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Top HR chief attacks ‘s*** jobs’ at Amazon warehouses in warning to UK firms

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Working conditions in Amazon warehouses have come under fire. Photo: PA

One of Britain’s most senior HR leaders has hit out at “s*** jobs” in Amazon (AMZN) warehouses in a speech about working conditions in modern Britain.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), said many workers did not have a choice about taking such roles, and warned low-skilled people in Britain were being “left behind.”

He said good pay, benefits, employment terms, job design, social support, work-life balance and employee voice were vital in a speech at the World of Work conference at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School on Thursday.

But he warned jobs at fulfilment centres run by the online retail giant Amazon did not show “any of those characteristics.”

But an Amazon spokesman said it would be happy to invite him to one of its fulfilment centres to see its “good jobs and conditions.”

It said its workers enjoyed “industry-leading, comprehensive benefits,” and had. topped a recent list of the most in-demand employers on jobs site Glassdoor.

READ MORE: Amazon tops Glassdoor list of most in-demand employers

Cheese told Yahoo Finance UK after the speech that figures showed many jobs in Britain were “overly controlled and don’t use people’s skills,” despite record levels of employment.

“Some of the most egregious examples are in warehouses. It’s driven by the economy of robotics, but they are not using technology to understand its impact on people and their jobs,” Cheese said in an interview.

“Do people have choice doing jobs like that? The answer for me is no. If I don’t have many skills my choice is limited. My worry is it’s a bifurcation – those that have the skills have the choice of jobs, those that don’t get left behind.”

He added: “This is not socialist dogma. I would call it a humanist agenda. We have to create jobs that are good for people, give them a voice and pay them fairly.”

Cheese had told a packed conference hall: “You look at Amazon warehouses, and the jobs that are there are s*** jobs.

READ MORE: UK gig economy workers 'treated like disposable labour'

“We’ve got to correct stuff like that – correct work scheduling systems that give people no control over their life, no autonomy over how and where they work.”

The comments were part of a wider call for a “reset” of modern working life, with Cheese warning firms were seen as pursuing profit “at the expense of everything else.”

He said the Nobel prize-winning US economist Milton Friedman was partly to blame for why “the only thing business thinks its responsible for is profits”, and a “homo economicus” view of humanity in recent decades.

Friedman was one of the world’s most prominent supporters of free markets and monetarist economics, and played a key role in the economic policies of former US president Ronald Reagan and former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Cheese said: “We have an issue of trust with big business. Businesses have a responsibility to more than just shareholders.”

He said too many of the gains from technology and capital were going to shareholders and the owners of capital.

Firms had a responsibility not just to employees but also to customers, suppliers and society, he said, adding that the “most important thing” was showing business was part of society.

He said he was encouraged by moves such as gender and CEO pay gap reporting, and by initiatives to improve work led by regional mayors amid the “paralysis” of central government.

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But Cheese also warned in his speech that the law was “way behind” on changes in modern work, such as the rise of independent contractors and smaller firms.

He said recent controversies over the responsibilities and rights of companies like Deliveroo and Uber and their workers were the “debate of our times,” with “massive confusion” over the definition of employers and workers.

Cheese also criticised parts of the HR industry, saying it had been part of the problem by writing many rules and process that “control and treat people like bad robots.”

“We are caught in these paradigms we’ve literally had since the industrial revolution,” he said, asking if the idea of standard work as full-time and five-days-a-week was “in the Bible.”

He said he was a “massive fan” of agile and flexible working but said it had to be about giving workers opportunities the chance to “break the cycle of work that’s increasingly stressful.”

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He warned it should not be a way of simply saving money on office costs, and highlighted initiatives in Finland to give workers significant choice over where and when they work.

An Amazon spokesman told Yahoo Finance UK: "At Amazon we provide industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits and a safe, modern working environment. In fact LinkedIn this year named Amazon as the number 1 workplace where UK professionals want to work.

“And just this week Glassdoor, one of the world’s largest job and recruiting sites, published its inaugural report on the UK’s most in-demand employers, with Amazon topping the ranking.

“We’d be happy to welcome Mr Cheese to any of our fulfilment centres so he can see first hand the good jobs and conditions that Amazon offers.”

The spokesman added that the firm had created thousands of “good jobs” with pay starting at £9.50 an hour, with opportunities for training and more than 2,000 permanent roles created this year alone.

The benefits package for permanent staff includes private medical insurance, life assurance, subsidised meals and an employee discount and a company pension plan, the spokesman said. Further funding worth thousands of pounds is available for adult education courses.