Employment

Amazon workers stage first formal UK strike calling on Jeff Bezos to share the wealth

Warehouse workers in Coventry are “making history” to become the first Amazon employees in the UK to take official strike action

A wildcat strike erupted at the Coventry warehouse last summer in response to the company's announcement of a 50p an hour pay rise. Image: Taiwo Owatemi

Amazon workers have downed tools at a warehouse in Coventry in the first ever official strike action to hit the trillion-dollar company’s UK operation. 

The warehouse, one of more than 30 across the country, has been described as a “pressure-cooker” environment where some employees work up to 60 hours a week of physical labour to make ends meet.

Around 300 members of union GMB are expected to join the 24-hour strike, which started at midnight when night-shift workers walked off their posts to protest wage inequality at the company.

They are demanding a pay rise to £15 an hour, after receiving an increase of 50p an hour last summer, taking pay for most workers to £10.50 an hour. This will match the new minimum wage for people aged 23+ when it rises in April. 

The pay rise, described by workers as “pathetic” and “an insult”, sparked wildcat strikes in at least four British warehouses, including Coventry, last August.

“It comes back to Jeff Bezos. We don’t want his boats or his rockets, we just want to be able to live. He’s got to share some of that wealth,” Darren Westwood, who has worked at Amazon for three-and-a-half years, told the Big Issue. 

Westwood, who joined workers walking out at midnight, continued: “People shouldn’t have to work 60 hours a week just to live.”

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Amazon profits surged by 60 per cent in 2021, reaching £204 million, The Guardian reported. The company increased the cost of its delivery subscription service, Amazon Prime, in September 2022 to £95 per year in the UK.

Both Westwood and his partner work to support their family, but he says they’re currently just keeping their heads above water. Council tax is going up in April and their rent may go up in June, too.

With inflation reaching 11 per cent in late 2023, the five per cent pay rise for most employees would amount to a real-terms pay cut.

“This day is going to be the first of many,” he said. “We’re under no illusions, this is to show them that we’ve got some strength.” 

Amazon’s high staff turn-over and anti-union stance has made it a notoriously difficult workplace for employees to unionise. Amazon has refused to recognise GMB, which is seeking to represent its members to undertake collective bargaining, push for higher pay and improved working conditions. 

“Our numbers are rising on a daily basis, we’re on over 300 members now” out of around 1,400 people employed at the warehouse, Amanda Gearing, a GMB organiser, told The Big Issue. 

Describing the warehouse as a “pressure-cooker environment”, Gearing said that over-work was impacting the health of many of the union members she had spoken to. 

“Not many people make it past two years working there. There’s a couple of people that have been there four years, and they’ve all got ailments, one person’s got a really bad knee, another has a back injury. 

“[Amazon] don’t expect you to work for them for a long time, it’s work, work, work until you wear yourself out and then they replace you.”

Amazon has not responded to The Big Issue’s request for comment.

“They come out of work and they literally just have the energy just to eat,” Gearing added.

She argued that many employees felt they had no choice but to work up to 60 hours a week to make ends meet. “£15 an hour would give them the opportunity to pay their bills in the current climate, it means people won’t be homeless,” she continued. 

In 2021 Amazon upped its average starting wage to $18 an hour in the US, leading to calls that it should pay the equivalent (£14.65, as of January 24) in the UK.

Taiwo Owatemi, Labour MP for Coventry North West, described last summer’s pay rise of between 35p and 50p, depending on location, as “an insult”.

“During a national cost of living crisis, its hard-working staff deserve so much better,” she continued. 

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“When planning permission was granted for an Amazon warehouse in Coventry North West in 2016, the company promised it would create 1,600 good local jobs. It is time for them to now fulfil that promise by paying their staff fairly and addressing the concerns that they have raised about working conditions”.

An Amazon spokesperson told The Big Issue: “A tiny proportion of our workforce is involved. In fact, according to the verified figures, only a fraction of 1 per cent of our UK employees voted in the ballot – and that includes those who voted against industrial action.

“We appreciate the great work our teams do throughout the year and we’re proud to offer competitive pay which starts at a minimum of between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour, depending on location. This represents a 29 per cent increase in the minimum hourly wage paid to Amazon employees since 2018.

“Employees are also offered comprehensive benefits that are worth thousands more—including private medical insurance, life assurance, subsidised meals and an employee discount, to name a few.”

Big Issue Group has created the person-centred recruitment service, Big Issue Recruit to support people facing barriers to employment into sustainable jobs. To find out how Big Issue Recruit could help you into employment, or help your business to take a more inclusive approach to recruitment, click here.

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