Life and Death in a Warehouse, BBC Life and Death in a Warehouse, BBC

The BBC’s Life and Death in a Warehouse gives us an idea of the conditions warehouse workers are facing and why workers’ organisation is long overdue, writes Sam Colclough

This review contains spoilers

Many contemporary British workplaces increasingly resemble digitally enhanced versions of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Life and Death in the Warehouse uses a couple of months in the working lives of childhood friends Alys (a picker) and Megan (a newly appointed team leader) to paint a damning picture of working conditions in Britain’s warehouses, where permanent surveillance and metrics-driven performance management are the order of the day. It is inspired by a number of real-life events.

The story begins at the security-heavy entrance to a warehouse set in a generic, post-industrial Welsh town. Prior to entering the warehouse, workers must pass through a metal detector and place personal items such as bags and phones in lockers. Alys and Megan spot one another waiting to pass through security and are visibly delighted to be re-united after their lives have diverged since leaving school. Alys is a full-time, permanent employee working as a picker, while it is Megan’s first day as a ‘Customer Outcomes Supervisor’ (a line manager). Megan is assigned to Alys’ team.

Industrial relations

A key message from Megan’s management training is that workers are expendable and that any attempts to strengthen their position vis-à-vis management are to be snuffed out at the first opportunity. Most workers at the warehouse – or ‘associates’, as the staff at the warehouse are called – are from agencies and discover at the end of every shift whether there is any work for them the following day. The other managers gleefully inform Megan that it is easy to let agency staff go if they do not hit the unreasonable target of 120 items picked per hour. The managers lament the greater difficulty associated with sacking the ‘green vests’, the permanent staff at the warehouse.

There is a surplus of labour available for the warehouse to exploit and it becomes apparent as the show develops that the warehouse is in fact the only employer in the area, seriously limiting the options of the local working-age population.

One particularly egregious example of the exploitation of casualised labour sees an agency worker appear at the entrance to the warehouse only to be turned away due to a lack of work. When he explains that he received a text asking him to come in and had paid to travel to work, the HR representative at the entrance is nonplussed and sends him home.

We see Megan watching a management training programme that demands a proactive approach to potential trade union activity. Managers are expected to keep an eye out for any suspected union activity and to prevent it from concretising. When Alys’ friend Devon appears as her trade union representative at a disciplinary meeting later in the show, Megan is reprimanded for being unaware of a team member’s union membership and instructed to monitor him closely.

Working conditions

Despite working in a vast building with a large number of colleagues, the experience of being a picker is generally a lonely one. Pickers wear headsets with automated messaging instructing them on which items to pick and where to take them, and if they take ‘too long’ an automated message tells them. They also receive periodic advisory messages such as instructions to remain hydrated. Every aspect of their working day is closely monitored, with cameras installed everywhere on the warehouse floor. Managers watch their team members over the cameras throughout the day. Their pick rate is monitored, and their performance is largely evaluated against this, although metrics such as ‘idle time’ are used to monitor conversations and toilet breaks.

Overtime is compulsory and justified by managers on account of their own long working weeks (managers, we are told, typically work sixty-hour weeks). Medical appointments are impossible to attend, in practice, while sick days are limited to an arbitrary number of days per year.

The surveillance of employees is not limited to pickers, however. Megan is repeatedly warned about the need to improve her team’s pick rate, showing that while the pick per hour metric is an immediate imposition on the pickers, it is also used to evaluate the performance of low-level management. There is also a ‘Management Feedback Tool’ which is used by managers to comment on the performance of their fellow managers; another tool for disciplining working behaviour/performance.

There is no alternative

If viewers are wondering why employees tolerate these conditions, it soon becomes apparent that it is due to a lack of alternative employment opportunities. Agency staff flog themselves in an attempt to earn a permanent contract, with migrant worker Nadia seen drinking copious amounts of energy drinks and taking tablets to enable her to maintain a high pick rate, with the promise of a performance-related permanent contract always just around the corner.

When Alys discovers blood on her tissue when she goes to the toilet and requests that she is sent home, she is told that she has used up her sick days and will be sacked if she leaves. Alys says she needs her maternity leave and so stays, despite the obvious concern she has about her pregnancy.

Megan is clearly uncomfortable with how she is being told to behave, but a couple of phone calls to her dad reveal that her entire family is relying on her income to make ends meet. When her dad asks if there is any work for him at the warehouse, she quickly shuts it down, not wanting to expose him to the depravity that lies in wait.

Any potential repercussions for tolerating sub-optimal performance levels are made clear to Megan when one of her management colleagues refuses to issue a disabled worker with a final warning for a low pick rate. As he leaves the warehouse following his sacking, he warns Megan not to let it turn her into something she is not.

The decline of the human condition

The impression we get of Megan at the start of the show is that she is a decent, affable person. Her and Alys, although not close, have a nice relationship and genuinely want to look out for one another. When Alys informs Megan that she is unable to do overtime one evening due to a medical appointment, Megan is happy to accommodate. However, upon being reprimanded by her fellow managers, Megan subsequently informs Alys that she cannot avoid overtime for any reason again, including a medical appointment. Alys informs Megan that she is pregnant, much to Megan’s joy, and requests that she be moved to another part of the warehouse due to the medical advice she has received. Megan makes this request on Alys’ behalf but is informed by her fellow managers that this cannot be arranged.

Alys is visibly upset when she discovers that she must continue to pick items despite her condition. However, having been told by her fellow managers that her focus should be on Alys’ performance levels improving, Megan issues Alys with a ‘Performance Enhancement Plan’. This is a particularly cringe-inducing moment of the show, as Megan starts running around with the trolley encouraging the pregnant Alys to channel the spirit of a particularly enthusiastic contestant on Supermarket Sweep. Almost inevitably, Alys collapses and is taken away in an ambulance. The response of management? To criticise Megan for calling an ambulance given the bad press that the warehouse has received for the number of calls to the emergency services in recent times.

The transformation of Megan from Alys’ friend to the chief cause of her misery makes for uncomfortable viewing and speaks to the power of capital to regulate behaviour. Megan does not want to make these demands of Alys, but she knows if she does not, she will lose her job and her family will struggle to get by. She decides to put her family first but in so doing she makes the life of her team members hell, with disastrous consequences.

The show does not explore the decisions taken at the top of the organisation so we are left to guess what would happen to the warehouse were the targets to be lowered or lower-level management to be given greater discretion. However, competitive pressures are likely to compel the senior management of the warehouse to drive down working conditions, meaning that even if they want to treat their staff better (and there is no evidence here that they do), they cannot. This is what Marx means in the Holy Family when he talks about capitalism degrading the human condition in general, both for capitalists and for workers. However, Marx argues that the wealth that is extracted by the capitalists at least provides them with a ‘semblance of a human existence’. For Megan, as a lower-level manager, at least she avoids the worst-end of warehouse discipline. But she must enforce the rules of the game, regardless of her views, which clearly takes its toll on her humanity (even though the real victim is Alys and her unborn child).

Tragedy strikes

Alys returns to work following her collapse and is issued with a disciplinary for under-performance. At the ensuing meeting she highlights the horrific conditions under which her and her colleagues toil, which results in, for example, bottles filled with urine being left around the warehouse as staff feel they do not have the time to go to the toilet. Devon, as Alys’ trade union representative, points out to management that the Equalities Act stipulates that pregnancy is a protected characteristic and that by discriminating against Alys, the employer is breaking the law. Management simply claims that nobody is being discriminated against. The general treatment of Alys and the fact that immediately after the meeting Megan is told to start building a case of gross misconduct against Alys so she can be off-loaded gives the lie to that claim and shows the limit of existing legislation in protecting workers’ rights in cases where the legislation cannot be meaningfully enforced.

A few weeks later, Megan is once again on Alys’ case for spending too long in the toilet. Alys informs Megan that she thinks she saw blood on her tissue but a by-now indifferent Megan orders her back to work. Following Megan’s refusal to allow Alys to go home, Alys returns to work. On a later toilet break, Alys discovers that she is bleeding profusely. Megan goes to the toilet to investigate and discovers Alys on the floor of the toilet receiving support from Nadia and Devon. When Devon demands that Megan calls the ambulance, Megan freezes (presumably remembering her earlier reprimand for calling the emergency services). Devon takes her phone and places the call himself.

Upon discovering that Alys has miscarried, Megan is ordered to ‘make this right’. Alys (£6,000) and Devon (£2,000) are offered pay-outs on condition of the signing of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). They are told that their jobs will only remain in place if they agree to the NDAs. Both are naturally appalled and Devon urges Alys to reject the offer and for the two of them to ‘take a stand’. But Alys says they have no choice due to the lack of work in the area and they eventually sign the NDAs, along with the rest of their team.

Fatalistic messaging

This one-off hour-long episode is an incredibly powerful and deeply upsetting depiction of the real struggles that warehouse staff experience on a daily basis. It is descriptively excellent and strikes a balance between painting lower-level management in a critical light and recognising the limitations on their discretion (albeit with two managers in particular having few-to-no redeeming qualities). However, the viewer is left with no sense of how things could potentially change for the better, and we are left with the impression that the show’s creators are sceptical of the possibility of ending such practices. The episode is book-ended by reflections on the relationship between online consumerism and warehouse employment, so a subtle message of ‘change consumption practices’ is detectable, but it is not convincing.

Fortunately, the recent emergence of wildcat strikes in Amazon warehouses in the UK provide us with an insight into what steps can be taken to improve these conditions. Workers were rightly outraged by derisory 35p increase pay offers and woeful communication by management and took immediate collective action. After returning to work, these inspirational workers have agreed to stop working to targets, in recognition of the fact that they cannot all be individually punished if they agree a united position. We send our solidarity as they seek to bring these hyper-exploitative employment practices to an end.

Life and Death in the Warehouse is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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