Amazon has been accused of creating “intolerable working conditions” after allegations that workers have been penalised for sick days and that some are camping near one of its warehouses to save money commuting to work.
Willie Rennie, the Liberal Democrat leader in Scotland, said Amazon should be “ashamed” that workers at its warehouse in Dunfermline have chosen to camp outside in the winter.
He made the comments after the the Courier newspaper published photographs of tents near the site that it said were being lived in by Amazon workers. It said at least three tents were pitched close to the warehouse by the M90 in Dunfermline and that a man living in one of them had said he was an employee who usually lives in Perth.
A Sunday Times investigation found that temporary workers at the warehouse were being penalised for taking time off sick and put under pressure to hit targets for picking orders. It also claimed that although workers could walk up to 10 miles a day doing their jobs, water dispensers were regularly empty.
Amazon has hired 20,000 agency workers for the peak Christmas season, more than doubling its workforce. Staff have to pay to catch an agency-provided bus to the Dunfermline site.
Rennie has repeatedly called for the firm to improve conditions at its Dunfermline site and said the latest claim “chimes with the feedback I have received from local people over a long period of time”.
He said: “It confirms that Amazon have created intolerable working conditions for many. The company don’t seem to be interested in keeping workers for too long as they work them until they drop. They have generated an oppressive culture where management and some workers put undue pressure on workers.
“It’s time for Amazon to finally change their ways. That means a change to wages and to working conditions.”
Rennie said the firm should be “ashamed that they pay their workers so little that they have to camp out in the dead of winter to make ends meet”.
Amazon, which has 12 fulfilment centres around the UK, has come under fire in the past for its treatment of workers, many of whom are employed through agencies. Three years ago, an undercover reporter for the Observer wrote about the long hours and physical work carried out for low pay, while more recently unions have claimed that workers are falling ill as a result.
Online job forums have reviews by former workers which describe being expected to “work like robots” and “paranoia with job security”. Workers say overtime is compulsory and holidays banned in the busy months of November and December.
In a statement, Amazon said it “provides a safe and positive workplace with competitive pay and benefits from day one.
“We are proud to have been able to create several thousand new permanent roles in our UK fulfilment centres over the last five years. One of the reasons we’ve been able to attract so many people to join us is that we offer great jobs and a positive work environment with opportunities for growth.
“We offer associates a range of roles in our fulfilment centres, depending on their preferences. Some roles involve walking a number of miles each day, a fact we make clear during the recruitment process. Many associates seek these positions as they enjoy the active nature of the work. There are many opportunities for people who prefer less active roles.
“As with nearly all companies, we expect a certain level of performance from our associates. Productivity targets are set objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce.”
The company said it analysed wages every year to ensure they were competitive. All permanent and temporary Amazon workers start on £7.35 an hour or more and earn at least £11 an hour for overtime. There are paid 30-minute lunch breaks and subsidised meals. The new national living wage is £7.20 for workers aged over 25.
Water is readily available for staff as they performed their duties, Amazon said, and it has a “fair and predictable system to record staff attendance and take into account individual circumstances”.
Michael Newman, an employment lawyer at Leigh Day, said that it was legal for companies to have a policy which meant that workers were effectively penalised if they were off sick. “Absence policies are definitely becoming stricter – one example would be having a bonus or ‘attendance allowance’ that is then forfeited if the worker is off sick,” he said.
“Amazon’s policy doesn’t seem particularly unusual though – the important thing is to distinguish between days off, and periods of absence. It is usually the latter that counts for unfair dismissal purposes, although many policies look at both how long you are off for, and how many times you are off.”
The Labour MP Frank Field, who has been campaigning against poor conditions for self-employed workers, said the government-ordered review into working practices should issue an interim report.
“Inquiries take time but over that time the injustices are growing,” he said. “There have been reports on Hermes and Uber done by my office, and now the Sunday Times investigation – there is enough information out there.”