Amazon Warehouse in Chaos Due to Union-Busting ‘Dirty Tricks’

'It's literally like musical chairs.'

by Polly Smythe

28 March 2024

A person holds a placard supporting striking workers outside the Amazon warehouse, in Coventry. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A person holds a placard supporting striking workers outside Amazon’s Coventry warehouse. Henry Nicholls/Reuters

As the battle to unionise at Amazon’s warehouse in Coventry intensifies, the corporate giant is ramping up its anti-union campaign. The vast depot has been thrown into chaos as the hiring of thousands of non-union workers has overwhelmed facilities, while workers have been thrown into financial hardship because of an end to overtime.

For the past year, the GMB has been fighting a battle for union recognition at the warehouse, known as BHX4. Workers are demanding £15 an hour and the right to negotiate with Amazon over their working conditions.

Earlier this month, the GMB submitted an application to the independent central arbitration committee (CAC) for union recognition. If union membership at BHX4 grows to more than 50 per cent, Amazon could be forced by the CAC to recognise the GMB.

However, the GMB has warned that its attempt to win recognition is at risk of being undermined by “dirty tricks” taken by Amazon to “sidestep recognition.”

Last week, Amazon distributed leaflets inside the warehouse with large QR codes which generated an email to the GMB Midlands requesting the cancellation of union membership.

The leaflets said: “You decide what’s best for you. You are free to join or not to join a union. If you have made the personal decision to cancel your union membership, you can scan this QR code with your camera phone.”

Part of a leaflet distributed in Amazon's Coventry warehouse. Photo supplied by an Amazon worker
Part of a leaflet distributed in Amazon’s Coventry warehouse. Photo supplied by an Amazon worker

The GMB was forced to withdraw its initial request for recognition last June, after the union accused Amazon of hiring 1,300 non-union workers to defeat its application.

Since then, the GMB allege that Amazon has continued on a hiring spree, expanding the workforce at the Coventry site to offset the steady growth in union membership.

Amazon has publicly denied bringing in workers to skew the result of the CAC, instead claiming that the new recruits were needed to meet business demands.

But workers at the Coventry site say that overstaffing has thrown the warehouse into chaos.

In December 2022, during peak Christmas hiring, Amazon publicly confirmed that 1,400 workers were employed at the site. That figure has since more doubled, skyrocketing to 3,500, with Amazon continuing large-scale hiring, even at the start of the year which is usually relatively quiet after Christmas.

The GMB estimates that paying 1,300 additional workers costs Amazon over £300,000 a week.

BHX4 opened in 2017, on the site of the former Jaguar plant, and was designed to accommodate 1,650 workers. Workers say that the warehouse doesn’t generate enough work for all the staff now employed there.

To try and regulate the number of workers on each shift, Amazon is constantly offering workers Voluntary Time Off (VTO). Workers are being asked to take VTO, which is unpaid, before their shifts begin via text messages, and when they arrive for work.

In offering VTO, Amazon can continue to technically offer workers their contracted hours, while shrinking the workforce to avoid paying additional wages.

While VTO is supposed to be optional, workers told Novara Media that they feel pressured to take it.

“Amazon doesn’t want to pay people to stand around. They don’t like wasting money,” said Darren Westwood, an Amazon worker and GMB member.

Two current Amazon employees at the site said that workers who refuse to take VTO report being sent to work in other areas of the warehouse, often to do more physically demanding roles. Employees who refuse to move to another area within the warehouse risk being given a disciplinary notice.

“If you don’t want to take VTO they can’t force you to take it,” says a text message sent by the union to members inside the warehouse. Amazon “can only ask you to move to another area if: you are trained to work there, that training is up to date, and it won’t put your health and safety at risk.”

Westwood said that trying to find a workstation is increasingly difficult as they are overstaffed. “It’s literally like musical chairs,” he said. Staff who arrive to work early to try and secure a workstation risk being disciplined for going against Amazon policy.

The influx of new employees has left bathroom and dining facilities constantly overwhelmed.

One worker, who chose to remain anonymous, told Novara Media that because the bathrooms are either full or being cleaned, “you can walk around for 25 mins looking for a toilet.”

Under Amazon’s system of constantly monitoring staff, workers are receiving disciplinaries for time spent queuing or looking for a bathroom.

“When you return to your workstation, the bosses are asking ‘where have you been?’” said the worker. Workers told Novara Media that they are now avoiding using the bathroom during their shifts for fear of being disciplined.

Queues in the staff canteen can be up to half an hour long, giving workers little time to eat their food before returning to their shift.

The ability to pick up overtime shifts has disappeared with the over-staffing crisis, leaving the many workers who’d come to depend on extra shifts to boost their wages struggling to make ends meet.

GMB member and Amazon employee Garfield Hylton said: “People felt a necessity to do 60 hours to cover their costs of living expenses, and now, suddenly they have to drop down to doing 40. That’s a huge loss.”

“Some people work those extra hours to help with their education, or their families in this country and abroad,” said Hylton. “That money has been taken away.”

Another worker who chose to remain anonymous said, “many of my colleagues have been left scrambling for the small number of overtime opportunities.” Some have been forced to “take on other jobs with Uber or Just Eat,” they said.

“Many people have told me how stressed this has made them, in what can already be a stressful environment to work in.”

Stuart Richards, a regional organiser for the GMB, said: “Amazon has a bad reputation for blatant union busting and the actions of the bosses at Coventry appear to live up to this. As union membership has increased and even more workers joined the call for a unionised voice in their workplace, the staffing levels have continued to grow.

“Despite all of this, Amazon workers are still standing together. With union membership looking like it’s again at 50%, GMB are pushing again for statutory recognition.”

Rosa Curling, director of Foxglove, a legal non-profit that is supporting GMB and Coventry workers in their union recognition application, said: “Workers in Coventry are making history by applying for the first legal recognition of a union in a UK Amazon warehouse, in defiance of Amazon’s grubby union-busting tactics. Jeff Bezos has shown he has no interest in playing fair. That’s why we’re supporting these workers to make sure – this time – they get the legal recognition they deserve.”

An Amazon spokesperson said: “We regularly review our pay to ensure we offer competitive wages and benefits. By April, our minimum starting pay will have increased to £12.30 and £13 per hour depending on location, that’s a 20% increase over two years and 50% since 2018. We also work hard to provide great benefits, a positive work environment and excellent career opportunities. These are just some of the reasons people want to come and work at Amazon, whether it’s their first job, a seasonal role or an opportunity for them to advance their career.

“At Amazon, we regularly recruit new team members, across the country and across the year, providing great new career opportunities for thousands of people and to meet customer demand.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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