GMB demands Amazon conduct health risk assessments

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A GMB member employed by Amazon in one of its depots fell ill after handling packaging on goods imported into the UK.

The member is convinced that the illness is linked to insects carried in the packaging.

GMB, the union for staff at Amazon, is calling on the company to conduct as a matter of urgency a risk assessment of the dangers to the health and safety of staff and potential damage to the UK economy of insect invasion in wood and other packaging of goods imported from abroad.

Amazon employs 7,000 permanent staff, 10,000 casual staff and 5,000 seasonal staff in its operations in the UK.

Amazon has operations in Croydon, Doncaster, Dunfermline, Gourock, Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Rugeley, Swansea, Slough and Holborn in London.

The vast majority of the 22,000 staff are paid £6.39 per hour with the permanent staff starting on £7 per hour. Amazon plans to double the number of warehouses it operates in Britain in the next three years.

GMB has being warning the public that the high tech way Amazon processes orders and tracks inventory disguises that it is also a traditional labour intensive mail order retail business.

Jeff Beck, GMB Regional Officer in South Wales, said: ‘Amazon is in denial that insect invasion is even possible. GMB is not expert in this field but are aware that this stance is not sustainable.

‘In May 2014 the Ecological Society of America showed that the emerald ash borer has been carried into North America in recent times with the wooden packing material of imported goods. They said it is projected to cause over a billion dollars in damages annually over the next decade.

‘Scientists have called for treatment to prevent wood borer introduction and say it is worthwhile when the cumulative damages of widening infestations are considered. This is but one example on insect invasion. There is evidence of others too.

‘GMB want Amazon to undertake a proper risk assessment, involving proper experts in the field of insect invasion and health professionals, to come to conclusions on the threats invasions pose to the health and safety of members in their warehouses and to the environment and the wider economy.

‘GMB want to see Amazon specify that suppliers and shippers use packaging materials that have been properly treated to prevent insect invasion.’

Amazon relies on a road network funded by taxpayers for the business-to-business delivery of products to warehouses and for the business-to-customer delivery to private homes.

It relies on large numbers of staff to receive the goods, to pick and pack them to meet customer orders. Where it differs from other retailers is its refusal to pay proper taxes or to treat its workers properly, alleged the GMB.

This gives Amazon an unfair competitive advantage and is part of the reason why so many established high street names are going to the wall. GMB is working to strip away the high tech image and expose the exploitation involved in their business model.

Many staff at Amazon are actually employed by employment agencies in casual or temporary jobs with no job security and no guaranteed incomes.

Using employment to meet fluctuating demand for labour is equivalent to selection at the dock gates in Victorian times and is casual labour of the worst kind.

Amazon pays its UK staff just above the national minimum wage of £6.31 per hour. Paying a minimum wage rather than a wage workers can live on obliges taxpayers to top up wages for staff with families.

Working families tax credit is a subsidy to a company like Amazon which pays little corporation taxes. Staff complain about a culture of bullying and harassment endemic in the ‘dataveillance’ that comes from staff being required to wear digital arm mounted terminals, AMTs, with no agreed protocols re breaks, speeds etc.

Requiring employees to wear AMTs and subjecting them to dataveillance, while denying them union rights, takes away the consent essential for the positive use of digital arm-band devices. Members say it is human automation – they are kind of robots with no say.

GMB says we need to work on improving ergonomics for our members and seek to ensure that Amazon pays proper taxes. In 2006, Amazon transferred its UK business to Luxembourg and reclassified its UK operation as simply an ‘order fulfilment’ business to qualify for lower taxes.

The Luxembourg office employs 380 people. The UK operation employs 15,000. GMB has called for this abuse to stop.

Meanwhile, responding to Wednesday’s publication by the Equality and Human Rights Commission of The Invisible Workforce: Employment Practices in the Cleaning Sector TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘This report shines a light on British businesses’ dirty secret – the appalling conditions faced by those who clean their offices and workplaces.

‘Cleaners across Britain face poverty wages, job insecurity and a lack of respect from their employer. Many do not get their legal entitlements to holiday pay or the minimum wage, and tackling this injustice by speaking up and joining a union often results in further persecution.

‘Agencies who employ cleaners – as well as the millions of businesses who use their services – have a duty of care to ensure cleaning staff are treated fairly. Living wage contracts are a great place to start.’

The non-domestic cleaning workforce is largely made up of women, migrant and older workers. Significant numbers of cleaners said they received no support when they complained of being harassed or bullied, and some said they were punished with extra work or worse duties for raising concerns.

Others said they were afraid to report problems for fear of losing their jobs, and a few workers said they were threatened with dismissal when they told their employer they were pregnant.

Despite the £8 billion contribution the cleaning industry makes to the British economy each year, large numbers of cleaners reported problems with under-payment or non-payment of wages.

This can drive them into poverty and indebtedness. The report identified examples of workers being sacked for complaining about not being paid in full and on time.

The industry has been the subject of extensive outsourcing since the 1970s and price competition has led to a general downward pressure on wages and working conditions.