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  1. The Business Interview
14 December 2021

Danger, dehydration and doorbells: what it’s like delivering Christmas shopping for Amazon

For Amazon drivers, the festive season is a time of precarious employment and unsustainable workloads handed out by unseen algorithms.

By Will Dunn

Alexandru* is one of several hundred self-employed drivers who arrive at the Amazon depot in Northampton each morning. The day we spoke, the busiest of these drivers left the depot with 396 parcels to be delivered in a single nine-hour shift. Some days, he gets to finish early; on others, he works for ten hours without a break in a job that is stressful, demeaning and frequently unsafe, making less than minimum wage while delivering parcels for a company that turns over more than £9,000 a second.

The drivers are not Amazon employees, but are given a day’s work at a time by recruitment agencies that are contracted by Amazon. Several agencies provide drivers to the Northampton depot. Alexandru isn’t told if he’ll be working until the evening before (the WhatsApp message detailing his latest route arrived at 7.40pm). If they’re not given a route, the drivers won’t make any money the following day. “So we find out about whether we work or not just a couple of hours before going to sleep.”

He can always turn down work, but there are implied penalties for not being available at all times. “If you say you’re not going to work,” he said, “then the manager will remember.” Less compliant drivers are put “on spare” to wait, unpaid, for a call that might not come.

Alexandru sets out at around 7am each morning and drives the 15 miles to the depot, where he joins the queue to load his van. During the Christmas rush, the queues can be so long they reach almost to the nearby motorway. Once in the yard, he logs into the app, which directs him to a lane, where he will collect cages full of parcels. To avoid having to rummage through the van at every stop, they try to load the parcels in order, but after 15 minutes “the yard marshals will start screaming at you to move faster, and load your van faster”.

As he drives his route, Alexandru is logged into two Amazon apps. The first gives him his deliveries and tracks his position. The AI behind the app collects data on how long it takes him to deliver parcels, and uses it to maximise the work he can be given. “When I started, I was delivering 120, 130 stops, maximum… Once I picked up the pace, and I started to finish earlier – next day I was having ten stops more, for three, four days. And then 20 stops more for three, four days, and then 30.”

The second app, called Mentor, uses the movement of his phone (again, as interpreted by an AI) to track how he is driving. Every driver is given a daily score. “They can monitor… if you brake, how you steer, if you’re driving eco-friendly.”

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Between them, the two apps ask drivers to deliver hundreds of parcels a day, within the time allotted, whatever the weather, traffic or other conditions – but also to do so without cornering too hard or speeding. In April, it became clear which of these apps usually wins: a survey of 700 Amazon drivers found that 82 per cent had no choice but to drive dangerously to meet their targets.

For a large van like Alexandru’s, the agency pays £170 per day, plus 19p per mile for fuel. Some agencies pay a bonus of around £20 a day during the peak period between Black Friday and Christmas Eve.

The expenses involved for drivers are considerable, however. They have to rent, lease or buy their own van and cover the cost of all repairs and depreciation, breakdown cover, tyres and other consumables. As self-employed workers, they also cover their own sick pay, holiday and National Insurance contributions. They then have to buy three kinds of insurance.

What most people opening the door for an Amazon parcel don’t realise is that the driver himself has paid to insure their item against being damaged in transit. Alexandru’s insurance alone came to more than £5,000 last year. With the finance payments on his van – very few drivers can afford to buy a van outright – Alexandru’s expenses come to well over £15,000 for the past year.

“Sometimes you are working for less than the minimum wage”

When Alexandru started driving for Amazon, he rented a van from an agency, which was, at more than £800 a month, both expensive and dangerous. “They buy auctioned vans, like damaged vans in accidents, as cheap as possible. Maybe some of them still have damage, but they won’t repair them… I had to change five vehicles in the course of a month and a half. I told them, I am scared to drive these vehicles in neighbourhoods, close to schools… one of them literally had no brakes on the rear wheels.”

Drivers are paid a flat rate for a day’s work by their agency, whether they deliver 300 parcels a day or 150, whether the route takes five hours or ten. “Sometimes you are working for less than the minimum wage for that day.”

The agencies themselves compete among themselves for good slots at the depot, and for more routes. An agency that gives all its drivers six days’ work a week, for example, will appear understaffed to Amazon, so it won’t get more routes. A company where most drivers are on three or four days a week appears to have spare capacity, and will be given more work. This leads agencies to hire more drivers than they need during the peak period, Alexandru said, to keep them on lower hours, and to weed out those that don’t work quickly enough.

When it comes to speed, new-build housing estates – which fit large numbers of houses close together along car-friendly streets – are the best for making a high number of stops per hour. Offices or commercial premises – where a driver might have to wait for a gate to be opened, or a receptionist to appear – are a problem. “You lose time, and then you have to move faster to recover that lost time. You will forget about your break. You will, excuse the expression, piss in bottles.”

Urinating in bottles is a daily occurrence for Amazon drivers: “Nobody talks about it, but everybody knows that we are doing it.” While the app recommends a half-hour break during the day, few take it, and the time pressure of the job means the quickest option is usually a plastic bottle in the back of the van. Some months ago, drivers began leaving the bottles outside the depot in protest, until they were reprimanded by furious agency managers. Alexandru said he drinks as little water as possible at work, although he’s not sure this is good for his health.

[See also: It’s the tech giants, not socialist politicians, who are coming for our liberty]

At the end of the allotted time for a route, drivers are given half an hour’s grace by the app before it logs them out – at which point, they are supposed to return their remaining parcels to the depot. But returned parcels are bad news for the agency, and the driver. Alexandru showed me text messages from the one occasion he wasn’t able to finish his deliveries in time: his manager told him to continue making deliveries, using Google Maps. “It didn’t matter that I was driving for ten hours.”

Drivers are also slowed by the fact that they’re expected to check the identification of people accepting parcels that contain alcohol or other age-restricted items – a legal requirement for all delivery drivers. However, he said this “shouldn’t be our problem. It should be Amazon’s problem, if they are selling this on their website.”

Amazon’s customers are also monitored by the company, which uses the data it collects on them to maximise their spending. Alexandru said he sees the downside of this, too, on a daily basis.

“Amazon is not checking the fact that a lot of people that are ordering alcohol are addicted to alcohol,” he said (Amazon is not required to do so, nor are other online or physical stores). He visits some houses three or four times a week, bringing the same boxes that are used for bottles, seeing the conditions of people’s homes through the front door. To Alexandru, who lost his father to alcoholism, the signs of addiction are familiar. “Sometimes they are sitting outside the door, just looking for the Amazon driver to come.”

“I drove away but I could still hear him screaming at me”

Other customers – especially those who have free delivery through Prime – order “all kinds of stupid things”. One woman to whom Alexandru delivered a huge box had no idea what it might contain. She opened it on the doorstep, and took out a pack of toilet rolls; bemused by her own shopping, she asked Alexandru if he could also dispose of all the excess packaging (he politely declined).

Sometimes, the need to complete hundreds of deliveries on time pushes drivers into conflict with other members of the public. Three times in the past fortnight, Alexandru had been threatened with violence. One man pulled in front of his van, trapping him, but left him alone when Alexandru told him about the video cameras he has (again, at his own expense) installed in his van for his safety. Another was furious at the way Alexandru had parked, for a minute, to drop off a parcel: “I drove away but I could still hear him screaming after me. I just drove in another area, smoked a cigarette, waited there five minutes, then came back to do my other deliveries.”

Alexandru said he was drawn to driving for Amazon by the fact that it is self-employed work – he is studying accounting, and wanted to fit work around his studies – but the reality is that many drivers find themselves locked in to a “spiral” of vehicle expenses that mean they can’t move on. “You find yourself in the point where you can’t get out, because you don’t know how to solve the van problem.”

After a year in which sales rose by 51 per cent, Amazon now accounts for around one in three online purchases in the UK, and is forecast to become the country’s biggest retailer. Alexandru doesn’t plan to deliver for the company much longer, but he would like to see it become “more humane, with the drivers and with the workload. We have our families as well. It’s not our life, to deliver parcels.”

Asked about the volume of deliveries and pressure drivers were under, an Amazon spokesperson told the New Statesman: “We work to set realistic performance expectations that do not place undue pressure on delivery providers and the drivers they engage. We use sophisticated technology to plan suggested delivery routes to ensure that drivers aren’t receiving and driving with too many packages.

“Drivers also have a number of ways to share comments or concerns, including escalating any challenges to Amazon through a 24/7 hotline, which works quickly to investigate any concerns.”

*A pseudonym has been used to protect the privacy of the interviewee and their colleagues.

[See also: Insecure gig economy work more than doubles in five years]

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