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Employees in Amazon’s UK distribution centres have developed physical and mental illnesses because of their punishing work arrangements, the GMB trade union has claimed

The American giant had a “chew them up and spit them out” attitude to its distribution centre staff in the UK, the union told The Times newspaper. The claims came after The New York Times published an exposé last weekend detailing the apparently gruelling working conditions at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle.

Employees at the online retailer’s distribution centres across the UK were under pressure to be an “above-average Amazon robot”, the GMB’s lead officer for Amazon, Elly Baker, told the Times.

More than 7,000 staff work at Amazon’s UK distribution centres in Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keynes, Swansea, Peterborough, Rugeley near Stafford, Doncaster, Dunfermline and Gourock in Inverclyde.

Baker’s comments follow a New York Times article that alleged employee cruelty at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle, including gruelling working conditions and harsh treatment of staff suffering personal crises, such as cancer and miscarriages.

In a rare communication to staff, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, defended the company after the investigation was published.

Amazon workers ‘robots’

Baker said: “It’s hard, physical work, but the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh. You can’t be a normal person. You have to be an above-average Amazon robot all the time.”

Baker said some employees were suffering from musculoskeletal problems, work-related stress and anxiety. “We’re seeing this specifically because of the regimes they work under.”

More than 100 former and current Amazon employees were interviewed for the New York Times’ 5,400-word exposé, describing working conditions devoid of empathy and which push staff to their limits in the name of productivity and efficiency.

The article – reported earlier on engageemployee.com –  illustrated the alleged poor welfare with anecdotes from employees. One woman with breast cancer was allegedly put on a “performance improvement plan”, while another was sent on a business trip the day after having a miscarriage. A staff member with thyroid cancer was also allegedly marked with a low performance score on returning to work and told that Amazon was more productive without her.

Employees’ working and personal lives were tracked and quantified, with their movements, productivity and successes or failures being constantly measured, while managers were forced to rate their employees and fire their lowest-scoring workers, according to the article.

Misuse of Amazon employee feedback tool

Instant replies to emails were expected, even if sent in the middle of the night or the weekends, and employees were apparently encouraged to secretly funnel their back-stabbing or praise through Amazon’s “Anytime Feedback Tool”.

The interviews described Amazon’s atmosphere as one that saw employees actively competing against each other, where the fully committed who were prepared to make sacrifices to get ahead thrived, while others were stamped on.

In his message to staff, Bezos, who is worth $49.5bn, said: “The [New York Times] article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR.”

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