Europe and beyond

Amazon tracks workers after five minutes of inactivity

Amazon says it doesn't have quotas but admits to strict 'performance targets' which include gift wrapping 21 items in an hour

Amazon closely tracks workers after five minutes or more of inactivity, the e-commerce giant has revealed, as it prepares to pack extra staff into its warehouses to satisfy a flurry of Christmas orders.
It wrote in a letter to Senator Elizabeth Warren that it flags workers who spend five minutes or more without scanning an item in the warehouse to managers.
The managers can track a packer’s movements on a special computer system which detects movements through the devices that packers use to scan items and packages.
The e-commerce giant said that workers who accumulate greater than 30 minutes of unaccounted break time or missed quotas for packing or gift wrapping in one shift could be followed up by managers.
In some cases, workers have been fired. For instance, Amazon fired 25 workers in its River Fall, Massachusetts, fulfilment centre where it employs 3,800 people for taking too long on a break and two for failing to meet their performance target.
Whilst Amazon was addressing targets in its US operations in the letter, performance targets are also understood to be in place across its UK facilities, with staff referred to managers if they are not hitting quotas.
Amazon said it expects a “certain level of performance from our employees and we continue to set productivity targets objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce”.
The company said performance was 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 hour or day”.
In the US, only employees in the bottom 5pc of workers might expect corrective action, the company said, adding: “Before any coaching or disciplinary actions are taken, managers must first have a conversation with employees where exceptions, such as restroom breaks, prayer time, and time to clean stations are taken into account.”
The tech giant has previously claimed not to enforce quotas on its staff, but in the letter to Ms Warren, which it used to defend itself against claims that it was employing people in unsafe conditions, it revealed strict rules around performance targets. A Christmas worker should gift wrap 21 parcels per hour and an order “picker” should pick up to 36 items per hour, it said.
It comes after Ms Warren, Senator Edward Markey and Congressman Joseph Kennedy raised concerns about the company following the publication of an investigation by the Centre for Investigative Reporting which claimed that Amazon’s “obsession with speed has turned its warehouses into injury mills”.
The report claimed that peak periods like Amazon Prime Day and seasonal shopping were particularly dangerous for warehouse workers, particularly at River Falls. In October, the politicians wrote to Amazon to clarify what measures it was taking to ensure safety in the workplace and fairness in its targets to protect workers from harm.
In its response, Amazon said it had changed the performance targets to reflect additional time needed for sanitising hands and work spaces to prevent the spread of the virus, and that it had adjusted performance targets based on feedback from employees.
It said: “We strongly refute claims that we have misled anyone about injury risks at our Fulfillment Center in Fall River, Massachusetts.
“Safety is Amazon’s top priority at River Falls and all of our facilities. This was true when we responded to your questions in January 2020, and is true today.”
Ms Warren has previously made clear her desire to break up companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google during her campaign for Democratic nomination in 2019 and this year fired tough questions at Mr Bezos during a tense Congressional hearing, accusing it of anti-competitive behaviour.
Publishing Amazon’s letter, dated November 1, in full, Ms Warren’s office released the statement: “We are now at the beginning of another dangerous season for Amazon warehouse workers, and the company’s responses to repeated Congressional inquiries have only escalated our concern about Amazon’s unwillingness to value worker safety above corporate profit.
“Amazon could take immediate action to address the injury rate at warehouses – allowing the work to slow down and ending productivity monitoring – yet the company seems unwilling to address the root causes of high injury rates at their warehouses, or acknowledge a link between productivity demands and injuries.”
Amazon disputed claims of a high rate of injuries at its warehouses. It said the metrics being used by Ms Warren also included minor injuries and other days away from work. Amazon said: “At Amazon, we are known for obsessing over customers—but we also obsess about our employees and their safety.”

The Telegraph | Margi Murphy | 2 December 2020

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