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Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain

by james bloodworth
atlantic, 288 pages, $19.95

What single image best sums up Amazon, which this year became, after Apple, the world’s second-ever trillion-dollar company? Is it the grinning face of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and very possibly (the wealth of Saudi princes is harder to estimate) the richest man on the planet? Is it the company logo, with its tangerine arrow promising lightning-quick delivery of your next iPhone, face mask, or tracksuit? Is it that jaunty Christmas ad in which Amazon parcels are shown giggling, whooping, and singing “Give a little bit of my love to you” as they speed toward grateful children? Thanks to the journalist James Bloodworth, these pictures have been supplanted in many minds by something rather different: a flask of urine in a warehouse corridor. This, Bloodworth claims, was what he saw at an Amazon packing center in the English Midlands, while working there to research his book Hired. The managers obsessively scrutinize the workers for slight errors, such as creating “idle time” by making the journey to the nearest toilet four floors away. Fearful workers draw their own conclusions. “On one occasion,” ­Bloodworth writes with the detached style that has helped to make his book so uncomfortable for Bezos’s company, “I came across a bottle of straw-coloured liquid perched inauspiciously on a shelf next to a box of Christmas decorations.” Add to ­basket?

The afterlife of that bottle—which became the protagonist of a video Bloodworth made with Bernie Sanders, and may have helped prompt Amazon’s recent decision to raise wages—could obscure the larger significance of this book. Bloodworth is not, after all, the first journalist to expose what goes on in some of Amazon’s “fulfillment centers.” And his further travels through Britain’s forgotten places—sleeping rough in the declining seaside town of Blackpool, joining the army of carers for the elderly, working at a call center in South Wales, driving an Uber in London—put him in a long literary tradition that will always feel a bit like a series of footnotes to Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. But Bloodworth does not merely describe the misery of life at the bottom, or identify a few culprits. He also portrays a much deeper national malaise, in which exploitation is rife because solidarity has broken down.

Since 2001, the number of self-employed workers in Britain has risen from 3.3 million to 4.8 million; “zero-hours contracts”—contracts without a minimum-hours guarantee—quadrupled over a similar period. There is a lot of debate over whether the chief result has been liberation from old working patterns, or enslavement to employers who feel no need to protect their workers’ rights. What Bloodworth shows is that the nightmare scenario—cowed hirelings getting by on low pay, not sure if they’ll be in work next week, hesitant to insist on rights that may turn out to be unenforceable—is not far from some people’s daily ­reality. In their ten-and-a-half-hour shifts at Amazon, Bloodworth and his fellow workers cover about ten miles of warehouse space, transferring boxes into bigger boxes, and the bigger boxes onto conveyor belts. If they slow below the expected rate, their failure is registered by a hand-held machine “that tracked our every move as if we were convicts on house arrest.” Just getting paid requires, for ­Bloodworth and his workmates, an exhausting trial of strength with the employment agency. Workers learn a sullen resentment of their masters and start looking for petty ways to undermine the system. ­Bloodworth also notes that the suffocating monotony of the work leaves you craving ­tobacco, alcohol, or any other momentary stimulus.

As Bloodworth stresses, the new economy may well provide jobs that are safer and less physically demanding than those of the past; what it doesn’t offer is self-respect and a social identity. One ex-miner tells him: “People actually say, ‘I’m only at Amazon,’ and in the past they would’ve never said, ‘I’m only at the pit.’ You’d have said, ‘I’m a collier,’ because that’s what you were and you were proud of it.” However terrible its working conditions, the pit gave the town a genuine solidarity that, once lost, cannot be replaced. A Blackpool magazine seller, remarking on the decline of full-time contracts, says: “Everyone seems to be a number now. It’s not like a workforce any more or a family.”

Bloodworth rejects the charge of nostalgia: Apart from anything else, his conventional social liberalism makes him immune. But he openly mourns the decline of working-class community and especially of the trade unions. One interviewee is a former warehouse worker—not at Amazon, though conditions were similar. (It was a universal experience to get home shattered and ­immediately fall asleep for two hours.) A trade union was the obvious answer, but the company discouraged membership, and many were afraid of getting the sack if they joined. Eventually, a few brave souls persuaded the necessary numbers to sign up, and working conditions started to improve. But it took perseverance: Workers hid application forms in their underwear before secretly distributing them to their colleagues.

Immigrants can be especially defenseless in the low-pay economy. If your employer fails to fulfill his side of the contract, he can make you very aware that there are other new arrivals willing to take your place. Bloodworth also touches on the unintended consequences of mass immigration: He notes, for instance, that carers without fluent English are more likely to make mistakes in reading food instructions or administering medication. And unionization can be even more difficult in a workplace where there are tensions between different nationalities.

But the book argues that consumerism and capitalism have done far more than a few hundred thousand Poles to transform England. Every city center is lined with the same cheerless chain stores. In the pubs and working men’s clubs (where they remain: both have closed in the thousands), people talk of what has been lost. “There was good jobs and this and that. . . . There was people about, there was people doing things.” Meanwhile politicians insist on “social mobility”: You may face an insecure sixty-hour week on the say-so of an employment agency, but at least your classmate could become a Supreme Court judge, a government minister, or a TV presenter. He might even be from an ethnic minority, allowing the powerful to congratulate themselves on how much they value equality.

Bloodworth shows that even when the low-paid have legal rights, they are still at the mercy of individual landlords, line managers, job center officials, and loan companies. A Romanian interviewee whose landlord invented some spurious charges explains, “Basically, working for Amazon you don’t have time for many other things, and I didn’t have time to go and argue with them.” With that powerlessness comes fear, “the constant circling presence of an ominous grey cloud of landlords and capricious employers. A missed pay cheque, a debtor or some trivial misdemeanour at work were often all it took for a once respectable individual to be kicked down from a modicum of freedom and security into the hole of a soggy cardboard box on a street corner.” As anyone who has walked through Britain’s big cities will have noticed, each year there are more cardboard boxes and sleeping bags in the shop doorways.

One of Hired’s most disturbing implications is that the modern economy is built on illusions: not just in the familiar sense that global finance relies on shell companies and empty promises, but at a more mundane level. Amazon’s workers can look up and see giant portraits of their fellow employees, saying things like, “We love coming to work and miss it when we’re not here!”—a selective statement given that, in one survey by the GMB trade union, 89 percent of Amazon workers said they feel exploited, and a slightly higher proportion said they wouldn’t recommend the job to a friend. Not that the workers are called workers: They are “associates.” And they aren’t fired, but “released.” This language obscures more than it reveals. There’s an analogous gap between appearance and reality in the employment agencies that advertise unavailable jobs, then find you a worse one when they have your details; in the culture of compulsory “fun activities” at the call center; in the “freedom” and “autonomy” offered to Uber drivers, until they break the strict guidelines for accepting passengers; in the payday-loan and rent-to-buy industries that suck money out of the vulnerable; in the endless ways to avoid paying workers even the shoddy wages that have been agreed upon. The reader gets used to Bloodworth’s interviewees saying things like, “All the management are nothing but liars.”

At one moment, Hired hints that British society is characterized by even more insidious deceptions. In Rugeley, where Amazon has set up its center, one of the more prominent shopfronts belongs to a detective agency, which offers to track suspected love-rats and provide lie-detector services. “Fidelity and faithfulness have been slowly chipped away,” Bloodworth observes, “by more ephemeral, market-driven principles promising instant ­gratification.” A little inquiry into how economic liberalism has undermined marriage would take this book into some very interesting territory. But Bloodworth gives only a little ­attention to the matter of family life; the book is mostly written through the eyes of an individual trying to get to the next payday.

This is not the only blind spot in Hired, which—superb piece of journalism though it is—can be curiously shallow. Bloodworth notes a poster on the call center’s wall that reads: “Keep Calm and Drink Prosecco.” “Of course,” Bloodworth comments, “‘Life is crap so get drunk’ is not a bad motto”—but, he adds, “it is hardly an adequate way to live when someone else decides how much money you have in your pocket to go out drinking in the first place.” On the contrary, “Life is crap so get drunk” is a terrible motto, and if paying reasonable money is only a means to help people get drunk, then it’s hard to get as worked up about the denial of a living wage.

Hired assembles a great deal of evidence that Britain is growing harsher and less humane. But it lacks a persuasive vision of human flourishing. Bloodworth gestures toward one in the book’s closing passage: “Freedom, if it is to mean anything at all, must mean the freedom for everyone to live decently.” The unintended effect is to summon the ghost of Orwell, echoing both “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” and Orwell’s many invocations of “decency.” But it also reminds us of a problem Orwell identified. He hoped that hunger, want, and insecurity could be solved if everyone acted decently. But he was haunted by the thought that civilization rested on more mysterious things: patriotism, sacrifice, the longing for immortality. “Hedonism”—the attempt to minimize pain and maximize pleasure—was a reasonable basis for securing social justice but a fifth-rate philosophy. But Orwell wasn’t sure what could replace it.

Nor is Bloodworth, who concludes with the mysterious declaration that “Life . . . is a struggle between competing forces in which one side must inevitably come out on top.” It’s a bleak sort of rallying cry. If this is not to be the Age of Amazon, then social reformers will have to decide what human decency, and human dignity, are really grounded on—or at least sound like they know. But that art seems to have been lost somewhere on the road back from Wigan Pier.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.

Photo by Scott Lewis via Creative Commons. Image cropped.