to ensure that if pay queries do occur they are resolved swiftly.”

 In a statement Amazon said that it had created 10,000 new permanent roles across the UK in 2020, bringing the total workforce to 40,000 people.  The 20,000 seasonal positions were additional, it added.

It continued: “Our agency terms are explicit that Amazon does not engage individuals on zero hour contracts. Associates on temporary assignments at Amazon, who are employed by agencies, work a range of shifts from full-time to part-time, however in the majority of cases a 40-hour week is offered.

“Many who join us on temporary assignments do remain with us and take permanent positions but, at the same time, we do have to say goodbye to some.”

Have you worked for Amazon or had experiences of zero hours work you’d like to share? Get in touch with The Ferret, in confidence.

Image thanks to iStock/jetcityimage

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