How Amazon became a pandemic giant – and why that could be a threat to us all

Online retail grew massively in lockdown, and Amazon reaped huge profits. But where is the company’s relentless innovation and automation heading – and is it time to clip its wings?

For the last year, Anna (not her real name) has been working as an Amazon “associate”, in the kind of vast warehouse the company calls a fulfilment centre. For £10.50 an hour, she works four days a week, though, during busy periods, this sometimes goes up to five. Her shift begins at 7.15am and ends at 5.45pm. “When I get home,” she says, “it’s about 6.30. And I just go in, take a shower and go to bed. I’m always exhausted.”

Anna is a picker in one of the company’s most technologically advanced workplaces, in the south of England. This means she works in a metal enclosure in front of a screen that flashes up images of the products she has to put in the “totes” destined for the part of the warehouse where customer orders are made ready for posting out. Everything from DVDs to gardening equipment is brought to her by robot “drives”: squat, droid-like devices that endlessly lift “pods” – tall fabric towers full of pockets that contain everything from DVDs to toys – and then speed them to the pickers.

Everything has to happen quickly. According to the all-important metric by which a picker’s performance is measured, Anna says she has to average 360 items an hour, or around 3,800 a day. This translates as one item every 6.7 seconds.

In March, the Covid-19 lockdown meant that customer orders suddenly rocketed. Anna says that lots of her colleagues started putting in overtime, and new recruits arrived en masse. “They hired a lot of people,” she says. “I thought there should have been fewer people in the warehouse, to have distancing.” Suddenly, there wasn’t enough space in the canteen. “They took out some of the tables because of 2-metre distancing, but it was impossible to find a free table or chair. You had to stand.”

Only in April did masks become mandatory. “The first month,” she says, “I was asking for antibacterial gel, for wipes … basic things.” Anna says she still has an issue with how regularly masks can be changed. “You can only get one when you’re starting your shift. That’s a problem. You know the basic blue mask? It should be changed, I don’t know, every few hours. But people have to work with the same one the whole day.”

When summer arrived, the warehouse became unbearably hot. “There were problems with the air-con. Maintenance people checked the temperature, and it was more than 30C [85F]. I said: ‘You’re expecting me to do my rate, but in this situation, when we cannot breathe because we have masks on our faces, it’s very hard.’ They fixed it for one or two days, and then it was the same. There was a constant problem with the air-con. For the whole summer.”

The core of the warehouse is essentially a giant supermarket, where pickers assemble orders in trolleys. Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Guardian
The core of the warehouse is essentially a giant supermarket, where pickers assemble orders in trolleys. Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Guardian

In response to the pandemic, Amazon increased workers’ pay by £2 an hour, but this rise was withdrawn in June. Anna says some staff are now employed to monitor distancing in the warehouse, and ensure that nowhere becomes overcrowded. She says there have been unconfirmed rumours of at least one case of the virus there. “I think lots of people worry about Covid-19,” she says. “But people are afraid to lose their jobs.”

Before the Covid-19 crisis, Amazon was already a vast presence in the economy and its customers’ lives, but now its reach and sheer size is almost beyond comprehension. At the end of July, the company announced that it had doubled its quarterly profits to $5.2bn (£3.95bn), compared with $2.6bn at the same point in 2019. Net sales had risen by 40%. “This was another highly unusual quarter, and I couldn’t be more proud of and grateful to our employees around the globe,” said Jeff Bezos, the man who founded Amazon in Seattle, owns 11% of its shares, and recently became the first person whose net worth was reckoned to exceed $200bn.

A few weeks ago, Amazon announced results from the following quarter, and yet another boost to sales and profits. Now Christmas looms, while lockdowns have returned across the world, sending even more customers its way. Every time “nonessential” bricks-and-mortar shops are told to close, you can sense the company once again seizing its chances, and a great social and economic transformation gaining pace. Amazon’s rise highlights big questions about where the world is heading, and what this means for the future of work. As well as making jobs more physically punishing, could Amazon eliminate the need for human labour altogether? And as this 21st-century giant grows, how are people challenging its power, and trying to come up with alternatives?

In Newark, New Jersey, 30-year-old Courtenay Brown works the night shift as a supervisor at a warehouse dedicated to Amazon Fresh, the food delivery service whose popularity has hugely increased since the pandemic began (in the UK, it has long been available in London and the home counties, but there are now plans to serve cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh). Her official shift runs from 6pm to 5.30am, for a rate of $17.30 an hour, and she says she has never worked so hard: “I never used to come in as early, or leave as late. It’s so tiring – thinking about it makes me want to cry.” Most of the orders she oversees go to New York City, and demand is constantly increasing. “Every week, sometimes every day, we’re breaking records,” she says. “Everyone has come to the realisation now that we’ve actually outgrown the warehouse.

“We haven’t stopped hiring since the pandemic started,” she tells me. She acknowledges that availability of masks and sanitiser markedly improved after the first couple of months of the pandemic. But, like Anna, she talks about how she feels the rooms used for meals and breaks are inadequate: some workers, she says, have had no option but to spend downtime in their cars.

Courtenay Brown … ‘It’s so tiring – thinking about it makes me want to cry.’ Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP
Courtenay Brown … ‘It’s so tiring – thinking about it makes me want to cry.’ Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

The core of her warehouse is essentially a giant supermarket, where pickers assemble orders in trolleys, and the area set aside for refrigerated goods, she says, is “constantly crowded”. Some workers are designated “SD ambassadors”, who are meant to enforce social distancing, but she says that over time they have become a lot less visible. Meanwhile, after an apparent drop in cases of the virus at the warehouse, the numbers seem to be creeping back up: “We’re back at the point where every couple of days now we’re getting text messages about confirmed cases.”

Via an emailed set of responses from the company, Amazon insists that since the earliest days of the pandemic it has “prioritised the safety and health of its employees”, and spent “over $800m on safety measures in the first half of the year alone, including personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning, staggered and flexible shifts, revisions at workstations and developing in-house Covid-19 testing capabilities.” In the UK, the company says, “associates” have been provided with 53m masks, 2.6m litres of sanitiser, 66m pairs of gloves and 244m wipes.

Workers’ performance “is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour”. The company says it has “invested millions in air-conditioning across our fulfilment network”, and that jobs at Amazon “come with industry-leading pay and competitive benefits” – including, in the UK, “a minimum wage of £9.70 an hour (or £10.80 depending on location), and comprehensive benefits including health insurance from day one and company-funded upskilling opportunities.”

A fortnight or so before I began exploring Amazon’s passage into the Covid-19 era, I bowed to the inevitable, went on Amazon, and bought a book about the company, simply titled Amazon, subtitled How the World’s Most Relentless Retailer Will Continue to Revolutionize Commerce, and written by the retail analysts Natalie Berg and Miya Knights.

“Amazon sells everything from nappies to treadmills, but it also produces hit television shows and provides cloud computing services to the US government,” Berg and Knights write. “Amazon wants to be a supermarket, a bank, a healthcare provider and, by the time you’re reading this, it will probably be on the cusp of disrupting at least one more industry.”

As Berg reminds me over the phone from her home in London, it is hard to keep up with Amazon’s endless innovations and its ever-expanding reach. She says that before the pandemic, she had expected the company’s sheer dominance to sooner or later result in “peak Amazon” and some kind of backlash. But, for now, confinement in our homes and endless hours left empty by the demise of socialising has only increased Amazon’s ubiquity, not least when it comes to things – the Echo unit, Amazon’s entry into TV, and its home-security devices – that push the company way beyond simply selling and delivering stuff.

“For the past decade, most retailers were busy investing in catching up online,” she says. “But Amazon was quietly embedding itself in people’s homes. So when Covid hit, they had this unique opportunity to capture these customers.”

“You’ll never get a major retailer boasting about opportunity in the middle of a pandemic,” she goes on. “But it’s clear that the timing and very nature of Covid has been fortunate for Amazon. I think they’ll be the only retailer in the UK, possibly the world, to come out stronger on the other side. If there are winners and losers of the pandemic, Amazon is hands-down the winner.”

Only about a minute of human labour is now reckoned to go into the average Amazon parcel. As a result, as people’s spending moves from physical shops to the internet, the amount of work and person-to-person contact involved in shopping dwindlesAmazon recently announced plans to recruit 8,000 more workers in the UK; meanwhile, in the first eight months of 2020, 125,000 jobs were lost in UK retail. As evidenced by recent announcements about redundancies at Argos, John Lewis and the Edinburgh Woollen Mill chain, the disruption and pain on the high street are only going to continue.

Carl Benedikt Frey is an Oxford academic whose book The Technology Trap is a superb guide to 21st-century automation and its disruptive effects. His work is smattered with mentions of Amazon: its trials of delivery drones, the Amazon Go stores in which there are no checkouts. He tells me that an overlooked driver of automation is the hardship that the pandemic has let loose and people’s resulting demand for cheaper goods.

“We saw something similar during the Great Recession [ie, the aftermath of the 2008 crash], where consumers became cash-strapped and opted for cheaper goods and services, which are usually produced using more automation technology,” he says. “Think about when you go to McDonald’s, which uses more labour-saving technology – touch-screen ordering, and so on – rather than go to a restaurant. If everybody switches, that increases the level of automation in the economy. And what we’re seeing with Amazon now is basically the same, but on a much larger scale. And it’s not just driven by the fact that Amazon is cheaper – there’s also the fact that so many high-street shops have closed down. So Amazon is, for a lot of people, becoming the only option.”

Even within Amazon, automation is rapidly reshaping the world of work. In some fulfilment centres, pickers still do things the old-fashioned way, and walk around, taking items from different shelves. At state-of-the-art Amazon warehouses, such as the one in which Anna works, they remain stationary, while robots bring them the goods.

Watching them closeup – as I have, at a vast fulfilment centre near Manchester airport – you get the sense that these workers may be mere placeholders for the next generation of robots, and that the fast, monotonous way they work is more about readying tasks for automation than being suited to the skills and needs of human beings. This issue is a lot less abstract than it may sound. Some reports have highlighted back injuries. A recent article published by the US organisation the Center for Investigative Reporting claimed that an “injury crisis” at Amazon warehouses was especially pronounced at “robotic facilities”.

The same piece quoted a US physician who had inspected Amazon workplaces for the US government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration: “If you’ve got robots that are moving product faster and workers have to then lift or move those products faster, there’ll be increased injuries.” (Amazon says that “we continue to set productivity targets objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce”, and that the company supports people “who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve”.)

The sense that Amazon’s endgame may be a fully automated workplace is evidenced by the company’s annual competition for the designers of robotic hands. “More dextrous robot-hands and artificial intelligence potentially allows for the automation of order-picking, which is employing a lot of people in warehouses,” says Frey. In a post-pandemic world, such innovations offer another benefit: robots can’t catch Covid-19.

If this is the future of employment – and unemployment – it is no surprise that amid the disorientation and fear sown by the pandemic, Amazon’s fulfilment centres have become the focus of rising dissent and protest.

‘I don’t think Amazon is uniquely evil or really the problem – I think the whole structure of the economy is the problem.’ Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Guardian
‘I don’t think Amazon is uniquely evil or really the problem – I think the whole structure of the economy is the problem.’ Illustration: Steven Gregor/The Guardian

Until the end of April 2020, Tim Bray, 65, who now lives in Vancouver, worked for Amazon in a completely different world from that of its packers and pickers: Amazon Web Services (AWS), the hugely successful wing of the company that provides cloud computing not just to the company’s other divisions but to a great many public- and private-sector organisations. (The Guardian uses AWS for many of its cloud-computing operations.) Bray was a company vice-president. These days, he is what the New York Times calls “Amazon’s highest-profile defector”.

As he explains when we speak on Google Meet, Bray is a passionate environmentalist, and in 2019, his was the highest-profile name among more than 8,000 Amazon employees who signed a letter imploring the company to do more to address the climate crisis. When the initiative, under the banner of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, went public, Bray had “a long talk” with a member of the company’s “S team”, the 26-strong group of executives who sit at the very top of the organisation. “It ended on a certain amount of agree-to-disagree,” he tells me.

In September 2019, Amazon launched its “Climate Pledge”, promising to become zero-carbon across its operations by 2040, and encouraging other companies to follow suit. “I was really pleased by that,” Bray tells me, though he says he hasn’t noticed much concrete progress on that front. (Amazon counters that it “remains steadfast in our focus on meeting the Climate Pledge”, and has invested in everything from electric cars to renewable projects.)

Five months later, with the arrival of the pandemic, some of the people involved in the Climate Justice group started to focus their attention on the issue of safety in fulfilment centres. They circulated a petition calling on the company to expand sick leave and childcare for warehouse staff, and to have a temporary shut down of facilities where workers were confirmed to have the virus so that working environments could be sterilised.

Towards the end of March, workers at a warehouse in New York had raised the alarm over a lack of protective equipment, the imposition of overtime, and concern about colleagues falling ill. An employee called Chris Smalls, whose work involved supervising pickers, led a walkout, and was subsequently fired – having, the company said, “received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines”. By this time, safety concerns had been reported in the media, and an online meeting was held at which warehouse workers spoke at length to people from the company’s tech divisions, and heard from the author and activist Naomi Klein.

In mid-April, two employees from Amazon’s tech division who had been involved in setting up the meeting were then dismissed for “repeatedly violating” company rules (the company says that “we support every employee’s right to criticise their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies”). This was the issue that triggered Bray’s resignation, which attracted attention across the world. “A grumpy, old, well-off white guy rage-quit,” he marvels, “and I got thousands and thousands and thousands of responses.”

Tim Bray … accused Amazon of having a ‘vein of toxicity’. Photograph: Alana Peterson/New York Times/Redux/eyevine
Tim Bray … accused Amazon of having a ‘vein of toxicity’. Photograph: Alana Peterson/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

He explained his actions in a blog titled Bye, Amazon, which accused the company of having a “vein of toxicity”. On Covid measures in fulfilment centres, Bray credited the company with “putting massive efforts into warehouse safety”, but the big problem, he claimed, was the way Amazon appears to treat its human employees as interchangeable “units of pick-and-pack potential”. As he reiterates in our conversation, he sees the controversies swirling around Amazon as being symptomatic of much deeper issues, which can only be resolved by governments.

“I don’t think Amazon is uniquely evil – I think the whole structure of the economy is the problem,” he tells me. But some people, I suggest, would say that risks letting the company off the hook. If it’s even halfway conscious of its corporate reputation, given that the company makes so much money, it could easily afford to behave very differently.

“Well, there are two issues there,” he says. “You raised the issue of reputation. And, I think we can all agree that Amazon has apparently very little concern for that. One of Amazon’s leadership principles is ‘accept being misunderstood’ [actually “we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time”], which I always thought was an impossibly arrogant thing to say – because it looks like, ‘Well, we’re just smarter than everybody else. And we know what’s right. And others haven’t caught up yet.’ Maybe when you’re a scrappy startup in Seattle, being misunderstood is OK, but when you’re the world’s largest and most powerful company, it’s a problem.

“So, yeah, there is an ethical issue in there. Absolutely. So do we lecture Jeff Bezos and say: ‘Be nice, Jeff, play nice, be a better person’? Or do we establish a legal and regulatory framework that simply makes it impossible to do what they’re doing?”

Bray is one of the increasing number of voices who think that Amazon should be broken up. He says a lot hangs on the immediate political future of the US, and what happens to the balance of power in the Senate (though Europe is relevant, too: witness the EU’s recent charges against the company, relating to its alleged treatment of the independent sellers who use its platforms). He also thinks that Amazon workers should be allowed to be collectively represented by trade unions – the demand of a growing network of employees and activists across Europe and the US whose attentions are relentlessly focused on how the company treats its huge army of workers.

Amazon UK tells me that “we respect our employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labour union or other lawful organisation of their own selection, without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment”. The company also insists that “we already have works councils and employee bodies at Amazon”. There is also mention of “the ability to communicate directly with the leadership of the company”.

Back in April, the French Sud Commerce trade union took Amazon to court, declaring the company’s workplaces to be unsafe after the virus flared up at some of them. The result was an order to stop selling anything other than “essential” items, which led to the temporary closure of Amazon’s six fulfilment centres in France. They began to reopen in May, but activists concerned about safety see this as proof that even a giant as big as this can sometimes be brought to heel.

In the UK, the key trade union focusing on Amazon workers is the 600,000-member GMB. Amazon does not formally recognise the union as a body to be negotiated with, but GMB officials can still accompany workers to internal disciplinary meetings, and do their best to follow what goes on in fulfilment centres. Before the pandemic, the GMB was regularly raising questions about workers’ safety; of late, it has made a lot of noise about the fulfilment centre in Coventry, where there have been at least 30 cases so far in a Covid-19 outbreak that began in October.

Amazon Workers International is a new umbrella group that brings together workers from countries including Germany, Poland, Spain, France, Slovakia and the US, many of whom have been at the centre of warehouse stoppages and protests. In the US, a lot of heat is generated by United 4 Respect, an advocacy group focused on improving the lives of retail workers. There is also a new coalition of organisations called Athena, which wants to “stop Amazon’s growing, powerful grip over our society and economy”. All these things blur into informal networks of people using social media to share experiences of working for Amazon, and highlight issues arising from its dominance.

Jana Jumpp lives in Louisville, Kentucky. Until earlier this year, she worked in a huge fulfilment centre across the state line in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in the dock where trucks collect and drop off goods. After the usual Christmas peak, she took six weeks of unpaid leave to focus on training as a massage therapist, before briefly returning to work just as the pandemic began to spread across the US.

“I went back for a weekend, and I was like, ‘I don’t really feel comfortable with this whole thing,’” she tells me. “It was really starting to spread, and they didn’t have any masks, they didn’t talk about taking [workers’] temperatures, they didn’t talk about anything. They didn’t seem to have any kind of protocol, you know?”

At that point, Amazon had responded to the pandemic by offering workers unlimited unpaid time off. Jumpp quietly left her job behind, and now earns a living as a domestic cleaner. But since her exit, she has spent long hours trying to trace Covid-19 outbreaks at Amazon warehouses, building a network of people who she says forward her the texts and voicemail messages the company sends employees when there are cases of the virus in their workplaces. These do not tend to mention specific numbers: the most people usually know is whether there is a single case – or, if messages mention “cases”, more than one. As a result, the figures Jumpp has compiled have inevitably underestimated the real numbers, but she thinks her work has helped in forcing Amazon to announce that more than 19,000 of its workers in the US had contracted Covid-19 since the pandemic began (42% less than the “general population rate”, according to the company).

Looking ahead to Christmas, Jumpp says she fears the worst. “On 2 and 3 July, they had mandatory overtime, and they were cramming everybody in there, and then two weeks later I had a big spike in cases. So I think the big concern is peak season. Peak season is crazy; tons of people in there. And I’m expecting a lot of cases.” In answer to this point, the company says that “without a specific site, this is hard to substantiate”, but tells me that “we are anything but complacent and continue to innovate, learn, and improve the measures we have in place to protect our teams”.

Amazon’s growth continues. The actor and model Cara Delevingne is now the public face of a newly launched arm called Luxury Stores, which is available in the US on an “invite-only” basis, and sells goods made by brands such as Oscar de la Renta and La Perla. In September, Amazon announced the launch of the Ring Always Home Cam, a drone-like security device that can fly around people’s homes in response to security alerts, and stream them footage of any potential disturbance. The same month saw the arrival of Amazon Explore – a Zoom-like service that offers such experiences as “a virtual tour of Mexico City’s urban art scene” ($47 for 50 minutes) and “personal styling and shopping experience” led by a Mississippi-based women’s boutique called Libby Story, a comparative snip at $20 for an hour.

As ever, it all evokes the boundless world of plenty and convenience that millions of us find irresistible, whatever the controversies that swirl around the company. “I don’t shop on Amazon any more, only because I know what’s going on there,” says Jumpp. “But a lot of people don’t care. Especially when the pandemic first started, when I spoke to people I know, I was like: ‘Can you just order what you need and not what you want?’ And it’s like: ‘Whatever, it’s not my problem.’ You know what I mean?”

All Rights Reserved for John Harris

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