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Stack, Pack, Repeat - Undercover Inside An Amazon Warehouse In France

A French journalist upset by the shuttering of local book shops gets a temp job with Amazon, where only the "supermotivated" survive to work under conditions that violate labor codes.

Turning humans into boxing robots?
Turning humans into boxing robots?
Dominique Nora

MONTELIMAR – After watching his favorite local book shops close down in his French hometown of Toulon, Jean-Baptiste Malet, 26, decided to take an interest in American online retailer Amazon.

"I wanted to see what was replacing these friendly stores that I liked so much," said Malet, a journalist for Golias, a Progressive Christian magazine in France. The diehard book lover set out to interview employees at the Amazon warehouse in Montelimar, in the south of France. But his attempts to get people to talk were in vain.

Amazon employees are held to a very strict nondisclosure clause. "The idea that employees can’t express themselves, even though French labor laws allows it, shocked me,” explains Malet.

At that point, he decided to get a job at the Montelimar warehouse, which was recruiting 1,200 temporary workers for Christmas 2012, up from the typical 350 permanent employees at the location.

It is the start of a voyage of discovery into “the other side of the screen.” Malet’s investigation is full of revealing details on the labor conditions of these new workers, whose temporary slots are created every day by our clicks.

"I only want super-motivated people!" At the first two-hour information meeting, which is held at the Adecco temp agency in Montelimar, the recruitment officer from Amazon repeats this phrase every 15 minutes: Candidates are “free to leave” if they do not feel up to the task.

Their mission? To operate ultra-repetitive tasks, during seven-hour shifts, paid 9.72 euros per hour. The French minimum wage is 9.43 euros.

There are four different kinds of jobs, which are divided into three shifts: 5:50 a.m. to 1:10 p.m., 1:40-9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to 4:50 a.m.

There are the receivers who unpack suppliers’ products; the stowers who stack away the products; the pickers who pick up the products in the aisles, and lastly the packerswho pack the products to be shipped out.

There is a whole English vocabulary that has to be learned: inbound, outbound, damage, bins, slam, associates, leaders... There is also this slogan, that seems to come straight from Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World: "Work Hard, Have Fun, Make History.”

The life of an associate is codified according to processes that manage each aspect of the job: the maximum speed allowed in the staff parking (15 km/h); the way to park cars (by backing into a space); the way trolleys are handled (reversing a trolley is banned); the way items are piled (ordered by size, bar-codes on top).

Dazed robots

The job is exhausting – although the routing is optimized thanks to NavSat software, the picker walks between 20 and 25 kilometers a shift. Backs, necks, wrists and thighs become very sore.

"There is also those long moments, often around 3:30 for me, when your legs turn to stone," writes Malet. What’s worse is that if you take into account the distances and anti-theft screenings, there are only five minutes of actual sitting down during each of the two 20-minute breaks per shift.

All this is probably not illegal – aside from the fact that work contracts are sent two weeks after recruitment or that there is no medical care for the night shifts. But then why, asks the author, does the French government subsidize these jobs by granting Amazon huge fiscal breaks so that it pays hardly any tax in France, while continuing to smother our libraries and stores, be they traditional or e-retailers?

According to Malet, Amazon turns its recruits into dazed "robots" submitted to increasing productivity goals. Their scanning machines are "electronic cops" that transmit information that is monitored in real time by the leaders, who themselves are under pressure by their managers.

Like in a bad reality TV game, week after week, only the best performing employees are kept. And the chosen few who can attain Amazon’s “high standards” get a permanent contract – the Holy Grail for these legions of struggling workers. “This Amazon job sucks, but there is nothing else,” says one of these workers.

Still only in French, this is a book that will probably not be available on Amazon Kindle.

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