Amazon workers against Victorian working conditions and derisory pay

Despite unions being banned by Amazon, its British staff have been staging wildcat actions in defence of their right to decent pay and conditions.

Lalkar writers

A wave of unofficial wildcat strikes is sweeping across Amazon’s British warehouses, with hundreds of workers across the country independently staging walkouts, sit-ins and work slowdowns in protest at the derisory nature of their long-awaited pay rises. They had been expecting a raise of at least £2 an hour.

The global internet sales and home entertainment giant Amazon has seen the British section of its massive 1.5 million worldwide workforce take unexpected steps into militant resistance as a result of a derisory pay offer.

Amazon does not recognise any trade unions in Britain for the purposes of pay and conditions bargaining, although some of their staff are members of the GMB or Unite.

Spontaneous walkouts, sit-ins and slowdowns have hit Amazon sites in Bristol, Tilbury and Coventry, with others set to join in. Both the unions mentioned have been mildly supportive of the workers’ actions, but both went to great pains to stress that any action was nothing to do with them and claimed to workers that, if they were recognised by Amazon for bargaining purposes, the pay offer would have been better, while also letting Amazon management know that trade unions stick to the letter of industrial law during disputes in Britain.

The 35-50p an hour increase being awarded by Amazon in this present climate of rampant inflation is indeed derisory, and it is always good to see workers stand up to an employer, especially when that employer makes trillions of dollars from its workers’ labour throughout its vast global empire. The paltry pay offer is the final straw for many of those workers.

Amazon employees protesting outside their places of work have long been talking about having to put up with working conditions not far short of Victorian. Workers are doing ten-hour shifts, sometimes back-to-back, with few breaks.

One worker described the grim conditions: “It’s like prison in there. We stand on our feet for ten hours, and are only entitled to two thirty-minute breaks.”

Workers also complain that they daily face threats of official warnings for going to the toilet or stopping momentarily to take a drink of water.

Just last November, the Daily Mirror reported on conditions for Amazon workers and discovered that ambulances had been called to 24 Amazon warehouses nearly 1,000 times since 2018, including 178 visits to Tilbury as a result of tired workers having accidents.

Between 2017 and 2019, there were 49 serious injuries recorded at just the Tilbury warehouse in Essex, with tiredness and dropping to sleep being a contributory factor in most cases.

The militancy that has been demonstrated so far is not company-wide, or even nationwide at the moment, but workers are beginning to stand up, realising also that since Amazon UK is only a small part of the giant Amazon beast, the Amazon workers elsewhere are their workmates.

One unnamed worker outside Tilbury, when asked by a reporter about wider strike action at Amazon across Britain and the world, replied: “If you can afford to do it, do it. We face not just a national problem. Amazon do in each country what they can legally get away with.”

This shows a dawning understanding of imperialism, and our job is to increase and spread that fledgling understanding. Workers, even when they seem to have lost the militancy they were once famous for, don’t need us to show them how to fight their employers; they pick it up quite quickly.

They will also, perhaps with a little help, learn not to trust the Labour party-led trade unions who fear industrial action as much as any employer, sometimes very much more. The dire economic situation that is about to come crashing down on all our heads will give many workers the basic lesson of fight or go under.

The job of communists is to help workers learn a different lesson: that, while ever the capitalist economic system remains, workers will have to repeat those same economic battles over and over again, whether they win or lose today; that, while imperialism can move capital around the globe favouring first dependent peoples here, then other impoverished peoples over there, there can be no peace and we are all turned into competitors against one other.

Imperialism must be destroyed, and the anarchy of privately-owned production must end, so that we, the working class in power, can plan mass-owned production to give the necessities of life to all without waste, and those necessities will come from the inclusive and valued labour of all.

Looking just at Britain for the moment, we see that Amazon UK Services, the group that runs the Amazon warehouses in Britain, had its entire corporation tax bill wiped out last year by a government tax break aimed at encouraging investment in Britain. The company’s revenue in that same period rose more than £1bn to £6.1bn, with profits of £204m, up 59 percent on the year before.

Accounts for its other British operations are well hidden, but just the cost of an Amazon Prime subscription in Britain has gone up from £7.99 to £8.99, a 12.5 percent increase on top of whatever fantastic sum the annual profit of Prime sits at. We can only try to imagine the staggering wealth that this company globally accumulates into its vaults while workers struggle and starve for want of the huge array of goods that are denied them.

Amazon workers are taking their first steps in responding to the class war that is being constantly waged against them. Other workers who seemed pliant and cowed only yesterday will surely join them soon.

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