Is Amazon U.K. a Modern-Day Sweatshop?

Have you seen the new claims against Amazon’s U.K. division? A report by the U.K.’s Sunday Times claims the company’s shipping center is little more than a sweatshop, forcing employees to work in extreme conditions with unrealistic expectations.

The Sunday Times sent a reporter undercover to pose as a worker as Amazon U.K.’s Bedfordshire warehouse. The highlights of her reported observations:

  • All staff members are required to work seven days a week during the holiday season.
  • They are punished for taking sick days, even with a doctor’s note. Six sick days results in termination.
  • Employees have to work a 10.5 hour overnight shift every Saturday night into Sunday morning, combined with a full Monday to Friday schedule.
  • Workers have strict and seemingly impossible quotas for how much packing they have to get done each hour. One reported target was packing 140 Xbox consoles in 60 minutes.
  • Each shift can involve as much as 14 miles of walking to accomplish the necessary tasks.
  • Staff members get only two breaks — one for 15 minutes, and another for 20 — and have to ask permission to use the restroom.
  • Pay is just barely over the U.K.’s minimum wage, at £6.30 (about US$9.62) per hour.
  • The reporter says one supervisor indicated overtime was “mandatory.” Still, the Times notes that all these claims would not mean any laws were being broken.

    A response from an Amazon U.K. spokesperson doesn’t say much to explain or defend any of the claims. The statement consists primarily of carefully worded, PR-oriented talk. The one relevant section notes that the short break times were a choice of the workers themselves:

    “We want our associates to enjoy working at Amazon.co.uk and the interests of all workers are represented by a democratically elected employee forum who meets regularly with senior management. This forum was consulted before the workforce elected to reduce breaks to 15 and 20 minutes on an eight hour shift in order to cut the total working day by half an hour.”

    Could things be as extreme as they seem? Amazon U.K. certainly didn’t deny any of it. The U.S.-based wing of the company, however, suggested some of the observations may have been off, pointing to the suggested seven-day-a-week schedule as an example.

    “Don’t believe everything you read!” an Amazon spokesperson tells the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

    “There were many inaccuracies in the U.K. article,” she continues. “Case in point: We don’t allow FC (fulfillment center) associates to work more than 6 days a week in any location — they must have at least 1 day off.”

    He said, she said. Could the reporter’s claims be accurate — and, if so, do they present a problem? The final judgment is up to you.