Workers' Conditions in UK Warehouses

With the latest revelations about the horrendous working conditions in JD Sports and ASOS warehouses, comparing them to “dark satanic mills” (1), we have decided to publish the following letter from an ICT sympathiser about his own experience during the Christmas period of one of these very same warehouses currently in the news. It sheds a grim light on the situation of the working class today, as “capital is turning to digital technology to devise ways of cheapening the cost and squeezing more out of workers in what are already low-paid, low-skilled, labour intensive sectors.”(2)

Warehouse work. A day in the life of the modern Prometheus.

On 5th November I started a job at a local warehouse. I finished on Christmas Eve for a number of reasons. I likely will return to the same workplace in the future during the high demand of the pre-Xmas peak. This seems like a brief period of time but as Stephen Hawking fans know, time is not always as simple as it seems and life under the dictatorship of the clock is lived far from briefly. Every day was a carbon copy of the last for five weeks. Here is the bare skeleton.

Wake up at 5.15am. Shower (heat the reticent muscles), coffee, breakfast, prepare sandwiches, watch news, travel to work, arrive at 6.40am, contend with car park, place all belongings in a locker, nothing goes inside except the specifically issued work clothing, blue and black, pass through metal detecting security gates, clock in with a number and a handscan before 7am, attend a team briefing consisting of meaningless statistics and encouragement to work ever harder falling on deaf ears, collect a wrist mounted computerised device with a screen and laser scanner attachment. Work starts.

Collect a trolley approx. 8 feet long 3 feet wide, place empty crates (totes) on trolley approx. 8. Scan one’s current location with laser, screen instructs where to go, some box on some shelf somewhere. Probably within a hundred metres if fortunate, remove an item from the box, scan it with laser, place in crate, scan crate. Now and again the screen asks to empty trolley by placing crates on a conveyor belt. Everything is done with the target in mind. Collect a certain percentage of a certain number of items or you are vulnerable to dismissal.

Four hours later.

Break time. Clock out, go through security where random checks are carried out for theft. Eat, chat or use a computer. Forty-five minutes later clock in, continue as previous, for three hours, home time. 3pm. Empty trolley, queue ages to clock out.

Negotiate the car park. Usually about 3.20pm, get on the road home. Eat. Everything aches, zombified torpor. Nine o'clock bed.

As I say this is went on for five weeks, this is the life of the order picker. At the end of my work period I was assigned a different task, a temporary task which involved labelling items. Apparently, this task arose because Trump’s USA demands to know where all goods are from, connected to tariffs, so some of us in groups of two or three would spend the day opening up plastic wrapping, placing “Made in XYZ” labels on the items, mostly clothes and shoes. Whilst this was initially a welcome change, it grew old very quickly. We were told we had targets to achieve, so many pallets per day, but we dismissed this and took an easy pace as we knew the job was temporary. At first we were in a quiet area, later we were moved to a noisy area which was a pain.

Then back to order picking.

It is hard to describe how awful the job is. Almost anyone could do it for a few minutes, even find it stimulating, nice bit of exercise, find a location, a bit of mental stimulation, almost a game. But give it an hour, the feet hurt, the knees hurt, the lower back hurts, the brain hurts… give it a few days and there is no learning curve anymore. Give it a few weeks and you are no longer the same person. You are the walking dead between seven and three. Time dominates, the passing of time, nothing else matters, the activity is the same, the difference is the time. One hour wears away the defences, the inner pep talk, the attempt to maintain good cheer. Two hours is tragedy, half way, no way out. Three hours and you are beyond caring. Four hours and the morning is over. Everything hurts again, never mind Tesco’s finest gel insoles.

Everyday there are small acts of defiance. People stop and chat to each other. Take toilet breaks for the sit down. We know what we are doing, we are risking missing the God Almighty targets and loss of employment, but who really cares that much, who can really face living according to the rules, who can kill themselves off every day to take the cheese out of the mousetrap? I went out of my way to learn phrases in Polish and Romanian to talk to the populations of migrant workers who possibly outnumbered the native English speakers. I did this with intent, often during team briefings (in reality for the majority of us there were no teams, it was all solitary work…) in defiance of the many casual racists. But we know this target threat is no mere bluff, every day people are dismissed, failing to meet the targets. Taking unauthorised absences. Failing drugs tests. And there are new people starting all the time. Groups of a dozen or so are constantly being given the tour, the instructions. My cohort dissolved like snow in the sunshine, the initial twelve became ten became nine, became eight, became two, became me, I left.

Moneywise it was slightly above the going rate if I can rely on this data I found on the net.(3) I was earning £8.71 an hour which is above the adult minimum wage, but I expect a lot of warehouse workers are very young, hence lower earnings. I was obliged to do a seven day and a six day week over the Black Friday period. My total earnings were £2033 before tax. However, I was also working one evening a week at a local school three hours and teaching Spanish privately three evenings a week. This made the regime much more difficult even if lucrative. I could not simply come home and ride the couch, I had to get my act together, prepare teaching materials and deliver. This is one of the reasons I left, it was not sustainable. I was burning the candle at both ends and losing the will to move.

Another reason for my departure was the Xmas holiday. Never in my life, and I am 52, have I not had Xmas holidays (note the plural). I enclose the content of an e-mail I circulated at the time… suitably curious I went to the office today and asked what the story was for Xmas rota.

“You work as normal, but Xmas day is off”.

“Uh, OK, what about New Year’s Eve/Day”

“You work as normal”

“What! One day off altogether!”

“Yes, Xmas day.”

“What’s the pay rate on New Year’s Day?”

“As normal.”

Call me infantile, but the thought of spending Xmas holidays in Auschwitz (not meant to offend, simply reporting how my fellow workers described it) was, let us say, difficult.

As it happened, though Xmas Eve was an obligatory workday, the place was hardly populated. The workers had voted with their feet. And I say well done. I felt somewhat ashamed of actually turning up when many of my fellow proles had risked dismissal and stayed home, and that thought weighed on my mind until Boxing Day when I texted in my notice.




(3) Average Warehouse Worker Hourly Pay: £7.79 (updated 2nd Jan 2019)

Wednesday, May 8, 2019