Amazon - Work hard and ... er, work hard.

The FT today publishes a great report on the culture at Amazon's Rugeley distribution centre. An interesting insight into the culture of a cost focussed and highly effiecient business that is described by founder Jeff Bezos as: "Our culture is friendly and intense but if push comes to shove, we'll settle for intense."

This is quite a long report but well worth a good read. This is a business that goes right back 100 years in terms of its hard HR and a Tayloristic/Theory X approach to management - but with a modern twist.

Employees walk 7-14 miles a day within the warehouse, picking varied items from Amazon's shelves. “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” said the Amazon manager. “It’s human automation, if you like.” They use handheld devices with GPS to find the quickest way around and receive a text message if they are going too slow. Initially, staff are employed on a contract basis at one penny an hour above the minimum wage and without any benefits or security. Even the half hour lunch break is barely sufficient to get through airport-style security (to make sure employees are not stealing anything) and actually get any lunch. The warehouse is patrolled by time and motion experts described as 'mobile problem solvers' who try to iron out anything that will slow workers down. Workers complain that the ill-fitting safety boots they have to wear give them blisters.

What does this say about culture? The business is firmly focussed on cost control and efficiency and Amazon gives the impression it would replace people with machines if only they could cope as well as people do with the varied size and shape of products in the warehouse. There is a lot to be learned about changes in the economy; formerly a coal mine where men could earn up to £900 a week in todays money, the Amazon workers are on £6.20 an hour, equivalent to a mere £220 a week.

An excellent case study for Business Studies and Economics, showing that perhaps wage rates can move downwards after all!

Update: BBC Panorama programme (November 2013) Click here for trailer

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