December 16, 2008, 12:00 AM

Amazon defends itself from charges of harsh conditions in a U.K. warehouse

An undercover reporter worked for a week in an Amazon facility and reported heavy workloads, short breaks and workers being threatened with dismissal for taking sick days, the U.K. newspaper The Sunday Times reports. Amazon is denying the charges.

Amazon.com Inc. is defending itself from charges of harsh conditions for workers in a warehouse in the United Kingdom.

An undercover reporter worked for a week in the Amazon facility at Marston Gate, north of London, and reported heavy workloads, short breaks and workers being threatened with dismissal for being sick, according to the U.K. newspaper The Sunday Times. Amazon says all its employees are working hard to fulfill orders and that break times were set by workers.

“Every single member of the Amazon.co.uk workforce, be that a temporary picker in Marston Gate, a permanent packer in Gourock, a customer service representative in Cork or a product manager in our Slough head office, is currently working flat out to ensure that our millions of customers receive the products that they have ordered on time this Christmas,” Amazon’s U.K. subsidiary said in a statement. “Our number one focus is our customers and everyone at Amazon works hard on their behalf.

The reporter, who worked at Amazon as a packer through a temporary employment agency, wrote that employees could be dismissed if they were out sick for six days, even if they had a doctor’s note, and that there was mandatory overtime, including an overnight shift from Saturday evening to Sunday morning. She said production quotes were high and that workers received only two breaks of 15 and 20 minutes during an eight-hour shift.

Amazon noted in its statement that an employee council voted to reduce the time of breaks in order to cut a half-hour off the workday and that workers are achieving performance pay targets 85% of the time during this Christmas season.

The company also noted that it had hired more than 100 temporary employees for full-time positions this year in the U.K. “During 2008, we have taken on over 4,000 temporary fulfillment center associates in the U.K. and are benefitting from the lowest level of employees leaving the company that we have experienced over all our 11 Christmases,” Amazon said in its statement. “We hope that a good number of these will go on to become permanent members of the Amazon.co.uk team as well."

Amazon is No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

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