The Amazon Effect
Ben Roberts first visited Amazon’s BHX1 fulfilment centre in 2011, shortly after it became one of the company’s first major outposts in the UK. The gigantic blue warehouse, on the site of an old coal mine on the outskirts of Rugeley in south Staffordshire, had sat empty before the American retail giant transformed it into a centre capable of sending out 600,000 parcels a day. At the time the opening was heralded as a pivotal moment for the town. Rugeley had struggled with unemployment since its biggest employer, Lea Hall Colliery – which provided work for up to 2,100 people – had closed in 1991, and the arrival of the world’s biggest retailer promised an abundance of new jobs and opportunities for the former mining town. Ten years later Roberts returned to see whether the promise had been fulfilled. “The hope within the community was that Amazon would come in and provide the kind of stable jobs and prosperity for the town that the pits and the power station used to,” says Roberts. “It soon became obvious that that wasn’t going to be the case.”
A picker’s job in Rugeley in 2011 was a manual affair, and remains so today. “In the foreground [of the 2011 shot on page 15] you can see rows of trolleys,” says Roberts. “Workers push these through the centre, guided by GPS machines that tell them where to go and what to pick from the shelves. An average day involves walking between seven and 15 miles.” But while pickers still go the distance, the centre is embracing new technology. “The biggest change was how much more automated the centre has become,” says Roberts. “The transportation of goods around the warehouse, the packing, the labelling and the dispatch processes were all automated.”
Despite this, Amazon still considers Rugeley a manual warehouse; the company’s newer fulfilment centres, such as its LCY3 site (all centres are named after the code of their nearest airport) in Dartford, Kent, have deployed robots to boost productivity. These mechanical workmates bring shelves to the pickers, who instead of traipsing around to collect roughly 100 items per hour can process more than 300 items in the same time from a stationary position.
While there are no robots assisting the pickers at Rugeley – they can only be introduced into specially-built centres, rather than into existing structures like BHX1 – the warehouse is not without its own futuristic technology. Roberts remembers inadvertently setting off a warning alarm in November 2021 after breaking the company’s strict Covid social distancing rules when he strayed too close to Financial Times journalist Sarah O’Connor, who accompanied him on both visits. “A ceiling mounted monitor displayed CCTV footage of the two of us, with red circles around each of us showing how far apart we needed to be,” he says. “As we moved apart, with the monitor showing our progress in real time, the circles turned green and the alarm stopped. One thing was the same in both 2011 and 2021. There were cameras everywhere.”
It’s absolutely fantastic news for Rugeley,” said then-local MP Aidan Burley when BHX1 opened in 2011. “People are crying out to get back into work.” Yet Roberts says many people were doubtful whether Amazon would replace the mine and power station as a stable employer for the community. “In 2011 I met a lot of older union guys in a social club for former miners,” he says. “They were very sceptical about the warehouse and the work involved. It was interesting to talk to them about how they’d come to the area from different parts of the country. They had hoped that there would be a generational passing of the baton, that their children would have stable jobs and not need to move, but that dream had crumbled.”
Today BHX1 employs around 1,100 people, of which Roberts estimates a few hundred are from Rugeley itself, with the others bussed in from nearby cities and towns. The majority work ten hour shifts, with four days on and three days off. Roberts met a number of people for whom the work was just too much. “There’s definitely burnout,” he says. “I met one guy in the community centre who spoke about how beaten down he was by the work, the sheer amount of ground he had to cover and how that affected his life.”
For those that don’t want to continue, Amazon has offered a novel way out. “For a number of years, they have had what’s called ‘the offer’, where after the peak period [around Christmas] workers could take a lump sum to quit on the condition they will never be allowed to work for Amazon again,” says the photographer. The total of ‘the offer’ would vary depending on tenure, but could run into the thousands of pounds. “It feels like madness to me, because there’s only a finite number of people in a country who could do this work,” says Roberts. “Some have speculated it was a way of stopping workers getting settled, organised and joining unions.” With Brexit prompting widespread labour shortages, it seems that ‘the offer’ might become a thing of the past – it was not made available to workers in 2021.
One of the rare veterans among Amazon’s revolving roster of staff is Avril John, who has been at BHX1 since it opened. “Avril was very happy at Amazon and she told me how much she enjoys the work and the mix of people she works with,” says Roberts, although he does note that “the few workers I was allowed to photograph on both trips were handpicked by the company”.
One of the most striking things Roberts observed in Rugeley on both occasions was how separate Amazon felt from the community, with the company’s centre existing “almost within a vacuum”. “Most of the staff are bussed in and out and there’s no need to go into the town at all,” says Roberts. “It’s not like they come off their shift and go into Rugeley and buy a snack or a meal.” Even the fast-food restaurants on the warehouse’s doorstep didn’t seem to be benefiting from its proximity to 1,000-plus Amazon workers. “We thought the McDonald’s would be a good place to talk to employees, but very few came in,” says Roberts. “Those that did had no time to talk to us. They get half an hour’s break, ten minutes of which, they said, is spent getting through Amazon’s security, then ten minutes to [walk to and from] the McDonald’s. It leaves ten minutes to get and eat your food. Most people opted to eat in Amazon’s cafeteria instead.”
That’s not to say that the area around the warehouse is desolate. “The industrial estate close to the Amazon centre was buzzing,” says Roberts. “There is a new development where the power station [which was decommissioned in 1995 and demolished in 2021] used to be – they are putting in around 2,000 new homes, a new school and some commercial property. It’s by no means all doom and gloom.”
The same cannot be said for the centre of Rugeley itself, which like others in the country has found it tough to compete in the age of online retail. “The shopping area was dead,” says Roberts. “There were a few people around, a lot of boarded-up shops. It felt like a complete contrast [to the industrial area where Amazon is based].”
Roberts also noticed a big change within the town’s food bank. “It felt like it had magnified tenfold in terms of the number of people working there, the stock and, from what they told me, the number of people coming through the door on a daily basis,” he says. “In 2011 people were just sitting around, waiting for someone to arrive. There was a small storage unit at the back, but it didn’t feel like it was used often,” says Roberts. “By 2021 the food bank had moved to a new, bigger, space. I went into three different big storerooms, just full of food. All the volunteers were working really hard. It’s almost like food banks have become accepted as part of the social fabric. Nobody seemed to be questioning why they were needed – they just were.”
On 1st April 2022, workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse JFK8 voted to form the first union to be recognised by the firm in the US. It was not an easy undertaking. According to the company’s own filings, in 2021 Amazon spent approximately $4.3m (£3.3m) on consultants to try to discourage unions forming within its centres. Amazon continues to contest the result and has filed 25 objections to the election, including claims that the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the vote, was biased and that union leaders bribed, threatened and harassed workers who did not support the union. In the months following the vote several employees with links to the union organising committee were fired. No UK Amazon warehouses are currently unionised, but Roberts says there are some attempts for Rugeley to follow JFK8 and organise a recognised union. “There’s a guy who’s trying to gather people together,” says the photographer. “It sounds like it’s a battle. When you look at what the organisers in New York had to go through to get that union off the ground, it was incredible. I wonder whether there would be the will to get it done here.”
In August 2022 it was reported that more than 100 Amazon workers in Rugeley had walked out over a pay rise offer of 50p an hour. There were also walkouts at other centres in Essex, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Amazon has defended its terms of employment, saying “employees are offered a comprehensive benefits package that includes private medical insurance, life assurance, income protection, subsidised meals and an employee discount among others, which combined are worth thousands annually, as well as a company pension plan.” Despite the questions over its attitude to unionisation, there are worries about what would happen if Amazon were to move operations out of Rugeley. “If Amazon were to leave, it would definitely affect the local economy,” says Roberts. “It still employs hundreds of people.”
The warehouse’s original lease is due to expire in 2026. Should it move the work carried out at Rugeley to one of the newer, automated centres then a major employer in the town could again disappear. Could the Amazon packers of Rugeley undergo the same fate as the town’s miners did 30 years ago? “The artist Jeremy Deller did a touring exhibition which used some of my images,” says Roberts. “In it he spoke about how these warehouses and fulfilment centres are the coal faces or steel works of our generation. They are these vast spaces that need people, but these people are ultimately disposable.”
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