Saturday, May 8, 2021

I struggled as a self-employed Amazon driver – while the company boomed | Amazon

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This winter, with my own small business shuttered due to the pandemic, I was lucky enough to find work as an Amazon Driving Associate. I ended up delivering orders across the Scottish Highlands for about seven weeks. It was work, but not an actual job: my van may have had a notice in the front saying “Amazon courier (back in five minutes)”, but in fact my colleagues and I were self-employed, independent contractors. NGC Logistics, which hires us, has a contract with Amazon, creating two tiers between us and our ultimate, real employer. The reasons for this soon became clear.

Let’s start at the beginning. On a cold November morning, a group of a dozen or so gather outside a hotel on the outskirts of Inverness. Over two days we are given Amazon training, featuring Amazon protocols and Amazon branding. At one point a video clip of Jeff Bezos, one of the wealthiest men in human history, is played, giving a heartwarming story of his early struggles. The training we receive is not led by a human but by a laptop on a table, playing a recording of another class, with slides and video clips projected on a screen.

The training makes clear that our safety is Amazon’s first priority – so we are encouraged to buy our own first aid kits and safety shoes. (Drivers are provided with masks, hand sanitiser and gloves.) Maybe half an hour covers practical advice on driving safety. But most of the two days is taken up by learning about Amazon’s stringent and detailed protocols regarding delivery methods. The delivery procedure was explicit and detailed, and we can’t deviate slightly. But all of us are used to some level of corporate bullshit, and the mood in the room is good; we are happy to have work.

The glitches in our training become clear a week later, when I start my first shift. For two hours, an experienced Driving Associate sits next to me in the van. The essence of the job is speed, he tells me: each drop should take no more than a minute. I calculate that we roughly have an average of 3.4 minutes to travel, park, find the correct packages, scan them using the Amazon app that we have downloaded to our phones and bring them to the door. If the customer is not in (which is often the case) they may have left instructions to leave their parcel in a nominated secure location. We then fill in a “Sorry-we-missed-you” card and post it in the letterbox and take a photo of the package before leaving. This seems like a lot of activity in under four minutes, but I’m game. And, in fact, the nuts and bolts of the work are satisfying: on a sunny morning, barrelling around the suburbs of Inverness is not a bad way to make living.

I soon realise that most experienced drivers fasten their seatbelts and sit on top of them, making it easier to exit and enter the van. By day two I am doing this too, although I have never driven a van before, and I do not feel in full control of the vehicle. In January, I read on the official group chat that two vans are stolen within a week of each other with the keys left in the ignition. This would mean the insurance – which they’ve had to buy themselves – is invalid: these guys are properly screwed. People are so paranoid that they start suspecting the thefts are being committed by other, disgruntled drivers, who know the routes.

There are about 130-plus drivers on the books. It suits the company to hire at will, retaining a huge staff to whom they owe no guaranteed work. Most of the drivers I encountered hire and insure their vans through the company. Two shifts a week, at £122 a shift, barely covers the outlay. Three shifts would just scrape it, but I rarely get three shifts a week. Almost nobody does, it seems. For those who find supplementary work elsewhere, it is still difficult to accept, because there is no rota. You find out if you have a shift at about 8pm the day before, by text message. No text, no work. Shifts can be cancelled at the last minute.

I don’t live near Inverness so I book a bed at a boarding house outside the city on weekdays. Many other residents were Amazon drivers, a group both diverse (between five of us there were five different countries of origin) and homogeneous (men, aged 35-45). The board costs £100 a week. My food costs are low, because I am a chef, and I can make cheap ingredients go a long way. I can make a stew for £7 which will provide four substantial meals. I try to sell portions for £3 to other residents but they know how to eat even more cheaply than me: they have milk and cereal for dinner.

After a week I crash the van but am unhurt. The damage is estimated at £1,000, which will be deducted from my wages at a rate of £100 a week (the van is hired from yet another company, which I’m told is also owned by NGC). The rent of the van is £215 a week. I am actually making negative weekly earnings. Numerous drivers I speak to have incurred debt in this way. The roads are icy but if we want a shovel or snow chains, we must provide them ourselves. Very few do this. It’s difficult to believe that with some better training, these road incidents couldn’t be avoided.

One evening when I return to the boarding house, I notice that Tomak (not his real name) is in despair. He is a slight man but has visibly lost weight in the month that I have been staying here. He has been able to send less than £50 to his family in four weeks. It almost looks like he’s starving. Meanwhile, Amazon’s revenue has surged in the pandemic – in the last quarter of the financial year, it brought in $125bn.

In statements, which we’ve edited for length, Amazon said that they are “committed to ensuring that the people contracted by our independent delivery providers are fairly compensated and are treated with respect” and that drivers have a “number of ways to share … concerns, including escalating any challenges to Amazon through a 24/7 hotline”.

NGC Logistics said: “Business volumes are highly seasonal and therefore work can be sporadic and we encourage all our self-employed contractors to take other opportunities so that they are not reliant on the work solely offered by NGC … we work hard to ensure that we are providing well-paid opportunities for the work that is undertaken. We make sure that we only work with contractors who are fully insured, have full background check and have a van equipped to deal with the work scheduled”. They also said they “take safety very seriously and with our customers offer general help and advice on driving safely. The expectation is to drive safely and legally at all times … We regularly ask contractors for feedback and listen to any comments they have as we value feedback.”

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