For a week, I was an Amazon elf: a temporary worker who got a job through a Swansea employment agency – though it turned out I wasn’t the only journalist who happened upon this idea. Last Monday, BBC’s Panorama aired a programme that featured secret filming from inside the same warehouse. I wonder for a moment if we have committed the ultimate media absurdity and the show’s undercover reporter, Adam Littler, has secretly filmed me while I was secretly interviewing him. He didn’t, but it’s not a coincidence that the heat is on the world’s most successful online business. Because Amazon is the future of shopping; being an Amazon “associate” in an Amazon “fulfilment centre” – take that for doublespeak, Mr Orwell – is the future of work; and Amazon’s payment of minimal tax in any jurisdiction is the future of global business. A future in which multinational corporations wield more power than governments.
But then who hasn’t absent-mindedly clicked at something in an idle moment at work, or while watching telly in your pyjamas, and, in what’s a small miracle of modern life, received a familiar brown cardboard package dropping on to your doormat a day later. Amazon is successful for a reason. It is brilliant at what it does. “It solved these huge challenges,” says Brad Stone. “It mastered the chaos of storing tens of millions of products and figuring out how to get them to people, on time, without fail, and no one else has come even close.” We didn’t just pick and pack more than 155,000 items on my first day. We picked and packed the right items and sent them to the right customers. “We didn’t miss a single order,” our section manager tells us with proper pride.
At the end of my first day, I log into my Amazon account. I’d left my mum’s house outside Cardiff at 6.45am and got in at 7.30pm and I want some Compeed blister plasters for my toes and I can’t do it before work and I can’t do it after work. My finger hovers over the “add to basket” option but, instead, I look at my Amazon history. I made my first purchase, The Rough Guide to Italy, in February 2000 and remember that I’d bought it for an article I wrote on booking a holiday on the internet. It’s so quaint reading it now. It’s from the age before broadband (I itemise my phone bill for the day and it cost me £25.10), when Google was in its infancy. It’s littered with the names of defunct websites (remember Sir Bob Geldof’s deckchair.com, anyone?). It was a frustrating task and of pretty much everything I ordered, only the book turned up on time, as requested.
But then it’s a phenomenal operation. And to work in – and I find it hard to type these words without suffering irony seizure – a “fulfilment centre” is to be a tiny cog in a massive global distribution machine. It’s an industrialised process, on a truly massive scale, made possible by new technology. The place might look like it’s been stocked at 2am by a drunk shelf-filler: a typical shelf might have a set of razor blades, a packet of condoms and a My Little Pony DVD. And yet everything is systemised, because it has to be. It’s what makes it all the more unlikely that at the heart of the operation, shuffling items from stowing to picking to packing to shipping, are those flesh-shaped, not-always-reliable, prone-to-malfunctioning things we know as people.
It’s here, where actual people rub up against the business demands of one of the most sophisticated technology companies on the planet, that things get messy. It’s a system that includes unsystemisable things like hopes and fears and plans for the future and children and lives. And in places of high unemployment and low economic opportunities, places where Amazon deliberately sites its distribution centres – it received £8.8m in grants from the Welsh government for bringing the warehouse here – despair leaks around the edges. At the interview – a form-filling, drug- and alcohol-testing, general-checking-you-can-read session at a local employment agency – we’re shown a video. The process is explained and a selection of people are interviewed. “Like you, I started as an agency worker over Christmas,” says one man in it. “But I quickly got a permanent job and then promoted and now, two years later, I’m an area manager.”