A black box floats beneath our feet, containing a barrel of whey protein, 24 cans of Monster Energy and a Winnie the Pooh toy. It disappears through metal grates to be sorted, packed and sent off for next-day delivery. At 700,000 square feet, Amazon’s warehouse in Rugeley, Staffordshire, is roughly the size of 10 football pitches. By the time the box has crossed into the teeming tangle of conveyor belts, we’ve moved down one of the endlessly stretching walkways. There’s more than an echo of the corridors from The Shining – only these are meticulously colour-coded.
Over the last decade, Amazon, the most valuable company in the world, has repeatedly been criticised for allegedly monstrous working conditions. Jobs have been described as damaging to mental and physical health, with reports of workers walking up to 15 miles daily, of breaks too short, pay too low and overtime compulsory. (Speaking about its employees, Amazon recently told the Guardian: “We work hard to ensure they are provided a safe, comfortable, and modern work environment.”)
For the past two years, Kezia Cole and Richard Hay have been developing Fulfilment, a puppetry show about robots, artificial intelligence and Amazon’s workers’ rights. Today, Cole, Hay and I have joined a public tour of Rugeley warehouse. Our guide is a man with a politician’s ability to deflect difficult questions and a grating tendency to refer to women as “young lady”. No, he hasn’t seen the BBC Panorama episode about Amazon. “I think perhaps they’re letting a good story get in the way of the truth.” He reckons the public complaints against Amazon are only disgruntled employees. “What,” Cole snorts, “all of them?”
For three weeks, Cole and Hay hung out in pubs and on trains around another one of Amazon’s warehouses, or “fulfilment centres” – so called because they “fulfil dreams”. They spoke to almost 70 staff, most of whom were “pickers” and “packers”, doing the manual labour of finding and sorting the packages. “They give me 15 seconds from pick to pick,” one revealed. “Do you know what you can do in 15 seconds? Can’t even register the thing you’re picking.”
Fulfilment blends verbatim transcripts with the manipulation of Robox, “your personal fulfilment device”. Robox is a puppet in the shape of a robot, a metre-and-a-half tall with bright unblinking eyes. Its three puppeteers are dressed as Amazon staff. “We’re not hiding them,” Hay explains. “You just blank them out, like we do with Amazon workers.”
Robox learns about its audience live: “Alexa mark 10,” Cole offers. Audience interaction aids the setup, activating voice recognition and altering the lights in the theatre. Then Robox starts to ask questions. “I want to know all of you as well as I can,” it says. “The more I know you, the better I can give you all the things that make you smile.” Robox gets increasingly confident, and the humour darkens. Just as Amazon gathers our data, Robox gleans more than we think we’ve given away.
One of the common criticisms about Amazon is that it treats its workers like robots already. The warehouse tour coincides with lunch, so we only pass a human every quarter football-field or so, the scene motionless except the constant whirr of black totes swept along a relentless river. It’s lonely, says one of the interviewees. “You’re on your own with your trolley. The most interaction you get is the occasional nod as you pass another picker, turning a corner getting to the next location.”
The warehouse in Rugeley was placed under scrutiny in 2016 following the publication of James Bloodworth’s book Hired: Six Months in Low-Wage Britain, in which he reported on the realities of working there. Since the book, Amazon has increased its wages. But reports suggest that staff are no longer eligible for company shares or bonuses, meaning some believe they will be worse off than before. The retailer claims the increase “more than compensates for the phaseout”, and pledged to adjust some wages to ensure employees did not lose income. Workers say they now also have to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of their contract. (All of Cole and Hay’s interviewees were promised anonymity.)
Even walking slowly, we work up a sweat. In the summer, it can get up to 33C inside. Fulfilment’s interviewees revealed that the warehouses are so large it can take up to seven minutes to cross the space to the bathroom during a 10-minute toilet break. One worker short of time felt he had to urinate in a bin.
Meeting Amazon workers made Cole and Hay confront their own shopping habits. “They’re never going to change unless you legislate,” Cole insists, “but the government won’t do anything because of the jobs, and Amazon won’t do anything because of the bottom line for its shareholders. And it’s all set up in areas of deprivation, so it’s not like you can walk out of one job into another.” They have been boycotting Amazon for six months and hope the play might encourage others to shop more consciously. “It’s about showing people what their choices mean.”
“Every time I walk through these doors,” one of their sources admitted, “I am filled with dread that tonight is going to be the night I get fired.” In the play, as Robox starts to demonstrate the data it has collected over the audience, it becomes increasingly frustrated with the employees moving it. Taking on the persona of a fulfilment centre manager, it criticises them for wasting time. Its words are cruel. Then it turns sweetly back to the audience, the focus always on realising our desires, never mind what happens at the back end of the operation. “Your fulfilment is my fulfilment,” the robot tells the audience. “I am here to make you happy.”