Amazon Unpacked

I was sent on assignment by the Financial Times Weekend Magazine to photograph people and places in and around Rugeley. A former coal mining town, Rugeley has struggled during the UK’s current recession, with high unemployment being a particular problem. The arrival of Amazon to occupy a huge warehouse in the town was originally seen as being a boost to the local economy, but has it turned out that way? 

I worked alongside Sarah O’Connor, the FT’s economics correspondent, who made several visits to the area to gauge the atmosphere and opinions amongst the local residents.

 

Amazon Unpacked.

As online shopping explodes in Britain, helping to push traditional retailers such as HMV out of business, more and more jobs are moving from high-street shops into warehouses like this one. Under pressure from politicians and the public over its tax arrangements, Amazon has tried to stress how many jobs it is creating across the country at a time of economic malaise. The undisputed behemoth of the online retail world has invested more than £1bn in its UK operations and announced last year that it would open another three warehouses over the next two years and create 2,000 more permanent jobs. Amazon even had a quote from David Cameron, the prime minister, in its September press release. “This is great news, not only for those individuals who will find work, but for the UK economy,” he said.

People in Rugeley, Staffordshire, felt exactly the same way in the summer of 2011 when they heard Amazon was going to occupy the empty blue warehouse on the site of the old coal mine. It seemed like this was the town’s chance to reinvent itself after decades of economic decline. But as they have had a taste of its “jobs of the future”, their excitement has died down. Most people are still glad Amazon has come, believing that any sort of work is better than no work at all, but many have been taken aback by the conditions and bitterly disappointed by the insecurity of much of the employment on offer.

thanks to Sarah O’Connor for the accompanying text for these photographs. 

For syndication of this feature please contact Picturetank.

Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
Amazon's warehouse in Rugeley, Staffs, looks like a huge blue box. It is the size of nine football pitches, and sits alongside a power station that dominates the town's skyline.
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
The Amazon fulfilment centre was built on wasteground between the canal and a power station; an enormous long blue box, it looks like a smear of summer sky on the damp industrial landscape.
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
The interior of Amazon’s giant fulfilment centre is the size of nine football pitches. The efficiency of these warehouses is what enables Amazon to put parcels on customers’ doorsteps so quickly.
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
Amazon employees are labelled as 'associates' by the corporation. 'Pickers' push trolleys around and pick out customers’ orders from the aisles. They might each walk between 7 and 15 miles as part of their daily shift.
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
Angi Cooney, who runs C Residential, the biggest estate agent in Rugeley, thinks the nature of employment is changing permanently and people should stop pining for the past. It’s “bloody great” that a company like Amazon chose to come to “this little old place”, she says fiercely, looking as if she’d like to take the town by the shoulders and give it a shake. “People expect a job for life, but the world isn’t like that any more, is it?”
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
Former miners at the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre, Rugeley. “The feedback we’re getting is [working in the Amazon warehouse is] like being in a slave camp,” said Brian Garner, the centre’s dapper chairman.
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
A former coal mine worker relaxes in the lounge at the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre. When Rugeley's pit closed, four days before Christmas in 1990, a spokesman for British Coal told Reuters it was losing £300,000 a week. More than 800 people lost jobs that paid the equivalent of between £380 and £900 a week in today’s money.
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
In the Amazon Fulfilment centre, life-size staff portraits are used as vehicles for in-house motivation. Adam Hoccom works in Facilities and Engineering. "There are no limits to how far you can go with Amazon. If you have the potential and are prepared to follow Amazon standards, progression is easy, quick and rewarding.'
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
Bev Horton works in Outbound Despatch. "We love coming to work and miss it when we're not here!"
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
Volunteers staff the Rugeley food bank, which offers support to local residents who are struggling to make ends meet.
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
Workers in Amazon’s warehouses – or “associates in Amazon’s fulfilment centres” as the company would put it – are divided into four main groups. There are the people on the “receive lines” and the “pack lines”: they either unpack, check and scan every product arriving from around the world, or they pack up customers’ orders at the other end of the process. Another group stows away suppliers’ products somewhere in the warehouse. “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” said the Amazon manager. “It’s human automation, if you like.”
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
Allan Lyall is Vice President of European Operations for Amazon. Amazon’s Darwinian culture comes from the top. Jeff Bezos, its chief executive, told Forbes magazine last year (when it named him “number one CEO in America”): “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove, we’ll settle for intense.”
Amazon in Rugeley for the Financial Times Magazine
In their bright orange vests, 'pickers' deliver goods between various areas of the warehouse. Britain’s economists are puzzled over why the economy remains moribund even though more and more people are in work. There are still about half a million fewer people working as full-time employees than there were before the 2008 crash, but the number of people in some sort of employment has surpassed the previous peak. Economists think the rise in insecure temporary, self-employed and part-time work, while a testament to the British labour market’s flexibility, helps to explain why economic growth remains elusive.