West London Amazon Flex Workers’ Report

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Intro

Currently two of our friends work as delivery drivers, one drives self-employed for Amazon Flex [1], the other delivers groceries for Tesco. Both delivery drivers are connected to bigger local distribution centres. Before we look at the conditions at Amazon Flex we want to summarise some basic information about the parcel delivery sector.

The sector employs more than quarter of a million people in the UK. With the expansion of internet shopping the number of delivery warehouse workers and drivers grew rapidly. There are currently 3.5 million vans on UK’s roads, most of them for commercial purposes. In 2015 more than 1.5 billion parcels were delivered in the UK.

The Royal Mail’s market share has been decreasing with new delivery companies entering the market, currently it stands at about 35%. There are around 15 parcel delivery companies in the UK that have a national network and only 35 companies that directly employ more than 100 people. In total there are over 11,000 registered ‘delivery companies’, most of them have less than 5 employees. Only around 100 delivery companies in the UK have a turnover of more than £5 million. [2] While nationally we might see a diversification of delivery companies, globally we see a concentration process.

Companies like DHL or TNT dominate the sector, which is capital intensive: while some of the last-mile delivery can be outsourced to self-employed guys who own their car or moped, a fast delivery of large volumes of parcels requires modern distribution centres, trucks and even aeroplane fleets. City Link went bust in 2014 and UK Mail got in financial trouble over investments in highly automated distribution centres in 2015. The company was subsequently taken over by DHL in 2016. According to Royal Mail analysis, over-capacities in the sector currently stand at 20% and are growing.

Most revenue is still made from deliveries between businesses (54%), but within six years the share of revenue made from ‘businesses to individual customer’-deliveries increased from 15% to 34% in 2015. Nearly two thirds of deliveries are ‘business to customer’, but the delivery companies make relatively less money from that. They try to recoup the heavy investment into their infrastructure by various means:

* by putting pressure on wages and/or use self-employed drivers who own their car (only viable when most parcels are relatively small) [3]
* by making customers pick-up their parcels from pick-up points, e.g. local shops
* by increasing the delivery working day, so vans don’t stand idle during the day and more items can be processed daily
* by increasing numbers of items delivered per hour: according to a recent survey of delivery work in London the average delivery round took 276 minutes, 44 items were delivered, only 41% of the time consisted of driving time, the rest was spent waiting, loading/unloading etc.
* by using other means of delivery (on foot, bikes, mopeds) in high traffic areas: average traffic speed in London has decreased by around 6% between 2009 and 2015. Road traffic vehicle delays have also risen over this same time period by between 17-31% in central London.

Despite all the talk about automation – driverless cars or drone delivery – most deliveries still largely depend on the improvisations and local knowledge of human labour: fighting over a place to park in central London, reacting to sudden road incidents, finding your way around London estates and so on.

There have been various disputes in the sector recently – unfortunately most unions focus on a legal recognition of self-employed drivers, as ‘workers’, which ends up in a battle between lawyers. There has been a legal back and forth at Amazon Flex recently. [4] Deliveroo self-employed drivers have proven that they are workers by going on strike – to which the bosses reacted as bosses.

For more details read the report below – which will also be posted on our ‘LondonRebelDrivers’- blog:

http://www.londonrebeldrivers.wordpress.com

For more details about working at Amazon in general, check out our older articles [5]…

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[1]
https://flex.amazon.co.uk/

[2]
http://www.ftc2050.com/reports/westminster_parcels_final_Dec_2016.pdf

[3]
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37708996

[4]
https://theloadstar.co.uk/amazon-hits-back-delivery-drivers-claim-legally-employees/

[5]
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/calling-all-junglists-a-short-report-from-amazon-in-hemel-hempstead/
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/amazon-poland-over-2000-people-want-to-go-on-strike-but-restrictive-polish-labor-laws-prohibit-it/
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2015/12/20/welcome-to-the-jungle-working-and-struggling-in-amazon-warehouses/
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/amazon-in-india-the-e-commerce-jungle-and-workers-reality/

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I write today about my current job for the last 8 months as a driver/courier delivering parcels for Amazon. According to Amazon, I’m an “independent contractor” and self-employed for tax purpose, meaning I have to pay everything from my own pocket, such as petrol, penalty or parking tickets and car insurance, although at the moment, Amazon is offering free extra cover for you during the length of your shift. On average, if I work 5 four-hour shifts, I end up spending about £30 on petrol, but this can go up if your deliveries are further away.

Getting started

To apply for this job you need to download an app named ‘amazonflex’, you are required to fill in all the information they need from you like: personal details, driving license, bank details, car insurance, N.I. number – all so they can make a background check on you. After about two weeks you will get the notification that your account is active and you can start to arrange your shifts (or ‘blocks’ as they call it). The ‘blocks’ are usually 4 hours long. Sometimes at 8pm in the evening they release blocks of only two hours, which I found out was for re-deliveries of parcels that had been attempted during the day. But generally, blocks are 4 hours, and the pay rate for them is £52, which is an average of £13 per hour.

Last week, however, was the Amazon Prime week (lasting 4 days from 11th-14th July) and the pay for these 4-hour blocks increased to £60. An email was sent to me some days before letting me know about this promotion: It said there would be more blocks than usual. But I was offered just one block during the whole four-day period, which I accepted, but there were no blocks available at all for the rest of the time, even fewer blocks than previous weeks. Maybe this was because there were already too many drivers for the blocks available – it probably wasn’t because the work volume went down or was unexpectedly low because this was a promotional week after all. But when I get these kinds of emails from Amazon, it makes me think that they consider me like an ordinary customer, the structure and content are more marketing than informative.

Once your account is active and before you can arrange your shifts you are required to watch a training video. This is a series of 16 videos between 2 or 3 minutes long each explaining how the app works, together with how your work will be, for example how to pick up the parcels, how to arrange shifts, what to do if the customer is not at home or your are unable to locate addresses etc…

The videos doesn’t really talk about working conditions, only what you have to do. In reality, we have: no assured hours; no holiday and/or sick pay; we don’t have a guaranteed minimum amount of shifts and, for me, the worst is that we don’t have an agreed amount of parcels we have to deliver on each block – one day managers at the pick-up station can give you 35 parcels to deliver and next day they give you 60 to finish in the same 4 hour block. Also, when the customer is not home you have to mark it as, “customer not available”, then once you finish all your deliveries you are required to go back to the pick-up station to return the undelivered packages. This takes time that I considered as being part of my 4-hour shift. This was apparently not the case but I will talk more in depth about this issue later…

Gearing up for the job

Once you sign up for a block you get a notification an hour before the block starts to remind you that in 60 minutes you start your deliveries. You are then shown your delivery or pick-up station. Once you arrive at the pick-up station, the manager asks you to scan a QR code so that you get paid. This is a new requirement, I never had to do this before. I asked the manager why and they said the reason was that Amazon had had reports about drivers turning back as soon as they got near the pick-up station so they still got paid, even if they hadn’t done any deliveries.

So once you scan that QR code, the manager assigns you a route, that then gets scanned into your app. You can have between 35 to 60 parcels to deliver during your 4-hour shift, which you have to scan in. When you finish you have to let the manager know how many parcels you scanned: sometimes there are big parcels and not everything fits in your car so they want to know how many you take and how many you left.

After this you start your route. Routes are usually close to the pick-up station. I make deliveries in West Drayton, Hounslow, Feltham, Southall, Greenford, Slough, Datchet, Horton, Isleworth, Windor, Uxbridge, Hayes and Heston, which are all within 5 to 25 minutes drive from the pick-up station. Two months back I had many deliveries in an area that were 30-35 minutes away, but I complained. 1 hour of my shift would be wasted if I had to go back to the pick-up station if I had undelivered parcels. I’m not sure if more people complained as well but they haven’t sent me that far out again over the last couple of months.

On the road

Once you are on the road you have to follow the Amazon GPS. You have to scan every parcel you deliver before handing it over to the customer or mark it as “customer not available”, and in order to do this, it must be within the range of the delivery address. I guess that Amazon wants to make sure you are at the actual address before you do this because otherwise you could just mark it as ‘undelivered’ as you pleased.

Technology fail

The Amazon GPS works badly. For example, it doesn’t warn you about streets with bollards so you have to turn back and find an alternative route for yourself (usually I tap the postcode into Google maps, but once you arrive you have to close Google maps and use Amazon GPS). Sometimes you are 300 yards away and the GPS says “I’m already here”, sometimes you are inside the house and the GPS says you’re 1 minute away, or I’m delivering multiple parcels in a block of flats, it works fine for the first parcel but not when you want to deliver the second one on another floor. The GPS fails and doesn’t let you scan the packages for delivery to the customer. Then I have to call the support team through my app. Usually they are helpful, but not always. It’s a bit frustrating when you are in front of a customer and this happens. Two weeks ago I had an update of the app and now the GPS voice doesn’t work, which makes things harder.

I have also received emails telling me that I have missed a block (i.e. shift) when I had not. The app even recognises that I worked that shift so it is interesting that there are glitches like this where information from the app is not received by the company. I wrote back to them and again got the mantra of “termination of contract” as the common threat, despite the fact that I can prove that they are wrong. I don’t expect a reply or an apology, and I’m not sure if my emails to them influences my ability to get shifts…

Annoyances

Personally I find one of the worst aspects of the job is that I never know how many parcels I am going to deliver that day – it can be 35 or 60, even if that means that will take longer than the 4-hours scheduled block. Any overtime is unpaid, you only get paid for the 4-hours. At first I was pretty angry with this lack of consistency, but then I went on some forums and figured out that there is one paragraph in the amazonflex app called, “amazonflex program”, that states that are you expected to deliver 35-40 parcels in a 6-hour blocks. I complained and showed managers what I had found. I even bought some packages back to the warehouse if I didn’t have time to deliver them within the 4-hours. For a few months after this, delivering 40 packages in 4 hours seemed reasonable to them.

Recently though, I was given 55 packages. I pointed them again to the guidance in the app, but they had changed it!! That sentence has now been deleted from the app altogether. It seems that they have changed their own policy at will. From now on you are required to deliver the number of parcels they want, no matter how long it takes. I still insisted I would bring parcels back if I don’t have time to deliver them, but two days later I got an email from amazonsupport saying that I have to deliver ALL parcels I was assigned, and that if I give back deliveries without attempting them that would lead to the “termination of the program” (interesting choice of language, they do not say termination of contract!)

We have a weekly report from Amazon flex, basically saying how many deliveries we’ve done during that week, those marked as delivered, as handed over to neighbours or as received by the customer, deliveries after 22:00 (considered as an unsuccessful delivery) or missed blocks etc. Also we get emails if a package was marked as delivered but the customer reports not having received it. Sometimes we have instructions in a footnote like, “leave safely at front porch, behind wheelie bin or garage”. The first week I took back a package back to the depot although it had such a footnote, but it was raining so hard that I decided to bring it back. The manager told me that I should have followed the instructions given. I tried to make them understand that the package could be damaged if I had left it, but the manager kept on insisting he was right. I said I wanted something in writing stating amazon flex team’s responsibility in case of damage if I had left it in the rain.

Some time later management complained that an item got damaged after I delivered it to the customer’s house and left it at the front door. I got an email threatening me with “termination of contract” this time but there was no information in the email that could tell me when and where this supposed incident happened. This makes me think that these emails are more of a way to put pressure on drivers rather than actually caring about the package getting to the customer and ironing out problems so they won’t happen again. I have the feeling amazon use drivers as scapegoats whenever anything goes wrong…

The managers are also trying to pressure me to drop packages with neighbours, in front porches or sheds because they want as many packages to be delivered (i.e. gotten rid off) as possible. It is probably extra work for managers to reschedule packages or maybe they are getting pressured from managers higher up than them that they then pass down to us.

Customers get asked about their delivery online afterwards but it is optional and probably nobody fills it out unless something went wrong with their delivery. They ask customers about the product condition (if it is broken or damaged) and service (if came on the expected date/time), but I have never been told what my stats are, presuming they keep them in relation to individual drivers.

Another issue is around availability of shifts. Once your account is active you can schedule your availability and sometimes you can get blocks in advance. But often it works on a first-come, first-served basis, so you have to act quickly or you may end up with too few shifts.

Once you scan your packages and you are on your own, with no managers controlling or shouting at you, the working environment is not so bad. On the other hand there is not really any chance to build relationships with other delivery drivers. When you go there to pick up your parcels, there is not much time to chat because other drivers need your parking slot. You can sometimes manage to talk to people while we wait for the managers to assign our route, but the truth is that it is difficult to build a relationship because there are always different drivers on each shift. The closest relationship I have is with the yard marshalls instead of other delivery drivers. I have the feeling of being isolated not having work colleagues anymore, which some people might like but not me. I miss having colleagues who you see more often and can have a bit more confidence in.

This all paints a very bad picture but all in all, compared to other places I have worked (mainly warehouses around west London), it is not so bad. I mean, I have definitely worked worse places! I have the feeling of being used, with no decent working conditions and having to do what the managers say, and not having any rights to do anything. Amazon can change our way of working or pay without any interference from unions, the government or anybody. It feels like they can do what they want and I only can shut my mouth or just leave. But these feelings were all actually much worse in my other jobs, which just shows how bad things are in general.

Currently I receive hardly more than two, three blocks per week, while I have received 4 hour blocks with 78 requested deliveries – nearly double as much as during the time when I started working at amazonflex. I have difficulties getting the money for the car insurance together and look for other work.

I hope you find this report interesting about my experience on this called “gig economy” that after some months I call the “giggle economy”.

 

 

 

 

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