July 4, 2013

"Shining blue and bright above a subterranean labyrinth of hollow shafts, a warehouse sits upon the abandoned remains of a coal mine that once defined this working-class English town."

"It is as bright as the mines are dark, as vast as the shafts are claustrophobic, as clean as they are filthy."
An Amazon fulfillment associate might have to walk as far as 15 miles in a single shift, endlessly looping back and forth between shelves in a warehouse the size of nine soccer fields. They do this in complete silence, except for the sound of their feet. The atmosphere is so quiet that workers can be fired for even talking to one another. And all the while, cardboard cutouts of happy Amazon workers look on, cartoon speech bubbles frozen above their heads: "This is the best job I ever had!"

"The workers at Rugeley are effectively human robots," [photographer Ben] Roberts says. "And the only reason Amazon doesn’t actually replace them with robots is they’ve yet to find a machine that can handle so many different sized packages."
Oh, noooo! It's spacious, clean, brightly lit, and — gasp! — quiet.

68 comments:

kentuckyliz said...

Never heard of a warehouse inventory worker getting black lung...or a an Amazon warehouse explosion or rockfall.

England unemployment is high esp. outside the larger metros like London MSA. You think they'd be grateful for the jobs.

"Full Monty"

Ann Althouse said...

I think the job looks great. You get exercise. Your mind is free. No noise. If people find that too empty, their minds are empty.

Think about stuff!

Broomhandle said...

Liz beat me to it. The owners of those mines didn't give a shit if you were buried alive, leader of a team or not.

john said...

You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music.

Henry said...

You have to read the whole thing to get to the gobsmacking punchline. The real problem with these soulless jobs, according to the soulful author, is that they're not guaranteed for life.

The Road to Wigan Pier this isn't.

ALP said...

I nearly swooned when I read about how much these employees walk in a day. As a former cubicle dweller who was practically chained to her desk - being able to walk all day sounds fabulous. IMHO, nature hard wired us to walk several miles a day - I am of the opinion that if we all walked several miles a day, we'd have far fewer overweight people.

Gene said...

The atmosphere is so quiet that workers can be fired for even talking to one another.

Doesn't the writer mean that the atmosphere is so quiet because people can be fired for even talking to one another?

rhhardin said...

Newcastle already had a warehouse.

Doug the Doberman Lover said...

I would love to hear the candid opinions of some of the workers. A member of the chattering classes would find it intolerable not to be able to chatter. Someone more inclined to work rather than talk might not mind it. I think if I needed a job I would be able to shut up and collect my check.

Doug the Doberman Lover said...

I would love to hear the candid opinions of some of the workers. A member of the chattering classes would find it intolerable not to be able to chatter. Someone more inclined to work rather than talk might not mind it. I think if I needed a job I would be able to shut up and collect my check.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Sooo... it's rather like working at a very large closed-stacks library. Lots of walking, lots of shelving, no noise.

I'm with Ann. Sounds great from here.

(As for job security, it's not as though Amazon is exactly shrinking.)

edutcher said...

I worked in a place like that once.

It wasn't underground, but it felt that way sometimes.

Palladian said...

I think the job looks great. You get exercise. Your mind is free. No noise. If people find that too empty, their minds are empty.

You can romanticize it because you don't have to do it.

elkh1 said...

The Chinese don't mind the 15 miles trek each day, that will keep them fit.

The Mexicans would rather pick books than whatever they pick on the fields.

The Polish would rather pick up the books than pick up after fat and lazy ladies and gents of the house.

The workers at Rugeley would rather chip off the coals in coal mines where they could gossip to their heart's content, and rested whenever they wanted, and traveled 15 miles on little rail carts.

Pretty soon, Amazon will replace them with more reliable robots, and everyone will be happy sitting around gossiping and getting welfare checks.

JAL said...

Workers at Rugeley spend their days wandering the massive warehouse

Err. Bit of a quibble here, old chap.

"wandering" ?

The article seems to indicate that these people are not wandering. They are more "driven."

campy said...

You can romanticize it because you don't have to do it.

AFAIK, slavery is illegal in the UK.

bagoh20 said...

The grass is always greener in the other warehouse.

I hope Amazon treats it's people well, because I do love the job they do. I often order things at home at night, and they arrive the next day 12 hours later. Buying things could not be more convenient unless they just read my mind and sent stuff.

Their only real competition is people selling direct from their own supply lines or manufacturing. Even those have no hope of matching the service, product variety, and extras like hundreds of reviews on products.

We voluntarily give them this near monopoly, and I doubt we would sufficiently punish them for treating their employees bad, so I can only hope they are decent about it. I would hate to have to boycott them, because it would hurt me more than them.

Conserve Liberty said...

Quoth the author. It isn't necessarily true just because someone write it. Unless England diffres materially from the US I seriousy doubt these workers are all temporary, eminently replaceable like so many commodity plastic parts.

And even if they are, in this case Amazon UK differs little from McDonalds, US - easy entry, easy exit, advancement for most by finding better employment elsewhere and for a very limited industrious few by internal promotion.

elkh1 said...

"But what the mining industry did offer workers was a job for life" which wasn't too long... or until the mines were closed whichever came first.

"the workers’ motions are not driven by the engine of human judgment or expertise" Apparently they were not hired for their judgment or expertise.

JAL said...

Curious.

I was rhapsodizing to my BIL about how Amazon is my friend and he said they have a high employee satisfaction rate also. (He's a retired large corp VP.)

Couldn't find that info on the net, but that doesn't seem to jibe with this critique of the UK warehouse.

(Sometimes I get my Prime stuff less than 24 hours after I place the order. When my mother was very ill and Christmas was upon us I shopped happily and successfully online. Their returns have been easy. They make my life easier. I know, I know, they are evil. Not like google or yahoo. Cough.)

JAL said...

Amazon replaced those consumer reports reviews. Their "reviewers" talk about producsts and real life things that matter when I am shopping and they look at stuff CR can;t be bothered with.

My go to place for checking out products.

Can the employees wear ear buds and listen to music or books?

Most people realistically don't take a warehouse job thinking "Hey, this is my life forever."

Do they?

ricpic said...

Men Like My Father Cannot Die

The mines were filthy, the mines were dark,
"Twere nothin' good about 'em!"
Then why is it that D.H. Lawrence mourned
The world - so cleansed! - without 'em?

Original Mike said...

There are people, some significant number of people (who always seem to be on the left), who want to be unhappy.

Original Mike said...

"Think about stuff!

Yep.

elkh1 said...

bagoh20 said...
"I hope Amazon treats it's people well ... I often order things at home at night, and they arrive the next day 12 hours later. Buying things could not be more convenient unless they just read my mind and sent stuff."

Well or not, their human robots make it possible for you to enjoy shopping at home. You are the cause they don't pay their human robots more: you want the low price, you want the convenience, you want Amazon to absorb the cost if you return your purchases. Boycott Amazon unless they pay their robots better? Amazon loses money, the centers close, the robots are discarded.

The human robots are at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole. At the bottom, you carry all the weight. Fair? Definitely not. Anyone wants to trade with the workers who live in the worker's paradises?

bagoh20 said...

"Think about stuff!"

Oh no! I keep my thinking strictly to meta stuff. Very affordable, and the packaging is reusable over and over.

AReasonableMan said...

Ann Althouse said...
I think the job looks great. You get exercise. Your mind is free. No noise. If people find that too empty, their minds are empty.


This is pretty out of touch, even for a law professor.

I worked a stockroom one summer, lugging large bolts of cloth around for a clothing manufacturer. I would have gone crazy if I stayed longer and that place was a warren, you could hide when you had had enough.

This looks like the dystopian version of that experience.

viator said...

Amazon, successful and capitalist, make a tempting target. They provide, among other things, unmatched customer service.

John Brownlee, Boston denizen, seems somewhat typical. He relishes the style and goods of contemporary life, but detests the process.

The search for guilt-free high style consumption goes on.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

It doesn’t matter that these jobs are hard. It’s that they have no future.

The majority of jobs, worldwide and in the history of the world, have no future.

SO?

viator said...

Amazon.com
1,882 Employee Reviews

Glassdoor

bagoh20 said...

"Well or not, their human robots make it possible for you to enjoy shopping at home."

I buy, and also my company sells many thousands of dollars through their service. I love the service from both sides, and I'm willing to pay enough for them to do well for their stockholders, AND give their employees decent pay and conditions. I think as longs as they are getting people to take the jobs they are doing enough, but if I were to see them doing too well for the stockholders, while doing poorly for the employees, then I don't feel they have the right to my support of their near monopoly. They may still beat out a competitor because of their cost control, but I have a right to have different priorities, and to support another company that matches them better. As someone with lots of employees, I know that treating employees well is not necessarily inefficient or bad for stock holders. It's usually just a different means to an end - a better means.

elkh1 said...

"Amazon is not investing in the town’s people" Amazon pays the people so they have money to spend on things they want. May be some food for the kiddies? That sounds like investing in the next generation to me. How about the workers don't have to beg for handouts? That sounds an investment in human dignity.

The bellyaching scribe swept in, exploited the workers' discontent for a story then left. What has he done for the workers? It never occurred to the scribe that the tedious jobs are stepping stones for some of the workers. It's not Amazon's fault if the workers are stuck, isn't it?

Michael said...

I worked in warehouses. I worked in an ice cream plant from 2 in the morning til 10:30 in the morning. I drove a delivery truck. These were jobs that had no future whatever that means. No job has a future but all jobs can be done well and with dignity. Good work is sometimes recognized by management that offers different, better, jobs which in themselves have no future. The English in the old mining town are divided, I have read, between pining for the coal mining jobs which had no future and thise happy to have work in the Amazon facility where a future could be found.

Alex said...

I think the job looks great. You get exercise. Your mind is free. No noise. If people find that too empty, their minds are empty.

Think about stuff!


Wow, Ann that is shockingly out of touch, even for a law professor. Talk about the ultimate in ivory tower condescension towards the proles. You do realize these people aren't even allowed to chat with each other, while you blog up a storm all day while purportedly doing your "job".

SOJO said...

With all the comparisons with a cleaner coal mine, why don't they have one in West Virginia?

Still, you really have to work in that kind of atmosphere for a while before you can talk about it being so great or so horrible.

elkh1 said...

"If you started working for the mine at 18, you could be the head of an entire team of miners by the time you were 35."

What happened to the teammates?

"The jobs in the Rugeley fulfillment center are almost always temporary positions" because they are no skill jobs.

One no skill worker is interchangeable with another no skill worker. With other jobs, a worker's experience is valuable to the employer, hence raises. With no skill jobs that require stamina, experience means age means less value to the employer. Why should an employer pay more for a less valueable employee? Part-time jobs means no unions.

I am absolutely sure if the workers can find anything better, they will leave without a backward glance.

Paul Zrimsek said...

This warehouse represents a future of shopping that does to brick-and-mortar retail what it has already done to the coal mine that used to thrive in its place: Bury it without filling the hole it left behind.

This metaphor seems scrambled in several different ways at once. (When you bury something, you're putting it into a hole, not taking it out of something else and leaving a hole behind; all the more confusing when what you're burying is itself a hole and already in the ground.)

Besides, he left out the part where when the associates have to live in shoe box in middle of road.

Rabel said...

Stock boy has never been and never will be a great job.

The article Althouse links is predictably misleading. You can get a better and somewhat brighter idea of the actual situation if you follow the links to the longer Financial Times article.

Generally speaking there's a line between running an efficient, profitable operation and being a greedy scumbag chasing every penny of possible quarterly profit. I don't know exactly where that line is, but it looks to me like Amazon's British warehouse is running just a bit towards the greedy side.

As to how the labor cost of stockers and pickers affects the price we pay for Amazon purchases, I'll wager that that affect is minimal. I'm not calling for doubling the wage and giving six weeks paid vacation, but if the FT article is accurate, Amazon and their third-party labor supplier could lift the boot just a bit. Employee morale matters, even in "robotic" occupations, as does customer perception that the people you are doing business with are decent human beings.

My experience in watching my company move overseas was that executive management would chase the lowest direct labor cost whether it was, in the final analysis, in the company's long term best interests or not. It was like a religious obligation, it didn't have to make sense.

My son works for Amazon, but he's not stocking shelves.

Ann Althouse said...

"Wow, Ann that is shockingly out of touch, even for a law professor. Talk about the ultimate in ivory tower condescension towards the proles. You do realize these people aren't even allowed to chat with each other, while you blog up a storm all day while purportedly doing your "job"."

I would think about stuff and keep track of my thoughts and write my ideas down in my leisure time, at home or on breaks.

I would genuinely enjoy the quiet and the walking and who are you to say I wouldn't?

Levi Starks said...

Ah yes,
But when their eyes meet it speaks volumes.

Alex said...

Ann - did you ever work as a stock-girl in your 20s like these people? If not, you should't pretend to know what is in their heads.

bagoh20 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bagoh20 said...

As someone who has gone from homeless to pretty well off financially, my secret to success is:

1) get a job
2) get a better job
3) repeat step 2 until satisfied

That won't work for all careers, but it works for most. The important thing is what you get at each job beyond the pay. You need to try to learn something every single day, and always be looking for that better job. It may be with your current employer or not, but when you stop looking, you will stop progressing. Not just thinking about it, preparing, looking pursuing.

The most important step of all is the first few jobs. That's why low wage jobs are more valuable to the society than high wage ones. You must have both, but without the low wage ones, you will have too much dependency, crime and unrest, and the society will stagnate at best or go total breakdown.

I always hear people saying we need more high wage jobs, which is true, but you can't fill them with people without work experience, and not everyone is ready for a high wage job. These warehouse jobs are a great start, and good training.

bagoh20 said...

50 years ago this would be considered a pretty cushy gig. Few jobs I ever had were that nice. They usually involve one or more of the following: excessive heat, cold, noise, smoke, dust, bitching, drama, pressure, worry, or hard physical labor. This seems to have none of them. We used to call that a break.

Gene said...

That warehouse is truly a vast space with a ceiling as high as one would find in a Gothic cathedral. I wonder how they heat or cool it. On the other hand, I've never seen a cathedral with a chimney, so I guess they aren't heated either.

rcocean said...

What's funny is that if: (1) this was in the USA and (2) all the Amazon workers were illegals - the writers and most of the Althouse Hillbillies would think the Mexicans workers were getting a great deal.

IOW, replace these Amazonian Englishmen with immigrant Nigerians and suddenly its a "Open borders" success story.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I worked in a warehouse picking books (not Amazon) for a while after college. The work itself was pretty relaxing - after a while, you really knew where things were and could go pretty fast.

The downsides were: 1. This warehouse was mostly sunless basement, so in the winter I didn't see daylight except on weekends. 2. There were rats and cockroaches.

But the work wasn't bad. There wasn't enforced silence, but it was pretty quiet and relaxing. I know people who've worked in the Amazon Warehouse in Indiana, and they say it's a decent job-- it doesn't pay enough for a permanent career, but they're good at promoting from within AND if you're a recent graduate, a few months to a year at Amazon looks better on the resume than "Unemployed."

Basically though, they don't expect people to be 'low level pickers' for life. It's a gateway to other Amazon careers.

rcocean said...

The other point is that these kind of no-skill need to exist because (1) we all can't be Law Professors and (2) entry jobs are good and (3) it gives employment to college students, teenagers, housewives etc.

Assuming I could wear earphones, I would love the exercise and quiet. As a part-time job.

Astro said...

You can also fantasize about how bad a job is, worse than it is. Both my grandfathers had worked in coal mines when they were young. It's a dusty and dangerous job, and can be a sweaty job, but it's mostly a constant temperature underground; no rain, no working under a hot sun or worrying about enough rain or too much rain, or insects or disease - like a sharecropper truck farmer worries about; or likewise all the muck a dairy farmer has to deal with along with the diseases, etc.

I had a summer job in college driving a truck. I agree with Ann. You have time to think about things. I enjoyed the solitude; but I know a lot of people (chatty people) who would hate it.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Hmmm. I wrote a comment, but it's gone missing. All I said was that it sounded very like working in a large closed-stacks library. Lots of walking, lots of shelves, no noise. Yep, I'd do that, in a heartbeat.

rcocean said...

If you've ever done manual labor in the rain or the heat of 90 degree day, nothing else ever seems like work.

AReasonableMan said...

Ann Althouse said...
I would think about stuff and keep track of my thoughts and write my ideas down in my leisure time, at home or on breaks.

I would genuinely enjoy the quiet and the walking and who are you to say I wouldn't?


It is clear that Ann has never worked a job like this. These kinds of jobs are not a lot of fun. You have to keep your wits about you because it is easy to screw up, which largely eliminates the possibility for 'deep thoughts'.

Although I generally agree with some other posters that the worst jobs are outdoors laboring jobs the single worst job I had was indoors cutting the knots out of wood planks with a cross-cut saw. It was both dangerous and repetitive a sure recipe for an eventual injury.

JAL said...

The fantasy is always that low skilled workers should be paid more. Maybe that is so. Not necessarily always.

You are the cause they don't pay their human robots more

????

How much are they paid? So how much should they be paid?

There was / is a school of thought that everyone should get paid the same as everyone else. Right. That will work out well.

I worked in college for below minimum wage (it was legal). I worked often for minimum wage during those days.

My first job involved being "on the job" in ways that didn't fit the clock. Oh well.

No one made me take the job.

Steve Koch said...

While these jobs may not appeal to everyone, my guess is that Althouse knows what she likes and what she does not like. Some people love walking and enjoy not being forced to talk to other people. Different strokes for different folks.

SOJO said...

When I hear this "no one made you take the job" argument I think either these people


A. Grew up in or into a very good economy and cannot see the difference between now and then

B. Had very low self worth

C. Cannot see the larger picture of a closed end system, instead imagining it is still open ended - which it may well be if you are young.


Steve Koch said...

I saw a special on a warehouse where all the getting/putting work was done by robots. Humans were kept out of the way to protect them cuz the robots were a blur, moving very rapidly.

With the cost of robots dropping and their functionality expanding rapidly, the role of humans in warehouses will decline rapidly.

kentuckyliz said...

They can't chat. Boo hoo. Maybe they need to concentrate to not screw up orders.

Ever been in a mine? The machinery is really loud. There is no chatting because you can't hear.

And...desk jobs/sitting will kill you.

So will mining. Pays well but you are trading your health and lifespan.

Ann Althouse said...

"Ann - did you ever work as a stock-girl in your 20s like these people? If not, you should't pretend to know what is in their heads."

I didn't pretend to know what's in their head. I projected how I would feel. I was 27 years old before I started law school, and I worked at various jobs before then that were not as liberating as this would be.

I wanted to be an artist, and I would have appreciated this kind of atmosphere.

David said...

Hasn't collapsed, hasn't caught on fire, no children working there, reasonable hours, solvent employer and (surprise of all) no one is compelled to work there.

Interesting that not a single worker is quoted (or paraphrased.) Consider possible reasons why that is the case.

Alex said...

I didn't pretend to know what's in their head. I projected how I would feel. I was 27 years old before I started law school, and I worked at various jobs before then that were not as liberating as this would be.

I wanted to be an artist, and I would have appreciated this kind of atmosphere.


Think about this work for a moment. The computer is giving them instructions on how to fulfill an order for a customer. A single mistake might cost them their job. They have to be 100% mentally focused on picking the items correctly all he time. They don't have time to engage in "creative thoughts" like you and me. Heck, even I won't pretend to understand what it's like to work on a job like this.

Sam L. said...

I wonder WHY they are forbidden to talk to each other, in passing. Perhaps because that would slow them down on their appointed rounds.

Alex said...

Of course. Considering they are busy fulfilling my latest Amazon 1-click orders, I would not want them doing anything but being the perfect slaves. Work slave, work.

bagoh20 said...

What's the heaviest thing I can order from Amazon?

A solid gold anvil? I bet they have those, and I can have one by tomorrow morning.

Paddy O said...

One of my best summer jobs in college and for a couple years after was as a temporary mailman. Summer and holidays gig. No benefits. Pay was fairly decent compared to other temp or summer jobs. Filled in when regulars were sick or on vacation. Worked most every day. Delivered mail all over the town I lived in. Some routes were all walking, about 6-8 miles a day. Some were a lot of driving, but that often meant constant movement.

Had my own route for most of one summer. Got in at 6, organized the mail, the route was 2/3 walking and the rest driving. Got to know it well. Spent the summer outside, got a great tan, never got sick (exercise and sweating in hot temps). Great for the body and the brain.

But, it wasn't like your mind could wander. Everything required a bit of thought to keep it organized. And the repetition became quite tedious after a while. Never ending, starting over the next day, no progress.

Paddy O said...

"What's the heaviest thing I can order from Amazon?"

I got a refrigerator a couple years ago.

doustoi said...

Man, I HATE IT when a job requires you to do stuff that you would rather not be doing. It's like the employer wants to constantly reinforce the idea that it is a "job", and not "whatever the hell you feel like doing".

Emmster said...

I worked for a printer in high school when school was out. It was the most boring job ever. I spent my day counting how many seconds were left. As soon as I'd done the math in my head, I would start over.
What did this teach me? Partially that I never wanted to do this again and that I should work hard in school and then in college. On the other hand, I never said no to working there. I loved the money I was making and I got to buy my first computer that way (this was in the early 1990s).
I would bet that most of the people who work at this Amazon fulfillment center have a limited education and probably can't get many other jobs. They get paid for it and are working in a clean environment. I don't see the problem.

Kirk Parker said...

"I would bet that most of the people who work at this Amazon fulfillment center have a limited education and probably can't get many other jobs. "

Yeah, I keep reading all these "where are all the low-end non-intellectually-demanding lower-part-of-the-bell-curve jobs?" laments, and then--often in the exact same media outlet--you get the "how terrible to be a Walmart greeter or an Amazon picker" lament.