There is always a BUT with Amazon

Tuesday 28 June 2016

What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Amazon’?

That’s the question UNI Europa’s Christina Colclough asked the audience as she opened the panel debate on Amazon and the ‘amazonisation’ of our economies. The debate was part of an ETUI-ETUC conference on shaping the new world of work, taking place in Brussels.

Most answered ‘buying stuff cheaply’ and ‘bad working conditions’.

Luc Hendrickx from the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium Enterprises (UEAPME) pointed out that Amazon was not a singular fact but a phenomenon that is symptomatic for the digital economy, pointing out that the biggest problem he could see was the lack of transparency. Or looking at it from the angle of a worker who sees the inside mechanics every day, Kristy Milland ( said: ‘There is no job that can’t be crowdsourced’, and added that workers are incredibly vulnerable to ratings, precarious conditions and fierce competition amongst each. Yet they have no protection whatsoever. It is flexibility without security.

So is there actually a phenomenon in our days that we could call the ‘amazonisation’ of work? Yes, said Thomas Voss from the German trade union ver.di: ‘Amazon not only means a revolution of the commerce sector but indeed of the entire service sector.’

Digitalisation is leading to a polarisation of the labour market, widening the gap between high skilled jobs and a vast number of manual, low-skilled and often precarious jobs. Amazon shows that in its warehouses, where working conditions are tough with few breaks, high burn out rates, low wages and high staff turnover. Voss explained that fulfilment centre workers often walk 15-20 km a day – twice the distance a professional football player runs in a match.

The digital economy has also triggered changes in employment relations and given rise to new types of workers. In the area of e-commerce, Amazon, like many others, monitors every movement the workers make. If they take a 5 minute break, or pack items too slow – the company knows. Those who don’t meet the pre-set targets, get fired.

Digital technology has led to an increase in the numbers of freelancers, independent contractors and self-employed persons, many of whom operate in a ‘grey zone’ in terms of labour and employment rights. Often reliant on ratings to get more work, these workers can be left without an income if their ratings are low.

All of this is challenging trade unions. Fredrik Söderqvist from Unionen in Sweden concluded “We have to be imaginative and find new ways of organising. We must reach out to platform workers and support them in strengthening their bargaining power. The panel had numerous ideas – Kristy Milland suggested: ‘Build new sustainable, fair platforms! Don’t try to change Amazon but compete with it!’, while Thomas Voss insisted: ‘We don’t want to destroy Amazon, we want to make it better – through better working conditions and better motivation of its employees.’

Read an article by Kristy Milland on Amazon Mechanical Turk

Read our article on key trends in the service sector

Find out more about UNI Europa’s work on digitalisation