Amazon warehouse agency workers being treated 'as a commodity' says GMB union amid claims of zero hours contracts

Business is booming for online retail giant Amazon after the pandemic saw demand soar and its UK sales hit £19.3bn last year.

Friday, 19th February 2021, 3:32 pm

It has taken on thousands of agency workers to handle the growing number of orders processed at its network of warehouses, including a vast £60m complex at the Logic Leeds Distribution Park in east Leeds.

But The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered evidence that agency workers used by Amazon have been left in the lurch with zero-hours contracts and no guarantee of pay for 20 hours' work a week – both of which are in breach of the company's stated policies.

It found many Amazon warehouse workers struggling to pay bills due to shifts cancelled at the last minute and hundreds of pounds in wages left unpaid, prompting criticism that it is treating employees "as a commodity" in areas where it has become one of the only jobs in town.

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Amazon has a vast £60m complex at the Logic Leeds Distribution Park in east Leeds. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Posting on jobs website Indeed in October, one agency worker said they were working as a warehouse assistant at an Amazon site in Leeds after being initially told by PMP Recruitment that they would get a minimum of 40 hours per week.

"This was true the first week, but every week since then hours have dropped and I have had to speak to someone to get more, to which they then inform you after starting work [it] is actually a zero hour contract," they said.

"The work itself is fine, as you would expect in a warehouse, it's just a shame as a 'full time' employee you have to fight every week to get part time hours... even though every other day they hire new staff.

"Shifts change four or five times a week with no notice and at random, but they know in the current situation that people just need work so [they] can get away with it."

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 time. Every single ad was posted by two agencies hired by Amazon – Adecco and PMP.

Between October 4 and December 19, there were 107 warehouse job ads posted in Leeds. Of these, 37 ads - or 35 per cent - were PMP listings on behalf of Amazon.

Each of the ads offered full-time, temporary work at the Logic Leeds site off Pontefract Lane or other sites in Halton and Belle Isle.

The Bureau heard from 16 agency workers across the country and analysed the online reviews and comments of nearly 200 others. Workers said that they received fewer shifts than indicated and were left with too few hours to make the job viable.

An Amazon spokesperson said: “Our agency terms are explicit that Amazon does not engage individuals on zero hour contracts."

Yet the thousands of Amazon warehouse jobs advertised through Adecco are exactly that and those employed via PMP on are on 'minimum-hours contracts' that do not guarantee weekly or monthly hours - something the agency denies.

Those contracts offer a certain number of hours per year, but no guarantee of employment for a full year. They do not include the length of the employment term, nor do they mention Amazon.

Mick Rix, a national officer with the GMB union, said: "Temporary agency work can be one of the worst forms of exploitative employment methods. Where this is used in other sectors the agency workers have some idea on how long they will be working on a particular job, and in fact that it may lead to the offer of permanent employment.

"Amazon basically fires the vast majority of its agency labour it takes on prior to seasonal peak, and does so without notice. We have heard a number of horror stories about how workers will receive a text informing them to leave the site, and that there are pay issues. It is unfair, it is exploitative and it demonstrates that Amazon treats workers as a commodity.”

Professor Chris Forde, at the University of Leeds, researches work and employment practices. He found there are regularly two to five times the number of workers on an agency’s books, compared to those actually on work placements.

He explained this oversupply as “an essential part of the temp agency business”, allowing agencies flexibility and a constant supply of potential workers.

Prof Forde said that system removes a lot of power from the agency worker themselves, adding: "The threat of being replaced can be a very powerful mechanism of control."

The issue of 'one-sided flexibility' was explored in 2018 by the Low Pay Commission, which found misuse of flexible working arrangements by some employers had created unpredictability and insecurity of income that made workers more reluctant to assert their basic employment rights.

Bryan Sanderson, who chairs the Commission, said: "We made several recommendations, including that workers have the right to reasonable notice of their shifts, receive compensation when shifts are cancelled at short notice and have the right to a contract which reflects their normal working hours. We continue to stand by our recommendations and await legislation from the Government to bring these new rights into force."

Amazon said that it had created 10,000 new permanent roles across the UK during 2020, bringing its total workforce to 40,000 people. It also created a further 20,000 seasonal positions for the festive period at sites across the country.

"Our agency terms are explicit that Amazon does not engage individuals on zero hour contracts," it said. "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. We thank them for their hard work and dedication and encourage them to stay in contact for future opportunities."

Writing on the Glassdoor website earlier this month, one agency worker said they had been employed full-time via PMP as a warehouse associate in Leeds.

While they said the agency had been quick to respond to queries, they listed the cons as "hit and miss" hours and short-term employment. Another worker noted the nice working environment but again warned about "non constant shift patterns".

Others had posted reviews on Google in the past four months complaining of poor communication by the agency and short notice around start dates.

David Hinks said he had not started work at a warehouse in the end as the agency had "called on Sunday night to do a 11 hour shift at Amazon Leeds with no training" and he had been clear from the start that he would be relying on public transport.

Another potential starter, Richie Karzy, wrote that he had been offered a job two weeks earlier and given a start date, but was yet to have his induction confirmed despite 10 emails to the agency.

Sandra Garbutt said it was hard to avoid dealing with PMP if you wanted to work for Amazon in Leeds, adding: "Amazon - if you are reading this all the money spent on advertising what a good employer you are is wasted if you continue to use PMP for recruitment. They are harming your brand."

In a statement, PMP said it had supported more than 103,000 temporary workers into jobs over the last 12 months across all its clients.

It said: "Temporary recruitment agencies such as PMP exist to support the flexible labour requirements of customers. As a result, we are unable to offer our workforce full time guaranteed hour contracts but we do, on a regular basis, offer 40 hour weeks or hours to suit personal circumstances. Many of our agency staff do progress into permanent roles with us or our customers."

On the contracts for Amazon workers, it 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."

An Adecco spokesperson said: "Adecco offers its employees a range of work opportunities from up to 40 hours per week, part time or flexible shifts. We are in regular communication with all our associates to ensure they have a clear understanding of their work assignments."

Responding to the investigation's findings, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: "Amazon workers have played a key role during this pandemic. But many are treated like disposable labour while the company registers enormous profits off the back of their hard work. That’s not right.

"Ministers must bring forward the long-awaited employment bill to boost pay and conditions and end exploitative working practices like zero-hours contracts.

"And the Employment Agency Standards regulator must be properly funded so that bad employers can’t get away with flagrantly breaking the law and not paying staff correctly."

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said that while the Government is keen to ensure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of flexible working, it was determined to tackle unfair work practices.

A spokesperson said: "Extensive legislation is in place to protect agency workers which is enforced by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, including requirements around adverts for temporary vacancies, pay rates, location of work, nature of work and necessary experience or qualifications."

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