Avril John was nine years old when she overheard a conversation in a train station that would stick in her memory. She and her family were on their way from Northumberland in the north of England to a small town in the Midlands called Rugeley, where a modern coal mine had just opened.
The year was 1960 and her father was one of many miners moving to the area for work. They were met at Birmingham station by a man from the National Coal Board. “I will always remember, for all I was only nine, how he said to my dad that [the mine] had just opened and it was guaranteed work for 100 years.”
Thirty years later, the mine closed. In 2011, the US online retailer Amazon opened a warehouse the size of nine football pitches right on top of it. When John, by then a 60-year-old, applied to work there, no one was making the kind of promises given to her father all those years ago: “At the Job Centre, it was stressed that it was till Christmas, possibly Easter, and maybe, maybe, a permanent job at the end of it. When I went to do my tests for the agency, it was stressed again: maybe.” None of her new colleagues should have been surprised when their jobs didn’t prove to be permanent, she says.
But people were surprised to begin with. In 2012, a year or so after the warehouse opened, I went to Rugeley to find out about the impact of Amazon’s 21st-century jobs on the old mining town. There was obvious symbolism in a place where the new economy was developing on top of the old; the pale-blue warehouse spread out next to the sooty brown towers of the dying power station.
Photographer Ben Roberts and I met plenty of people in those early days who were grateful for the new jobs inside that warehouse, but many were angry and disappointed with the insecurity of them. Workers on 1p above the minimum wage were divided into two groups: wearers of “blue badges” and “green badges”.
The former were permanent Amazon employees and the latter were temporary staff supplied by agencies who might one day achieve a blue badge or might be let go. The people of Rugeley were having to learn a new language of employment, one of “voice mechanisms” rather than unions, “associates” rather than workers and where people were “released” rather than sacked.
Last year, Roberts and I returned to Rugeley to see what had changed for Amazon and the town in the intervening decade. Amazon’s value by market cap has risen from about $100bn to $1.5tn. The personal wealth of Jeff Bezos, its founder, has swelled from roughly $23bn to $170bn. In Rugeley, meanwhile, the last remnants of the old coal economy have disappeared: the power station closed in 2016 and its cooling towers were destroyed in a controlled explosion last summer. After decades on the skyline, they crumpled like empty crisp packets and were gone within 10 seconds.
The anger towards Amazon, meanwhile, has dissipated. The company has become a better employer, at least in some ways. But it feels as if Amazon and Rugeley have learnt to live alongside each other, rather than to live together. Their stories are running along different tracks at different speeds, their fates not intertwined in the way of company towns of old. Whatever Rugeley’s future (and it doesn’t look bleak by any means), few in the town see Amazon at the heart of it.
An alarm sounds as Roberts and I stand at the reception desk in the Amazon warehouse. We catch sight of ourselves on a CCTV screen, a red circle around each of us. We step further apart, the circles turn green and the alarm stops. Amazon has been using the cameras to monitor social distancing between workers during the pandemic — just one of the ways in which computers hold the whip hand in this workplace.
Our tour around the cavernous space shows the work itself hasn’t changed much since our last visit: handheld computers direct “pickers” from shelf to shelf while monitoring their productivity in real time. “You’re sort of like a robot but in human form,” was how an Amazon manager described the system to me 10 years ago. In its newer warehouses, Amazon now has real robots. They bring the shelves to the pickers, who remain stationary instead of walking all day. The average worker picks roughly 100 items per hour if walking around, but more than 300 items an hour in the automated system, according to news reports.
Gary Norton, at the time of our visit the site’s general manager, says there are no plans to introduce the robots at Rugeley. “You wouldn’t believe how flat the floor has to be [for the robots to work],” he says. While new Amazon warehouses are set up for robotic systems, “our legacy buildings still play a huge part in the network”. It’s strange to hear this place described as a “legacy building”, I say. Just 10 years ago it was state of the art. “Amazon years are like dog years,” Norton laughs. “We call people ‘experienced’ if they’ve been here for a couple of years.”
If that’s the case, then Avril John is a true veteran. At 70, she is still doing the job she got back in 2011 in the team that receives goods into the warehouse. She has become a trainer too, and she likes it. “It is hard work. But most jobs are hard. You’re very lucky if you get an easy job,” she says, when we meet her in the warehouse in the presence of Norton. “I’ve seen them come and go but where I am, we’re very lucky — we are a good team, we’re a mix.”
Amazon says just under 30 per cent of the 1,100 or so staff at the site come from Rugeley and the surrounding area, with 30 per cent bussed in from Wolverhampton, 15 per cent each from Walsall and Birmingham, and a handful from further away. John says the diversity of the Amazon workforce reminds her of her early days in Rugeley, when the mine drew people from all over the country and beyond. “You had everything, Czechoslovakians, Hungarians, Polish, Lithuanians . . . It was like a little United Nations — more or less what we are in here today.”
When I was last here, Amazon’s starting wage was £6.20 or so an hour compared with the adult minimum wage of £6.19. Now it pays better: a minimum £10 an hour compared with the adult minimum wage of £8.91 an hour. The division between “blue badges” and “green badges” has gone too, though the company’s preference for having a chunk of its workforce on temporary contracts has not. Now Amazon hires temporary workers at the Rugeley site directly on fixed-term contracts rather than through agencies. They are eligible for all the same benefits as permanent staff.
Amazon says the ratio of “perm to temp” is roughly 80 to 20 per cent, though the latter group gets bigger during the Christmas peak. For Norton, it’s “less divisive” because everyone has a blue badge: “There’s no demarcation or differentiation. You’ll see the odd yellow badge around — they’re visitors and contractors.” I glance down at my badge. It is bright red.
For Sam, a former worker at the site who didn’t want to give his real name, the pay and benefits were good but the insecurity and intensity were too much to bear. He joined in late 2019 and stayed for more than a year, most of which was through the pandemic. “What they were doing at the end, they were renewing a four-week contract, so it was like four weeks, and then [they] might renew the thing or [they] might not,” he says.
As someone in his early sixties, he found the pandemic tough, not least because the warehouse became very busy as Amazon reaped the benefit of the closure of bricks-and-mortar shops. In the second quarter of 2020, the company reported a 40 per cent surge in sales globally. “When Covid began, we were asked if we would do six days a week, 60 hours a week. I managed to do that for seven weeks,” he says. On his day off, he would just sleep. “There’s a lot of burnout. If you do your job well, then you put in a lot, so then there comes a point where you’re just exhausted.” He was also lonely. “All you’re doing is dealing with objects and items and things and not with people, and because of the speed you don’t have time to socialise.”
I notice on my visit how few people are talking, even in the canteen — no doubt in part because of social-distancing requirements. Workers sit alone in booths separated by Perspex, eating from lunch boxes and staring at their phones.
When Sam left Amazon, “fed up with temporary contracts”, he got a job as a carer. Now he’s “dealing with people, making them smile. It’s completely different. The pay is less but who cares? I feel satisfied at the end of my day.”
Most employers worry about high staff turnover, but Amazon has been positively encouraging it. For a number of years it has had a policy called “The Offer”: each year after the peak Christmas period, warehouse staff are offered a few thousand pounds to quit (the precise sum varies depending on tenure and other things) on the condition they will never be allowed to work for Amazon again.
The company also has “Career Choice”— an offer to pay up to 95 per cent of a worker’s training for certain accredited courses, even in fields that would cause them to leave Amazon. Norton, the former Rugeley warehouse manager, said that it’s a sign they are a good employer. “Amazon as an organisation has listened a hell of a lot to various feedback and changed its practices accordingly,” he says. “It’s quite a progressive company in that respect.”
Stuart Perry, a regional organiser at the GMB union, has a more cynical view of The Offer in particular. “My view is it’s so they can rotate the staff, limit the opportunity for organising and collective bargaining, and also keep the wages down because if new people are coming in, they’re constantly starting at the bottom,” he says.
Amazon disputes the idea that employees felt burnt out. “We pay all of our employees — whether they are full-time, part-time, temporary, or seasonal — a minimum £10 per hour at [Rugeley],” the company says. “We provide a comprehensive benefits package, which includes private medical insurance, life assurance, income protection, subsidised meals and an employee discount — which combined are worth more than £700 annually — as well as a company pension plan. At the start of the pandemic, both permanent and temporary roles were available at Rugeley. During this period, overtime was available but was entirely voluntary.”
Whatever the intention, The Offer feels like a policy designed in an era when fresh workers were always easy to find. This year, amid widespread labour shortages, it didn’t happen.
It’s a 20-minute walk from Amazon to Rugeley’s Community Church and Centre, where a food-bank table near the entrance is stacked with tins of mushy peas and tomatoes and punnets of fresh fruit. Hand-knitted baby cardigans hang on a coat stand nearby. Three volunteers move around the simple metal shelves that line the walls in a side room.
The food bank has expanded since our last visit, when it was still fairly new. Donations from people in the town have been so generous since the pandemic that it had to buy a freezer and build more racking to store it all. As well as the food bank, there is a baby clinic in another room today, a day-care centre for adults in a third and basketball will be played that evening in the sports hall.
This building used to be a youth centre run by Staffordshire county council. But in 2014, struggling financially due to government austerity measures imposed after the financial crisis, the council decided to close all of its 34 youth clubs. The community church leased the low-slung brick building for a peppercorn rent, then bought it outright in 2020.
Chris Fielding, the manager of the community centre, says there has been a swath of cuts to front-line services in Rugeley. “The local authority switched to what it calls a place-based approach, which is a fancy way of saying the community’s got to look after itself,” he says. “Basically, we’re their guys on the ground in Rugeley . . . where there has been front-line stuff gradually pulling back, we’re doing the equivalent as best we can. But yeah, it’s challenging.”
A young couple with four children are sitting at a table nearby. They were made homeless recently and the council put them in a Travelodge. They only have a kettle there, so the church has been giving them noodles and other food they can make with it, and arranged for a local café to give them a hot meal a day.
Fielding has compiled a directory of all the community activities happening in the town, which is very long. In recent years, all these groups have started to communicate more, galvanised by the pandemic and community discussions about what should replace the old power station.
The moment four giant cooling towers, at a former power station at Rugeley in Staffordshire, were demolishedhttps://t.co/9ts7lFl40x pic.twitter.com/FiuQSVt1wX
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) June 7, 2021
“There’s a sort of cohesion now . . . everybody’s talking, and that’s what I like,” says Angi Cooney of C Residential, an estate agency in town. During lockdown, people were delivering letters offering to help each other, picking up groceries and giving lifts to funerals. “What’s changed in the past 10 years? I think people have become kinder,” she says. “I think people had forgotten how to be kind.”
Local politics has changed too. Labour lost the majority on Cannock Chase district council in 2019 and, after a period of no overall control, the Conservatives swept to victory in elections last year. Fielding says the Conservative councillors have been active and visible at community events for years. “They seem to have a genuine care, they’re all local.” Olivia Lyons, one of those councillors, took responsibility for delivering food parcels to people who couldn’t get to the food bank during lockdown. Last year, at 29, she became leader of the council. Almost everyone we meet in town asks, “Have you met Olivia yet?”
“You know what’s nice about her?” says Cooney. “She’ll stand at council meetings in a quiet way and put her point across. I stand there and fizz and pop and everything else, you know what I mean? I’m Marmite; she’s not Marmite. Her strength is her quiet ability to hold that room. Everyone has to lean in to listen.”
I meet Lyons for a drink one evening after she finishes work as a lawyer. Her father, a local gas man, had been president of the working men’s club, and she grew up immersed in community life. She went to university in Leeds and then moved back home. “I’m a real home bird, but it took me leaving to realise that,” she explains.
She worked for a while as a case worker for the local Conservative MP Amanda Milling (the Tories took the seat from Labour in 2010) and was inspired to get more involved in local politics when the redevelopment of the power-station site was announced. She was worried “we’d have a lot more development like Amazon, and people I’d gone to uni with, graduates, were struggling to get jobs”, she says.
The area is far from an economic black spot. Though the high street is struggling, the industrial park near Amazon is humming with small businesses. The proportion of people on jobless benefits in the local authority is below the national average. But average wages are lower and there is a smaller proportion of professional jobs.
Boris Johnson, the UK’s Conservative prime minister, has said the defining mission of his government is to “level up” the country and improve the prospects of places that have “for too long felt left behind”. But while local councils have often tried to lure big employers like Amazon to bring work to their areas, in Rugeley it seems clear that the jobs in that warehouse are simply not going to turn the town around on their own.
“It wasn’t particularly about Amazon — Amazon was already there. I just don’t want that type of role to overtake,” says Lyons. “I think we need skilled jobs which are ultimately quite well paid, so people can stay locally, buy a house.”
That said, her view of Amazon has improved recently. Norton, who this month moved to manage a different warehouse, tried to develop a better relationship with the town after he took over as general manager in 2019. The company sponsored Rugeley in Bloom, and there is a discussion forum with councillors every three months. “Now, if you have an issue with Amazon [as councillors], you go straight to the manager and it’s pretty much resolved straight away. That’s really changed,” Lyons says.
In addition, early problems with Amazon overwhelming the local infrastructure have been fixed. Workers coming from outside Rugeley were initially reliant on local train and bus services, which became very busy at times and didn’t match up with the timings of Amazon’s shifts. Minutes from a council meeting in 2016 say some workers waiting for public transport had been “sleeping under the canal bridge and this was not enhancing the look of the town centre”. Now there are special buses to bring in staff and a lorry park for drivers. “To me now, as a local employer they’re great, whereas if you’d asked me that question two years ago, I think I’d have given you a very different answer,” she says.
Lyons’ vision for “levelling up” Rugeley is focused in part on the power-station development, where there are plans to build 2,300 new low-carbon homes and a new school. Some in the town are disappointed the site will be mostly given over to housing rather than businesses that will employ people, but Lyons says there is more “employment space” built into the plans than many think.
She also wants to make sure the new arrivals are connected to the town centre, and that it has something to offer them, such as bars and restaurants. “If you were to come back in [another] 10 years, I’m hoping you’d see redevelopment of the town centre. I’m hoping the power station redevelopment could be a catalyst for a wider regeneration . . . And locals able to buy local houses, trained through colleges to do skilled jobs.”
In the community centre, Fielding is also thinking about Rugeley’s future. “The big question is, what is Rugeley going to become? It’s had all the heritage of being a market town, a mining town, a power-station town. All that’s gone, so what now?” he asks. The idea of Rugeley as an “Amazon town” doesn’t even seem to occur to him.
Some in the community want to become a “zero carbon town” and are keen to launch a pilot. In Fielding’s view, it will be up to the people of Rugeley to shape their own future. “There’s people here who love this town. [We want to] co-ordinate them and say, ‘You can be part of the solution’, rather than being a cynical old so-and-so saying, ‘I remember the good old days.’ We can make some new days.”
Sarah O’Connor is a columnist and reporter at the Financial Times
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