Tuesday, February 26, 2013

More on you get what you pay for

A couple of weeks ago the Financial Times ran an article on amazon's employment practices, The Guardian picked it up a few days later and had a comment on it and then last week The Guardian also ran a piece about 1701 people chasing 8 barista in a Nottingham Costa the slant being that people apply for barista jobs because they're perceived as cool and not because they need any work they can get, or need to be seen to be applying for any work they can get. The sad truth is that two or three hundred people chasing a single, quite crappy, job is by no means unusual anymore. It's another sad truth that a lot of people, especially if they work part time, earn less than the U.K living wage - apparently £7.45 outside of London - which is a good pound above the minimum wage. 

More iniquitous than the continuous squeeze put on the low paid to always be doing a little bit more for the bare minimum is the practice of employing people on very short term contracts or through agencies - no holiday, no sick pay, no benefits at all really and certainly no security. Much is made of this in the FT article - amazon , it seems, employ a lot of people on this basis though what I find depressing about it is the vague air of surprise about the whole thing. This kind of contracting has been common for years and I imagine that plenty of FT readers employ people on just this basis.

Amazon have had a bit of bad press recently, mostly for (perfectly legal) tax dodging and now a little for being mean to the work force, but I will admit that my biggest problem with them is that they sometimes use couriers rather than the Royal Mail. Until the tax dodging is actually illegal I don't really have much of an opinion on it apart from that those loopholes need to be closed. As for their employment practices - they're legal too and by no means unusual, it makes me angry that we don't treat each other rather better but there's a but...

I wouldn't want to go back to a pre amazon world. It's pretty much the only on-line retailer I use and I only buy books but that's enough. It's transformed my reading life - so many titles available at a click; all those amazing second hand books... How many booksellers are still in business because they can sell through amazon I wonder? I also here they're good at paying their bills on time which also makes all the difference to small independent publishers, and then there's the whole self publishing ebook thing where I'm a little out of my depth, but is certainly opening rather than closing doors for a whole lot of writers. 

I like to shop on the high street when I can, but I also expect retailers to work as hard for my money as I do, certainly as hard as my customers make me work. I need to make my money go as far as I can but another depressing thing that the current horse meat scandal has neatly demonstrated, and retail generally keeps demonstrating, is that if the price is right we don't ask enough questions and when the veil is lifted it turns out that we don't care as much as you might hope. 


  1. You rang so many bells with me in this post Hayley! I too was surprised that their was an element of surprise in this - my experience in retail since I came to the UK nearly eight years ago now is this is how all too many retail business treat their employees and I can see that frankly some small businesses treat their employees even worse. I do shop happily at Amazon, but try to use as many local sources for meat, vegetables, dairy etc. and try too to buy gifts for others from artisans or smaller companies. Just hope too I can keep the job I have - it's a scary world out there!

    1. It is a scary world and a lot of employers trade on that at the moment - I wonder what will happen when the job market improves? I suspect that goodwill has worn fairly thin in a few places. At work we have a wall display explaining how our time management system works, under unproductive hours are listed holidays, sickness, and maternity leave. I can't tell you how much this disturbs me, it feels like there's something fundamentally rotten at the core of that.

  2. I agree with you about Amazon. I don't like the way they treat their employees, but sadly they're no exception to the rule. Retailers are increasingly achieving their market share and net profit at the expense of their empoyees. By the time I left high street retail, the only incentive my employer offered me was keeping my job. I left.

    I think internet retail - and our desire for a bargain - has created this situation. We want to buy a book for 50% off, but don't seem to realise that this has a knock-on effect, requiring employees to do more for the same money.

    Amazon are incredibly good at what they do and I wouldn't like to go back to the days before they appeared on the scene.

  3. I wouldn't want to go back either, and think it's wrong to blame companies for being good at what they do - amazon is a classic example, as is Tesco's. I've now worked for a mid size high street chain that that failed to adapt to a changing market place, independent retailers who have thrived, and now a much bigger concern that's just celebrating the best set of results in it's 75 year history. You can't always compete with the big guys, but you don't necessarily have to - as I'm sure you know! better than most!