The English town of Rugeley was once a thriving place, with residents easily finding employment at the local coal mine. In 1990, that coal mine shut down, leaving many jobless — some for as long as two decades. Then came along Amazon. The online retail giant opened up a fulfillment center in the small town in 2011, giving locals new hope and prospects to reignite their livelihood.
However, in photographs Ben Roberts shot for a series titled “Amazon UnPacked,” it’s revealed that the warehouse brings no liveliness at all. As John Brownlee of Fast Company puts it, the warehouse is “soulless.”
“Vast but one-dimensional. That’s what the Rugeley center is like,” Roberts said. “It’s shockingly quiet there.”
The fulfillment center has the task of sending out millions of packages a year, delivering goods all over the UK. The employees spend their time putting away new products, finding orders from the many shelves, or packing up orders to ship to customers. However, these employees are not trusted to fulfill these tasks in their own way — they are told exactly what to do a by a computer that also tracks their every move.
The workers also complete said tasks in total silence. While they might walk as much as 15 miles in one day to complete their tasks in the massive warehouse, the only sounds that can be heard are their footsteps. In fact, workers can even be fired for speaking to each other. In contrast, Amazon has placed life-sized cutouts of happy employees with speech bubbles that read, “This is the best job I ever had!”
“The workers at Rugeley are effectively human robots,” Roberts says. “And the only reason Amazon doesn’t actually replace them with robots is they’ve yet to find a machine that can handle so many different-sized packages.”
The Rugeley employees are thankful to have the jobs, and don’t take issue with the fact that their days can be daunting. The true problem is that these employees do not have a future at Amazon, which is a big change from the mining jobs many of them are used to, which offer lifelong employment. At the Amazon fulfillment center, employees are hired by agencies and given contracts, which means their jobs could be gone in a day. There’s no job security and the fulfillment center has done nothing for Rugeley’s economy.
“When you buy something from an independent retailer, you might pay more than Amazon, but that extra bit is an investment,” Roberts said. “When you pay it, you’re investing in the quality of not only your own life but the life of the community around you.”
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(Photo credit: Fast Company)