Amazon Unpacked

How has the arrival of online shopping giant Amazon affected a small town in the Midlands? An assignment for the FT Weekend Magazine.

In November 2012, I was sent on assignment by the Financial Times Weekend Magazine to photograph people and places in and around Rugeley. A former coal mining town, Rugeley has struggled during the UK’s current recession, with high unemployment being a particular problem. The arrival of Amazon to occupy a huge warehouse in the town was originally seen as being a boost to the local economy. But has it turned out that way?

I worked alongside Sarah O’Connor, the FT’s economics correspondent, who made several visits to the area to gauge the atmosphere and opinions amongst the local residents.

The Amazon fulfilment centre was built on wasteground between the canal and a power station; an enormous long blue box, it looks like a smear of summer sky on the damp industrial landscape.

The interior of Amazon’s giant fulfilment centre is the size of nine football pitches. The efficiency of these warehouses is what enables Amazon to put parcels on customers’ doorsteps so quickly.

A service aisle used by forklift trucks and workers at Amazon's logistics centre in Rugeley, Staffordshire.

Amazon employees are labelled as 'associates' by the corporation. 'Pickers' push trolleys around and pick out customers' orders from the aisles. They might each walk between 7 and 15 miles as part of their daily shift.

Angi Cooney, who runs C Residential, the biggest estate agent in Rugeley, thinks the nature of employment is changing permanently and people should stop pining for the past.

"It's bloody great that a company like Amazon chose to come to this little old place", she says fiercely, looking as if she'd like to take the town by the shoulders and give it a shake.

"People expect a job for life, but the world isn't like that any more, is it?"

Former miners at the Lea Hall Miner's Welfare Centre, Rugeley.

"The feedback we're getting is working in the Amazon warehouse is like being in a slave camp" said Brian Garner, the centre's dapper chairman.

A former coal mine worker relaxes in the lounge at the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre.

When Rugeley's pit closed, four days before Christmas in 1990, a spokesman for British Coal told Reuters it was losing £300,000 a week. More than 800 people lost jobs that paid the equivalent of between £380 and £900 a week in today’s money.

In the Amazon Fulfilment centre, life-size staff portraits are used as vehicles for in-house motivation.

Adam Hoccom works in Facilities and Engineering.

"There are no limits to how far you can go with Amazon. If you have the potential and are prepared to follow Amazon standards, progression is easy, quick and rewarding.'

Bev Horton works in Outbound Despatch.

"We love coming to work and miss it when we're not here!"

Volunteers staff the Rugeley food bank, which offers support to local residents who are struggling to make ends meet.

Workers in Amazon’s warehouses – or “associates in Amazon’s fulfilment centres” as the company would put it – are divided into groups.

There are the people on the “receive lines” and the “pack lines”: they either unpack, check and scan every product arriving from around the world, or they pack up customers’ orders at the other end of the process. Another group stows away suppliers’ products somewhere in the warehouse.

“You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” said the Amazon manager. “It’s human automation, if you like.”

Allan Lyall is Vice President of European Operations for Amazon.

Amazon’s Darwinian culture comes from the top. Jeff Bezos, its chief executive, told Forbes magazine in 2012 (when it named him “number one CEO in America”): “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove, we’ll settle for intense.”

In their bright orange vests, 'pickers' deliver goods between various areas of the warehouse.

Britain’s economists are puzzled over why the economy remains moribund even though more and more people are in work. In 2013 there are still about half a million fewer people working as full-time employees than there were before the 2008 crash, but the number of people in some sort of employment has surpassed the previous peak.

Economists think the rise in insecure temporary, self-employed and part-time work, while a testament to the British labour market’s flexibility, helps to explain why economic growth remains elusive.