Politics

Amazon warehouse workers set for first UK strike


Amazon workers at a warehouse in Coventry will strike on Wednesday in protest over pay, marking the first time UK employees of the ecommerce giant have taken industrial action.

About 300 staff out of just over 1,000 at the site will join the strike called by the GMB union, which has been working for years to boost its presence at the company.

While the strike will lead to little disruption to company operations, it marks a breakthrough for the UK’s union movement, which has struggled for years to establish a presence in sectors such as logistics that employ a growing proportion of the country’s workforce — often on insecure terms and in difficult working conditions.

UK unions, which are leading a wave of high profile strikes across the public sector, are keen to use their new prominence to rebuild their membership across the private sector after years of decline.

Amanda Gearing, a senior organiser at the GMB, said workers at the Coventry site were “set to make history” after showing they were “willing to put themselves on the line fighting for what’s right”.

The GMB said it could set dates for further strikes over the company’s offer in the summer of a 50p hourly pay rise, which left hourly wages at £10.50, a sum the union argues lags behind the rates on offer for warehouse workers at other retail groups such as supermarket chain Aldi.

Wednesday’s action at the Coventry warehouse, which provides stock to fulfilment centres, would not effect customers, Amazon said, noting that a “tiny proportion” of its UK workforce had voted in the strike ballot. The minimum hourly rate paid to UK employees had risen 29 per cent since 2018 and other benefits were worth “thousands more”, the company said.

The GMB has been calling on Amazon to raise wages to £15 an hour, which the union says would match rates paid in the company’s US operations, where it has also faced a wave of grassroots activism.

A vote to unionise by workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, was last year seen as a significant moment for the US labour movement, since Amazon had previously seen off every attempt by workers in its home country to organise.

The GMB has tried and failed to win recognition at other Amazon sites in the UK in the past — although it has struck deals with gig economy employers such as Uber and Deliveroo.

Make Amazon Pay, a global campaign group that advocates for company workers, launched its own strike action and protests across Europe in November to coincide with “Black Friday”, when heavy discounts on Amazon’s products lead to more intense working conditions for warehouse employees.

“Given the obstacles to overcome in the UK to be able to strike, [the action] is a real testament to the fact that workers all round the world are really mad with Amazon, they’ve really had it with Amazon ⁠ — enough is enough,” said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, which is part of a coalition backing Make Amazon Pay.

The call on Amazon to raise salaries in the UK comes as the business seeks to cut costs. It plans to eliminate 18,000 jobs from among its corporate workforce, having gone on a hiring spree during the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, the business said it would close three warehouses in the UK. Although some staff will be redeployed this could lead to about 300 job losses in Inverclyde, Scotland, due to the lack of nearby Amazon facilities.

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