The discontent began Amazon’s biggest warehouse in the UK as soon as details of an hourly pay rise appeared on screens at the facility on Wednesday. Rumors at the Tilbury distribution center in southeast England had predicted a rise of £1 ($1.20) an hour, for many workers a 9 percent increase. In contrast, displays showed an increase of just 35 cents (or 43 cents), about 3 percent.
“People were in shock,” said an employee at the Tilbury warehouse, who works with the nonprofit Foxglove Legal, which advocates for the rights of tech workers. Amazon workers consider the pay increase an insult at a time of big cost-of-living increases, the worker said. “It’s absolutely useless.”
Frustration over the pay rise prompted a crowd of employees to walk off the job and protest in the warehouse cafeteria around 4pm on Wednesday. The GMB union, which represents some Amazon employees in the UK, estimated between 700 and 1,000 people took part and said protests in Tilbury continued on Thursday, when workers at warehouses in Coventry and Bristol also walked out the work.
Amazon workers are not the first in the UK tech industry to protest pay rises which employees say are out of step with the rising cost of energy bills and inflation. Thousands of workers at telecoms company BT went on strike at the end of July, after a pay rise of between 3 and 8 per cent was announced. Postal and railway workers across the country have also voted for industrial action over wages.
There has not been a strike at multiple UK Amazon warehouses before, said Steve Garelick, GMB regional organiser. “This is the first time there has been a cohesive action by the workers,” he said. Garelick said the action reflects Amazon’s insufficient response to workers’ concerns about the rising cost of living, driven by inflation and a rise in Bank of England interest rates.
When asked about the departures, Amazon spokesman David Nieberg said the company is offering competitive pay and benefits. “Employees are offered a comprehensive benefits package including private health insurance, life insurance, income protection, subsidized meals and an employee discount, among others, which together are worth thousands, as well like a company pension plan,” he said. GMB said the employee discount was capped at £100 a year.
A video published on Twitter shows striking workers listening to an Amazon representative trying to convince them to return to work or leave the facility, saying it’s too hot. “Staying in this canteen is probably not very safe,” the manager says in the video, before his voice is drowned out by the crowd. “We’re used to it,” several voices shout.
Amazon has long tried to dissuade its workers from joining unions, but more workers in its warehouses have done so since the pandemic hit. In April, Amazon workers in New York City’s Staten Island voted to form the company’s first union in the US. In May, there were strikes at seven distribution centers in Germany, Amazon’s largest market in Europe.
“After Covid, after risking our lives in such uncertain times, it’s like spitting in the face, getting 35p,” said another Amazon employee who took part in the walkout at the Tilbury facility . “We can see how the company makes the profits.” Amazon posted a quarterly profit of $14.3 billion in February, but posted a loss in its last two quarterly results.
However, concerns about the cost of living led other workers to conclude that they could not afford to join the walkout. “I need money,” said another Tilbury warehouse worker who stayed at his station on Thursday rather than join the cafeteria protest and recently started working overtime to boost his income. “Inflation has been very hard on us.”
Tilbury staff were told to take part in the walkout they would have to “clock in” and would not be paid, the worker said, and managers recorded who did and who didn’t stay at their workstation .