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31 October 2018updated 21 Sep 2021 6:35am

I spent the day in an Amazon “fulfilment centre”, and it was worse than I ever imagined

Broken machines, and rampant paranoia. 

By Sarah Manavis

While you were all resting safely in your beds early Monday morning, I was on my way to the Essex town of Tilbury, to take a look at an Amazon “fulfilment” centre. These are, essentially, what they say on the tin – the massive warehouses where Amazon holds the products you see on their site, turns them into packages to be sent out to customers. I and 14 other journalists were to take part in a tour and presentation, presumably intended to show us that Amazon aren’t actually an evil tech firm that runs their staff around like they’re bionic horses, but, in fact, a charming, lovely little company that cares about each and every employee.

I thought I’d find an overly manicured work environment filled with obsessively cheery staff loudly singing the praises of their benevolent overlords. Instead, I walked into what felt like the most boring, paranoid episode of Silicon Valley there has ever been. What I expected to be a glitzy, modern, fast-streamed experience was, instead, an obstacle course of office horrors, from birthday interviews to expensive “benefits” to decor that would not be out of place inside a correctional facility. 

Upon arrival, we were shown the same video that Amazon shows to all its tour groups. The company started offering these public tours in 2015; it was a response to the astonishingly bad year it had in the press in 2014, which saw questions raised not just about its ethical practices but about its financial sustainability, too. The tours were a way of showing that, whatever you may have heard in the newspapers, Amazon employees were delighted to be there, in their surprisingly lovely warehouses.

The video was all half-hearted joviality, accompanied by the vague sense that everyone on camera was being coerced by someone slightly just out of shot. Of the 2,000 people that work in the Tilbury fulfilment centre, the one Amazon chose to represent it on film was a manager who offered relatable trivia such as ,“I’m told that this centre is the equivalent of 28 football pitches!” and who looked visibly pained when referring to colleagues as “Amazonians”. The whole thing was seemingly constructed with the express purpose of making everyone in the room simultaneously bored and deeply, unbelievably uncomfortable; but it was at least, mercifully, short.

After bearing witness to the charms of this video, the tour proper began. The 15 journalists on the tour were accompanied by at least eight members of staff at all times, and although Amazon told me that this was to help guide us along the way and deal with queries, it was a single lead guide who, ultimately, answered the overwhelming majority of our questions. Every time I looked in any direction but the one we were supposed to be looking, at least two of the others would immediately ask me what I was looking at and stand directly in my eyeline until I looked away. They did this even if I was looking back at an area we had just visited.

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What was immediately striking about the space was not the autonomous robots moving around – the only really modern innovation we saw the whole day – or even the speed with which everything was being packed. It was how distinctly the whole building resembled a prison yard: chain-link fence, huge security barriers that would put Heathrow to shame, and machinery hanging precariously from the ceiling were everywhere, giving you the idea that the staff were seen as not so much employees as threats. (The chain-link fence, Amazon explained, was “a safety requirement to prevent people entering the robotics field”.) 

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Dotted throughout the facility were screens, many smashed up or broken, featuring sadistic thumbs-up emojis watching over staff. Some carried vaguely threatening messages about packaging certain items correctly; others literally explained to staff how to walk up stairs. (“Stairs,” the signs in every stairwell read, “Do it well!”) Given that Amazon is a company that makes billions each year, you’d expect some effort might have gone into the design of these messages. But no: they were all clearly made using Microsoft Clip Art.

Only a select few staff were allowed to talk to us. When we approached those who were, we were almost always met with forced smiles and alert eyes, which immediately dropped after we walked away. It was eerily reminiscent of the film Get Out.

The tour guide expended a lot of effort to make Amazon appear fun, in a transparent attempt to match the light-hearted company spirit deployed at companies like Facebook and Google. You know the sort of thing: free snacks, childish lingo, and the infamous rollerblading executives. But every time an attempt was made, it was swiftly undercut by a combination of caution, paranoia and logistics. It was very clear that nobody here was having a fun time.

Near the end of our tour, for example, we were introduced to the machine that puts labels on Amazon products once they are packed up and ready for delivery. “These are our SLAM machines!” our guide excitedly explained, obviously proud to have the sort of nonsensical catchphrase common in tech companies to deploy. You might be thinking that the convivially named “SLAM” machines would have an upbeat, little story behind them. You would be wrong: it’s just an acronym, standing for “scan”, “apply”, “label” and “manifest”. It felt like an awfully large amount of effort had gone into finding a cool name for a label attaching device.

Before we could get too worried about labels being hastily applied too raucously – slammed on, if you will – our fears were calmed by our guide, who, in the same breath as unpacking the “SLAM” acronym assured us, through panicked laughter: “But no, we would never slam on our labels! They are actually put on very lightly with our air-press machine.” 

Then there are the benefits, such as the “birthday roundtable”. Alongside their standard cake and ice cream, the lucky staffer gets to sit down with their general manager and… give feedback about their experience as an Amazon employee.

And this, remember, was framed as a fun birthday treat. Because nothing screams “Happy birthday!” like a choice between a) airing complaints as you would in an exit interview, only to have to immediately return to work with the person you just complained about or b) being forced to say how much you love your job, simply to avoid (a). 

Another benefit, our guide told us, is that hot lunch options are provided to staff, every single day! I later found out that these were not, as had been implied, free lunches supplied by a generous employer, but rather the only choice for anyone who had forgotten to bring a packed lunch – the nearest shop is nearly 20 minutes away – and that they were priced accordingly. (A company spokesman said: “All permanent Amazon fulfilment centre employees are offered a comprehensive benefits package, including private medical insurance, life assurance, income protection, subsidised meals and an employee discount, which combined are worth more than £700 annually, as well as a company pension plan.” So there you go.)

The fulfilment centre site is, it’s worth noting, inherently boring. It’s a maze of conveyor belts and chainlink fence, where the only exciting element is Roomba-style robots that move shelves of items around on their own – a novelty that wears off after about 30 seconds, rather than the 15 minutes we were offered to stare at them. The efforts to make everything fun and relatable even extended to these robots, which charge themselves when on low battery, with our guide chiming in, “I wish my PHONE knew how to charge itself when its battery was low!” 

As we headed upstairs for the final leg of our tour, one of the seven spare members of staff, who had largely remained silent through, turned to me and said: “This is the final bit of magic – this is the bit people always like.” Expecting to be met with an ultra-modern, futuristic machine that had somehow already collected my DNA and matched me to the products that most suit my genetic make-up, we were instead met with – and I really, really do mean this when I say it – nothing. This hyped-up, “magical” floor was just a better vantage point to look at the broken screens, chainlink, and conveyor belts, plus the aforementioned SLAM machine sticking labels on boxes in the middle. I don’t know how else to put this and I continue to be confused by what I was meant to be looking at. There was a machine that adheres labels and sends mislabelled packages back to square one; but beyond that, the magic floor was just more of the same.

After watching someone in a packaging facility fail to put together a package, I thought my disappointment must have peaked. How naïve I was. The final disappointment arrived as we gathered our things to leave. As we made our way back to the presentation room, we were told we would get a “special goodie” to thank us for taking the time to walk through the centre, with hushed talk of vouchers or a small product, even from the staff.

What we were handed instead was a miniature foam versions of the autonomous Amazon robots, with the word “fulfilment” written on its underside.

Before the last leg of my tour of the Amazon fulfilment centre, I’d been told I’d witness “magic”. It was only on my way back to London, when I thought back to that moment, standing above the gargantuan, 28 football pitches-long abyss of grey and yellow industrial sadness, the magic, finally, actually kicked in. The real magic was realising that, at any time, I could leave. The Amazon employees aren’t so lucky.