Many people have been forced to look for alternative employment during the Coronavirus pandemic after mass redundancies. A reader shares their experiences as an Amazon Courier.
Last autumn I found myself made redundant and in need of work. Whilst there were jobs available, the market had shrunk into a depressingly small choice: from accountant and software developer vacancies, which I was unqualified for, to a litany of driving jobs with logistics companies, desperate to recruit more human tools to claw in the profits the explosion in online shopping had generated.
So I took a driving job, naively believing it would be undemanding and fairly low stress, with the flexibility to enable me to pursue a more engaging, long term occupation.
The job consisted of delivering packages for Amazon, the world’s largest company and retailer, through their delivery partner scheme. Amazon had switched to this model several years earlier due to mainstream delivery companies fracturing under the untold pressure of the Christmas package volume. The scheme allowed individuals to start a logistics company themselves with little start-up costs, and benefit from the guiding corporate hand of Amazon. In turn, this imbued Amazon with the wealth of delivery power necessary to fuel their vast and ever-growing empire. The nature of the business model held the worker for the delivery service provider as ‘self-employed’, shirking the responsibilities of an ethical employer in providing any sickness or holiday pay. Fundamentally, it also allowed Amazon the nefarious ability to enforce their long and burdensome workload, whereby the ‘self-employed’ mantle relinquished the worker from working legal shifts.
I had heard of the almost Victorian conditions that the warehouse staff worked in, but reasoned that these would not extend to the delivery outfit. I was self-employed after all, for a third-party company…
The first few weeks of the job were a learning process. Management assumed that the two-day presentation for new inductees was sufficient enough for them to take a backseat, leaving new drivers to work through day to day obstacles themselves. I spent the first few days therefore not realising that the QR code could be scanned when delivering a package to a customer. I was entering every parcel code manually into my phone which meant I had to drive long into the night.
The package volume was around 25 percent of a normal route for the first ten days, increasing to 50 percent for the next period. Whilst the first ten days could be conducted at a leisurely pace, the next days, flitting between farms and isolated rural dwellings, roaring through the countryside in low-lying autumnal fog, through valleys and winding through forested, undulating country, drawing many an angry gesture, was a different challenge.
In an effort to increase my pace, I started cutting corners with safety. This meant sometimes bypassing my better judgement and squeezing down estate cul de sac roads, poorly designed for a pressured courier and his van. In one instance, I attempted to three point turn quickly out of an entrapment, loudly and comically reversing straight into a post, leaving a vague impression similar to the emerging impact Amazon’s expectations were beginning to take on my mind and stress tolerance.
There increasingly existed a dilemma which befell me: go too fast and meet the demands placed on me, yet not just break the speed limit, obliterate it, and risk scrapes to a company rented van I would have to pay damages for, or go too slow, assume a safer speed, and risk employment termination.
My first full route of 140 stops and 250 packages brought home the realisation of these expectations. By the time I had finished loading at the depot and had travelled to my first stop in Melksham, two hours of the nine-hour window had evaporated and was continuing to shrink as I procrastinated just how I would achieve such an ambitious target. The behemoth revenue stream at their disposal had obviously not been targeted at smoothing the folds of the organisational set up, with driver aid numbers designed to help the driver locate the next package in the route inexplicably changing from ascending order, to now, descending order. My van had already been loaded in an ascending manner, learnt through the first 20 days of experience, leaving me wading through cardboard and alone with my resultant explicit language.
The pace did not let up. Over the Christmas period, the demands increased to a new level. This grew yet again during the third lockdown. By now, I imposed upon myself lunch time as my journey to my first drop. There was simply not enough time to carve out a window from the chaos in which to replenish my body, apart from when I was on the go. It also required sprinting from the van to the customer door and back again to hit demands. Many a customer looked incredulously at me as I sprinted away from their gratitude at breakneck speed. I would leave the house at 9.30am and often return at 9pm or later, dependent on when the last drop had been completed.
My days off were spent in a state of zombification with little energy to apply for more engaging work.
By January, the volume of packages had increased yet again. The routing has also become more erratic, with the distances between stops increasing and becoming less and less manageable. Tightly packed estate housing, a difficult challenge in itself owing to stop numbers, has been replaced with a higher frequency of farms and rural dwellings. The arrival of a later start and load up time instigated by Amazon, has meant trudging around the majority of these farms, often inundated in a thick layer of ground level manure, in impenetrable darkness.
I’ve investigated and found via forums and other sources that this appears to be the new normal post-Christmas. Amazon appear to have amalgamated routes, enabling them to give less routes to third party delivery contractors (DSP’s) and cutting their costs. In essence, this means that DSP’s are firing drivers, with the remaining drivers picking up a route with around 25 percent more volume.
My DSP has also started to aggressively monitor ‘concessions’, meaning Amazon has pressured them to do this. A concession occurs whenever a customer has a problem with a delivery. If you induce even a couple of concessions a week, with the knowledge a driver delivers 1,000 plus packages a week, then this can have consequences. This could be as simple as leaving a package in the front porch rather than at the back, and within the context of our imposed 250 packages to deliver, saving time by not engaging in battle with a seemingly immovable rear gate is a trick which makes the workload manageable.
I am fairly certain that software specialists employed at Amazon to develop our routing software did not consider the grandiose gated driveways we often encounter. Tapping desperately at a broken intercom with the grim realisation of the beckoning pedestrian gate and a half mile walk to the residence with packages, tends to raise my blood pressure. The frustration of this scenario, which happens more often than you would think, is sometimes negated by the warmth of customers. However, frantically running around a country manor with a headtorch, producing a maelstrom of barking dogs, followed by a knock at the door late at night, does not always bring out this warmth…
One benefit of working this job has been meeting some of the extremely hard-working overseas workers that make up the bulk of the delivery workforce. At my DSP, my co-workers are around 90 percent Romanian with a smattering of Lithuanians and Iraqis. The average monthly wage in Romania is £190 pounds and due to this hardship at home, they rarely complain of the conditions we work in. These workers sometimes finish their routes an hour earlier than the English drivers and then come to help us with our routes. This entails taking some packages from us, if we are behind, to ease the pressure and save us from the displeasure of Amazon. Their resilience and grit is something I am permanently in awe of and I have a deep respect for them.
Friday started like any other day, blitzing along the M4 to meet the shift time and pulling into the depot, desperately searching for any trace of WIFI to access the Amazon flex app.
When I finally got access, I was greeted by my largest ever volume and stop numbers in my itinerary for the day ahead.
Whilst 179 stops and 303 packages might be an achievable target in the context of a comparatively light week, back to back days of leaving the house at 9am and arriving home at 9pm after 250 plus package days, meant this peak in package numbers was enough to break my morale.
I attempted to wheel several of the overladen cages back to the depot to assume a more reasonable workload, however, my manager, intent on utilising every square inch of space in the van, regardless of the practical implications of finding packages in a suffocatingly full vehicle, exhibited his ‘technique’ of loading 300 packages in bags sideways.
Without the inch perfect configuration of bag angles he had managed, the doors would simply not shut, an issue I struggled with for much of the day after having to pull bags out to find the correct package, and falling short of replicating his arrangement when putting the bags back in.
With the knowledge that Amazon now expected double the amount of drops per hour, and with our pay slashed after the end of the Christmas period, we were now expected to do sometimes double the amount of work for £35 less a day. Considering we were still working in a pandemic, this seemed extremely harsh and unjustified.
Amazon’s approach has been age-old: to squeeze any inefficiencies they deduced out of the system, a system that had already been delivering hefty profits for them at considerable human cost.
Many drivers I spoke to now were completely bypassing food, even the sub optimal eating-while-driving scenario, for the convenient but long-term unhealthy option of protein shakes, shaving off valuable time that could now be sacrificed towards the corporate goal.
The result of this gamble has been to see drivers teeter at the edge of exhaustion and contemplate immediate resignation. Some of the Romanian drivers have returned to Romania rather than continue, disillusioned with the promise of better opportunities.
Most of the drivers I know are actively looking for other employment and yet with work scarce, Amazon know they can continue to tighten the vice in their grim search for greater efficiency, and greater profit.
Whilst I appreciate that people are trapped indoors and are in greater need of delivered goods, Amazon’s cheap prices and unprecedented turnaround times, especially for Prime members, hide fairly sinister conditions for drivers and workers. I hope at some level that more people realise this truth and, whilst I’m not expecting consumerist culture to be quashed by this mini expose, I’d hope customers return to support local businesses when they can, and if they have to orderonline, search for more ethical alternatives to Amazon.