TThis winter, with my own small business closed due to the pandemic, I was fortunate to find work as an Amazon Driving Associate. I ended up delivering orders in the Scottish Highlands for about seven weeks. It was a job, but not a real job – my truck may have had a sign across the front that said “Amazon Messenger (back in five minutes)”, but in fact my colleagues and I were freelancers, independent contractors. NGC Logistics, who hires us, has a contract with Amazon, creating two tiers between us and our final and actual employer. The reasons for this soon became clear.
Let’s start from the beginning. On a cold November morning, a group of about a dozen gathers outside a hotel on the outskirts of Inverness. For two days we received training from Amazon, with Amazon protocols and Amazon brand. At one point, a video clip of Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in human history, plays, offering a poignant tale of his early struggles. The training we receive is not directed by a human but by a laptop on a table, playing a recording of another kind, with slides and video clips projected on a screen.
The training makes it clear that our safety is Amazon’s first priority, so we are encouraged to purchase our own first aid kits and safety shoes. (Drivers receive masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves.) Maybe half an hour covers practical tips on driving safety. But most of the two days is spent learning about Amazon’s strict and detailed protocols regarding delivery methods. The delivery procedure was explicit and detailed, and we can’t deviate a bit. But we are all used to some level of corporate nonsense, and the atmosphere in the room is good; we are happy to have work.
The flaws in our training clear up a week later when I start my first shift. For two hours, an experienced driving associate sits next to me in the truck. The essence of work is speed, he tells me: each drop shouldn’t take more than a minute. I calculate that We approximately have an average of 3.4 minutes to travel, park, find the right packages, scan them using the Amazon app that we have downloaded to our phones, and get them to the door. If the customer is away (which is often the case), they may have left instructions to leave their package in a designated safe place. Then we fill out a “Sorry, We Lost You” card, put it in the mailbox, and take a picture of the package before leaving. This seems like a lot of activity in less than four minutes, but I’m ready. And indeed, the nuts and bolts of the job are satisfying: on a sunny morning, strolling through the suburbs of Inverness is not a bad way to earn a living.
I soon realize that more experienced drivers buckle their seat belts and sit on top of them, making it easy to get into and out of the van.. By the second day I am doing this as well, although I have never driven a truck before and I don’t feel in full control of the vehicle. In January, I read in the official group chat that two vans are stolen within a week of each other with the keys in the ignition. This would mean that the insurance, which they have had to buy themselves, is not valid: these guys are well screwed. People are so paranoid that they begin to suspect that the thefts are being committed by other disgruntled drivers who know the routes.
There are about 130 drivers on the books. It is convenient for the company to hire at will, retaining a huge workforce that does not owe a guaranteed job. Most of the drivers I encountered hire and insure their vans through the company. Two shifts a week, at £ 122 a shift, barely covers the outlay. Three shifts would just screw it up, but I rarely get three shifts a week. Hardly anyone does, it seems. For those who find complementary work elsewhere, it is still difficult to accept, because there are no shifts. Find out if he has a shift around 8pm the day before, via text message. No text, no job. Shifts can be canceled at the last minute.
I don’t live near Inverness, so I book a bed in a guesthouse outside the city for the week. Many other residents were Amazon drivers, a group both diverse (there were five different countries of origin among five of us) and homogeneous (men, 35 to 45 years old). The table costs £ 100 per week. My food costs are low, because I am a chef and I can make cheap ingredients very useful. I can make a stew for £ 7 that will provide four hearty meals. I try to sell portions for £ 3 to other residents, but they know how to eat even cheaper than I do: they have milk and cereal for dinner.
After a week I crashed the truck but it didn’t hurt. The damage is estimated at £ 1,000, to be deducted from my salary at the rate of £ 100 per week (the van is rented from another company, which I was told is also owned by NGC). The van rental is £ 215 per week. In fact, I am getting negative weekly gains. Many drivers I speak of have gone into debt in this way. The roads are icy but if we want a shovel or snow chains, we have to provide them ourselves. Very few do this. It is hard to believe that better training cannot prevent these incidents on the road.
One night, when I return to the pension, I notice that Tomak (not his real name) is desperate. He is a thin man, but has visibly lost weight in the month that I have been here. He has been able to send less than £ 50 to his family in four weeks. It almost looks like he’s starving. Meanwhile, Amazon’s revenue increased during the pandemic: in the last quarter of the financial year, brought in $ 125 billion.
In statements, which we have edited in depth, Amazon said they are “committed to ensuring that people hired by our independent delivery providers are fairly compensated and treated with respect” and that drivers have “multiple ways to share … concerns, including escalation of any challenge to Amazon through a 24/7 hotline. “
NGC Logistics said: “Business volumes are highly seasonal and therefore work can be sporadic and we encourage all of our independent contractors to take advantage of other opportunities so that they are not dependent on work offered solely by NGC … we work hard to make sure they provide well-paid opportunities for the work being done. We make sure we only work with contractors who are fully insured, have a full background check, and have a van equipped to handle scheduled work. ” They also said that “they take safety very seriously and with our customers offer general advice and help on how to drive safely. The expectation is to drive safely and lawfully at all times … We regularly ask contractors for feedback and listen to any feedback they have as we value feedback. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism