18.02.21 Is Work Working?

Amazon’s empty pledge leaves agency workers without shifts and pay

Company policy against zero-hours contracts falls flat with warehouse workers 'treated like disposable labour'

As Covid-19 has closed shops and caused mass layoffs, Amazon, one of the pandemic’s few success stories, has taken on thousands of agency workers into its warehouses on zero-hours contracts, treating employees “like disposable labour” in areas where it has become one of the only jobs in town.

The Bureau can reveal that agency workers used by Amazon have been left in the lurch with zero-hours contracts and no guarantee of pay for 20 hours’ work a week – both of which are in breach of Amazon’s stated policies. Our investigation found many Amazon warehouse workers struggling to pay bills, with shifts cancelled at the last minute and hundreds of pounds in wages left unpaid.

The online retail giant has thrived as non-essential high street stores have been shuttered. Amazon’s UK sales jumped by half to £19.4bn last year, and the company used a third of all the warehouse space in the country during the summer. Jeff Bezos, who recently announced he would soon be stepping down as CEO, recorded a net worth of more than $190bn.

But by outsourcing recruitment through temporary agencies, Amazon has created a situation where working for the world’s richest man is no guarantee of a livable wage.

Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, said: “The government must not allow companies to outsource their moral responsibility to treat their staff with decency and respect. It should be a bare minimum for firms to pay staff a fair wage and uphold workers’ rights.

“The allegations of workers not being paid for the hours they work or being otherwise under-paid are extremely serious. The government must get to the bottom of these allegations and investigate whether Amazon has been short-changing its staff.”

Amazon took on more than 20,000 seasonal workers in the UK last year, recruiting nearly half that amount in the three months leading up to Christmas. The Bureau recorded the details of nearly 9,000 ads posted for Amazon jobs on Reed.co.uk during that period. Every single ad was posted by two agencies hired by Amazon – Adecco and PMP Recruitment.

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In a climate of rising unemployment, particularly among low-paid workers, these jobs offered many people vital income, but some had little choice. In places such as Aberdeenshire and Neath Port Talbot, warehouse jobs at Amazon made up over a third of all vacancies in the lead up to Christmas. In Scotland, 92% of all warehouse jobs advertised were for Amazon. In West Lothian – home of the Bathgate Amazon warehouse – 58% of all job ads were for Amazon warehouse jobs.

The Bureau heard from 16 agency workers and analysed the online reviews and comments of nearly 200 others. Workers said that they received fewer shifts than indicated and were left with too few hours to make the job viable. One described trying to get the wages she was owed as “a nightmare”.

Amazon has come under pressure in the US as the company was ordered to pay back millions withheld from delivery driver tips, sued by New York state over alleged covid safety breaches and called on by trade unions to be investigated by the European commission over concerns about alleged monitoring of workers.

Keeping workers at arm’s length

When Amazon outsources work to these agencies the company is not the actual employer.

There are notable differences between being a direct employee for Amazon and being employed through an agency. It starts with a coloured badge. Agency workers do the same work as some permanent staff and start on the same salary, but they wear green badges on the warehouse floor, while Amazon employees wear blue.

More important is the difference in contracts. Amazon told the Bureau: “Our agency terms are explicit that Amazon does not engage individuals on zero-hour contracts.” Yet the thousands of Amazon warehouse jobs advertised through Adecco are exactly that, while those employed via PMP Recruitment are on “minimum-hours contracts”, which despite the name do not guarantee weekly or monthly hours. (PMP denies this claim.) Instead they offer a certain number of hours per year – but no guarantee of employment for a full year. Neither of these contract types include the length of the employment term nor do they mention Amazon.

“Minimum-hours contracts can effectively be terminated at little or no notice and therefore the promise of minimum hours can be empty,” Nigel Mackay, a partner at the law firm Leigh Day, told the Bureau. “In reality, for the worker, that can be no better than a zero-hours contract.”

The use of agencies as middle-men allows Amazon to keep itself at “arms-length” from the workers, Mackay said. He described the set-up as a way for the company to “disassociate itself from [the workers’] mistreatment”.

The Bureau heard that these contracts left many workers unsure of how long their employment would last. One man employed by Adecco simply stopped receiving texts offering him shifts. Other workers say they have been summoned by text and fired or have turned up to work only to find out they no longer have a job.

Andy McDonald, the shadow secretary of state for employment rights, said the Bureau’s findings revealed that “the government is presiding over a return to Dickensian working conditions which leave workers with no idea what hours they will work or how they will pay their bills”.

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Promises unfulfilled

Amazon publicly states that all workers in its fulfilment centres, including agency staff, “will be paid for no less than 20 hours of work per week, even when 20 hours of work is not available”. That should be a guaranteed weekly wage of at least £190. But the Bureau found many agency workers getting much less.

The vast majority of ads seen by the Bureau offered the possibility of full-time work. Workers who applied for these jobs were told they could get 40 hours of work a week, but many reported that, soon after starting, their shifts were cancelled or hours whittled down. One worker was given just six hours’ work in a week, and paid less than £50.

Some had shifts cancelled via texts in the middle of the night and in some cases workers arrived on site only to be turned away. Workers were unable to plan their days and were struggling with a reduced income.

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On review websites TrustPilot and Indeed, most of PMP’s reviews were one-star – and nearly a quarter of these mentioned the issues of shifts and cancelled hours, echoing the experiences told to the Bureau.

“No one should have to worry about not getting paid on time or their hours chopping and changing from week to week with little notice,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of Trades Union Congress. “Amazon workers have played a key role during this pandemic. But many are treated like disposable labour while the company registers enormous profits off the back of their hard work. That’s not right.”

Andras Podor applied to work in an Amazon warehouse near Bournemouth through PMP Recruitment in October. After a single week in which he was given the four days he hoped for, his shifts were reduced to two or three days’ worth. “They [PMP Recruitment] can send you a message four hours before the job has started cancelling your shift. That happened a lot. I started looking for another job because I said to myself, weekly, £200 is nothing,” he said.

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Nathan, from Ayr, North Lanarkshire also felt he had little recourse when his hours were reduced suddenly. He turned to agency work when the hotel he had been furloughed from went bust, and started working for Amazon through Adecco.

He did not have many options. At the time nearly a third of all ads advertised in his area were for Amazon warehouse jobs. All offered the possibility of full-time work. He soon saw his hours diminish. In one week he got just six hours of work. “You couldn’t really plan to do anything because you think you'd be working the next day. You wouldn't really know until eight or nine o’clock at night,” he said.

Adecco told the Bureau: “We are in regular communication with all our associates to ensure they have a clear understanding of their work assignments.”

Professor Chris Forde of the University of Leeds researches work and employment practices and found that an agency will often keep two to five times the number of workers on its books than are actually on placements at a given time. He explained this oversupply as “an essential part of the temp agency business”, which allows agencies a constant supply of potential workers yet gives little certainty or consistency to the workers themselves.

Campaigners have long called for stronger protections to safeguard these workers’ rights, particularly regarding cancelled shifts. In 2016, a government-commissioned report on modern working conditions by Matthew Taylor, who then became the director of labour market enforcement, included a recommendation to introduce compensation for shifts cancelled at short notice, as well as protections for workers who are penalised if they do not accept last-minute shifts. A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told the Bureau that it is still considering the recommendations, but as yet nothing has changed.

Taylor responded to the Bureau’s findings saying: “The practices that have been revealed at Amazon underline the importance of the government acting swiftly to improve protections for precarious workers, particularly those on zero-hours contracts.”

An Amazon spokesperson told the Bureau that “there are no zero-hour contracts at Amazon, for either permanent or agency staff”.

Missing wages

The Bureau also heard of workers at both PMP Recruitment and Adecco struggling to pay bills and falling into debt because the agencies had failed to pay their wages correctly or on time. We heard from 10 workers who were missing hundreds of pounds in pay, and found dozens more complaining online about the same issue. Workers from both companies described how they tried in vain for weeks or even months to contact their agency so their concerns would be addressed.

Problems started for Olivia Hall, a law student, before Amazon’s seasonal hiring spree. She repeatedly had problems receiving the correct pay throughout the four and a half months she worked at an Amazon warehouse in Doncaster last year. One week she was paid just £70 for 25 hours’ work because the agency had failed to record two of her shifts. “It took me about five weeks to sort out actually getting paid for those shifts,” Hall explained. When she left the job, she was still owed £400 and was only paid after the company was criticised on social media.

Sallie (not her real name) was made redundant from her bar job in southeast England at the start of the first lockdown. In October, she got a job at Amazon, which made up the vast majority of warehouse jobs advertised in her area. By the time she left she was missing just under half of the pay owed to her by PMP Recruitment because her hours had been logged at the wrong rate. After months of complaints the agency finally paid her. “It’s quite humiliating, actually, to have to sit there and beg for your money,” she said.

For PMP Recruitment this issue is not new. In January 2020 an employment tribunal found that the agency had failed to pay a worker more than £400 in holiday pay. In April 2019, another tribunal told the agency to pay a different worker for their missing holiday and shift pay.

PMP told the Bureau: “We recognise the importance of ensuring our workers are paid correctly first time, every time, and work tirelessly in achieving this goal – we have robust procedures in place to ensure that if pay queries do occur they are resolved swiftly.”

Mick Rix from the trade union GMB said “temporary agency work can be one of the worst forms of exploitative employment methods” and accused Amazon of using “workers as a commodity”.

As lockdown stretches on, Amazon’s customers will continue to depend on a company that promises to be consistent, reliable and on time. For the agency workers helping keep that service running, their next pay cheque is anything but.

Amazon's profitable pandemic

With rising unemployment, many have turned to jobs at one of the rare winners of the pandemic. Amazon has opened at least three permanent and three “pop-up” fulfilment centres since May 2020. It increased its permanent hire employees by 10,000 people in 2020 and brought in more than 20,000 seasonal workers (through agencies and directly). The company took up a third of all warehouse space let in the UK this summer.

The agencies

PMP Recruitment is a supplier of warehouse staff across the UK to companies like Amazon and Tesco. It is part of Cordant, which owns various recruitment companies and was founded in 1957 by the Ullmann family, which remains involved in its affairs. PMP Recruitment says it employs more than 480 full and part-time employees as well as over 20,000 temporary agency workers. PMP Recruitment’s 2017 accounts showed profits after tax of £1.1m, a decrease from the year before. In 2020, Cordant was put into administration but much of the business was saved by the investment firm Twenty20 Capital Holdings Ltd.

The Adecco Group is based in Switzerland, formed in 1996 after a merger. The 2019 accounts for its UK company showed a loss after tax of £12.4m although its gross profit increased to nearly £56m, an increase on the year before. The group is one of the biggest in the recruitment world. It says it supplies over 700,000 people every day through its worldwide agencies. Adecco recruits for Amazon across the globe, including in the United States, Australia and Poland.

Reporters: Maeve McClenaghan, Cat McShane, Charles Boutaud, Emiliano Mellino and Nimra Shahid
Desk editor: Megan Lucero
Investigations editor: Meirion Jones
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Alice Milliken
Tech Auditor: Basile Simon
Collaborations: Shirish Kulkarni
Community Organising: Emiliano Mellino
Legal team: Stephen Shotnes (Simons Muirhead Burton)

Our reporting on jobs is part of our Bureau Local project, which has many funders. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.

Header image: An Amazon 'fulfilment centre' in Peterborough. Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty. Other photographs by the Daily Mirror.

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