The online giant is creating thousands of UK jobs, so why are some employees less than happy?
Between a sooty power station and a brown canal on the edge of a small English town, there is a building that seems as if it should be somewhere else. An enormous long blue box, it looks like a smear of summer sky on the damp industrial landscape.
Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle – the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today. It is almost Christmas and the people working in this building, together with those in seven others like it across the country, are dispatching a truck filled with parcels every three minutes or so. Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything. They also walk past a life-sized cardboard image of a cheery blonde woman in an orange vest. “This is the best job I have ever had!” says a speech bubble near her head.
If you could slice the world in half right here, you could read the history of this town called Rugeley in the layers. Below the ground are the shafts and tunnels of the coal mine that fed the power station and was once the local economy’s beating heart. Above the ground are the trolleys and computers of Amazon, the global online retailer that has taken its place.
As online shopping explodes in Britain, helping to push traditional retailers such as HMV out of business, more and more jobs are moving from high-street shops into warehouses like this one. Under pressure from politicians and the public over its tax arrangements, Amazon has tried to stress how many jobs it is creating across the country at a time of economic malaise. The undisputed behemoth of the online retail world has invested more than £1bn in its UK operations and announced last year that it would open another three warehouses over the next two years and create 2,000 more permanent jobs. Amazon even had a quote from David Cameron, the prime minister, in its September press release. “This is great news, not only for those individuals who will find work, but for the UK economy,” he said.
People in Rugeley, Staffordshire, felt exactly the same way in the summer of 2011 when they heard Amazon was going to occupy the empty blue warehouse on the site of the old coal mine. It seemed like this was the town’s chance to reinvent itself after decades of economic decline. But as they have had a taste of its “jobs of the future”, their excitement has died down. Most people are still glad Amazon has come, believing that any sort of work is better than no work at all, but many have been taken aback by the conditions and bitterly disappointed by the insecurity of much of the employment on offer.
If anyone should still be a cheerleader for Amazon, which has created hundreds of jobs in the past 18 months in a community that sorely needs them, it is Glenn Watson, manager of economic development at the district council. But he is dismayed. “They’re not seen as a good employer. It’s not helpful to our economy; it’s not helpful to the individuals,” he says. Britain’s economic transformation is playing out in miniature in this smoky little town. It hasn’t been a smooth ride.