Trying to find a balance in these strange times.
I wrote down the title of today’s post a few days back. Jean and I had just watched the BBC Panorama Special regarding Amazon UK. It had been screened on the 25th November and was described:
It’s the online retailer that has transformed the way we shop, but how does Amazon treat the workers who retrieve our orders? Working conditions in the company’s giant warehouses have been condemned by unions as among the worst in Britain. Panorama goes undercover to find out what happens after we fill our online shopping basket.
Or more fully reported in a BBC News item, as this extract reveals:
A BBC investigation into a UK-based Amazon warehouse has found conditions that a stress expert said could cause “mental and physical illness”.
Prof Michael Marmot was shown secret filming of night shifts involving up to 11 miles of walking – where an undercover worker was expected to collect orders every 33 seconds.
It comes as the company employs 15,000 extra staff to cater for Christmas.
Amazon said in a statement worker safety was its “number one priority”.
Undercover reporter Adam Littler, 23, got an agency job at Amazon’s Swansea warehouse. He took a hidden camera inside for BBC Panorama to record what happened on his shifts.
He was employed as a “picker”, collecting orders from 800,000 sq ft of storage.
A handset told him what to collect and put on his trolley. It allotted him a set number of seconds to find each product and counted down. If he made a mistake the scanner beeped.
“We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves”, he said.
The 30-minute Panorama programme is on YouTube and is included in this post just below.
OK, back to my theme for today.
As I started to explain, the reaction to watching the Panorama programme was to feel sickened by the way these workers were being treated.
Not helped when yesterday, the UK Daily Mail newspaper added their own story of another undercover reporting operation at Amazon. Here’s an extract from the last third of the piece, reported by Carole Cadwalladr:
It is taxes, of course, that pay for the roads on which Amazon’s delivery trucks drive, and the schools in which its employees are educated.
Taxes that all its workers pay, and that, it emerged in 2012, Amazon tends not to pay.
On UK sales of £4.2 billion in 2012, it paid £3.2 million in corporation tax. In 2006, it transferred its UK business to Luxembourg and reclassified its UK operation as simply an ‘order fulfilment’ business.
The Luxembourg office employs 380 people. The UK operation employs 21,000. You do the sums.
Brad Stone tells me that tax avoidance is built into the company’s DNA. From the very beginning it has been ‘constitutionally oriented to securing every possible advantage for its customers, setting the lowest possible prices, taking advantage of every known tax loophole or creating new ones’.
In Swansea I chat to someone called Martin for a while. It’s Saturday, the sun is shining and the warehouse has gone quiet. The orders have been turned off like a tap.
‘It’s the weather,’ he says. ‘When it rains, it can suddenly go mental.’ We clear away boxes and the tax issue comes up.
‘There was a lot of anger here,’ he says. ‘People were very bitter about it. But I’d always say to them: “If someone told you that you could pay less tax, do you honestly think you would volunteer to pay more?”’
He’s right. And the people who were angry were also right. It’s an unignorable fact of modern life that, as Stuart Roper of Manchester Business School tells me, ‘some of these big brands are more powerful than governments. They’re wealthier. If they were countries, they would be pretty large economies.
‘They’re multinational and the global financial situation allows them to ship money all over the world. And the Government is so desperate for jobs that it has given away large elements of control.’
MPs like to attack Amazon and Starbucks and Google for not paying their taxes, but they’ve yet to actually create legislation compelling them to do so.
Then if that wasn’t sufficient to make me want to live on a desert island, along comes George Monbiot pointing out that even the BBC, to me the most respected and trusted news organisation on the planet, has been economical with the truth.
The BBC’s disgraceful failure to reveal who its contributors are speaking for.
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website 29th November 2013
Do the BBC’s editorial guidelines count for anything? I ask because it disregards them every day, by failing to reveal the commercial interests of its contributors.
Let me give you an example. Yesterday the Today programme covered the plain packaging of cigarettes. It interviewed Mark Littlewood, director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, an organisation which calls itself a thinktank.
Mishal Husain introduced Mark Littlewood as “the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a smoker himself”.
Fine. But should we not also have been informed that the Institute of Economic Affairs receives funding from tobacco companies?
It’s bad enough when the BBC interviews people about issues of great importance to corporations when it has no idea whether or not they are funded by those companies, and makes no effort to find out.
It’s even worse when those interests have already been exposed, yet the BBC still fails to mention them.
Both the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute have for years been funded by tobacco firms. The IEA has been funded by British American Tobacco since 1963, and is also paid by Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International. It has never come clean about this funding, and still refuses to say which other corporations sponsor it.
The power of self.
Then along came three items that pulled my back from the brink of despair and disgust.
The first came from the blog of the UK’s Transition Network, Transition Times. Rob Hopkins wrote an article on December 5th called The day I closed my Amazon account. Please read it if you feel unsettled by the Amazon situation. The last two paragraphs are:
Me, I resolve to buy less, but better. Less, but longer-lasting. Less, but local. The thought of where we will end up in 5 years time, 10 years time, 20 years time, if companies like Amazon continue as they are, really frightens me. It’s not good, it’s not right. It’s not about our needs, it’s about the needs of huge investors. I want a different world for my boys.
I can’t, on my own, do that much about it. I can’t insist that the UK government legislate so that, as in Holland, the Recommended Retail Price (RRP) is the legal minimum at which any book can be sold, although I think that is grounds for a really timely campaign. Because of that, Amazon don’t really operate in Holland. Bring back the RRP for books here, and let’s have a level playing field. As I say, I can’t do much, but I can withdraw my support. I just have withdrawn my support. It feels surprisingly unsettling, as one does after ending a relationship, but it was the right thing to do. It may be a drop in the ocean, but if enough people do it….
The second was coming across something called The Restart Project in London. I had never heard of them before. But it gets better because these London folk are part of a global movement. Which in the words of The Restart Project can be explained thus:
A spontaneous, global, grassroots repair movement
Sitting in London, we at The Restart Project have been inspired by Holland, the US, Australia, and now we realize that there are many more community repair and fixit groups than we ever knew of before… Milan, Barcelona, Finland, the list just grows.
Some groups have regular events in their own spaces and some are pop-up groups.
The most remarkable thing is that we are not just all doing similar things, we are doing them in the same way and with similar motivations
1) learning, skillsharing and community are a premium. No judgment. Openness and inclusivity, all are made to feel welcome.
2) the idea is NOT a freebie fix. The idea is that people get involved in the repair, taking responsibility for their stuff and taking back control. It’s about behaviour change, not just about waste prevention
3) importantly – fun!
Please help us map repair groups, to connect people to their local repair gurus and fixit friends – and who knows, inspire the creation of more.
“Just repair, don’t despair!”
Just repair, don’t despair! That shouted out at me. The more that the world we live in is consumed by the power-brokers and greed-mongers. The more that our traditional view of politics is seen to be out-dated and incorrect, then the more we have do within our own lives, within our own communities and with our friends, loved ones and families to show we can repair our world a darn site quicker than the ‘dark forces’ can break it.
My third example of hope is tomorrow in a post called The power of self.