I'd rather work at McDonalds but there was no bus. Labour market coercion and oppression in Amazon fulfilment centres.

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


The enthusiastic celebration of the ‘British way’ of job creation through flexible labour markets, there is striking evidence of the fact that the structure of certain labour markets leads to poor outcomes (working conditions and lower wages). At the policy level, there is growing recognition of the fact but it is reduced to the individual level. The Taylor review (2017) admits that the ‘labour market does not work for everyone’, and proposes that the ‘key factor is an imbalance of power between individuals and employers’, suggesting instances of a dominant local employers or dominant employers of certain skills where employees have little choice over ‘who they work for’ and ‘could struggle to get another job if they were to leave an unsatisfactory job’. In this paper we argue that the very axiom of industrial/employment relations, that the very essence of the employment relationship is characterised by an asymmetry of power between employers and employees, understates the extreme conditions of imbalance that exist under actually existing capitalism. The degree of compulsion workers experience in local labour markets, in some regions devastated by deindustrialisation and characterised by high levels of unemployment, is precisely not to explain within the traditional employment relation only. Instead, we see a very specific ‘employment triangle’ where the state acts as a very specific control mechanism. Coercion rather than constrained choice becomes the reality in the context of the state’s workfare regime that ‘sanctions’ workers’ benefits if they fail to take the jobs offered by employment agencies. Taking Taylor’s specific mention of warehouses as a point of departure, this paper focuses on the experience of employees at an Amazon fulfilment centre in a typically de-industrialised city. Our analytical framework is inspired by an interdisciplinary literature from the realm of human geography (uneven development), social policy (employability) and core sociology of work (hegemonic despotism). This allows us to stress how the very specific socio-spatial arrangements lead to specific structural hindrances to escape bad jobs, be it the lack of accessible and affordable (public) transport or the lack of alternatives in the region. The oppressive work regime and appalling work conditions are inextricably connected to coercive labour market conditions. On one hand, local authorities are eager to create jobs and offer infrastructure (new streets, warehouses, and other subsidies) to accommodate the new employer and to ease their local social services. On the other hand, Amazon can rely on a stable labour supply through the workfare regime. Our interviewees (n=32) demonstrate that coercive power of the job centre renders choice impossible. The often mentioned success of the ‘British Way’, flexibility, is thus turning workers into ‘dependent contractors’ of the workfare system. Selected references Angry Workers of the World (2015) Welcome to the jungle – Working and struggling in Amazon warehouses. Retrieved from https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2015/12/20/welcome-to-the-jungle-working-and-struggling-in-amazon-warehouses/ Burawoy, M. (1985). The Politics of Production: Factory Regimes Under Capitalism and Socialism, London: Verso. Jonas, A. E. G. (1996). Local Labour Control Regimes: Uneven Development and the Social Regulation of Production. Regional Studies, 30(4), 323-338. Newsome, K., Taylor, P., Bair, J., and Rainnie, A. (eds.). (2015). Putting Labour in its Place: Labour Process Analysis and Global Value Chains. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Peck, J. A., & Tickell, A. (1992). Local modes of social regulation? Regulation theory, thatcherism and uneven development. Geoforum, 23(3), 347-363. TUC (2018) Living on the Edge. Experiencing Job Insecurity in the UK. Report prepared for the TUC by: Kirsty Newsome; Jason Heyes; Sian Moore; Dave Smith; Mark Tomlinson. (London: TUC)
Period14 Sept 2018
Event titleWork, Employment & Society Conference 2018: Putting Sociology to Work: Interdisciplinarity, intersectionality and imagination
Event typeConference
LocationBelfastShow on map