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First UK industrial action against Amazon is ‘making an impact’, says GMB

<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Workers at Amazon’s huge Coventry depot described the “stressful” conditions inside as they staged a historic strike to demand pay of £15 an hour – the first time the corporation has faced industrial action in the UK.

The local GMB organiser Amanda Gearing said the action on Wednesday was “making an impact”, despite Amazon’s insistence that work was proceeding as usual inside the high-walled warehouse.

“I think that their voices are really being heard. Amazon are being stubborn about this, they don’t want these workers to organise a union, but I think at some point they’re going to have to get round the table,” she said.

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Related: ‘The job is not human’: UK retail warehouse staff describe gruelling work

The GMB has slowly been building up representation inside Amazon’s UK warehouses for a decade, but the action at Coventry grew out of some staff’s angry response to the 50p an hour pay rise they were offered last summer.

Huddling around a brazier against the January chill and sharing cups of tea, Amazon staff – all of whom wanted to remain anonymous – swapped stories of the conditions inside BHX4, as the warehouse is known. They described a physically demanding job in which their every move is monitored to the minute and performance measured against stringent targets.

“It’s stressful, to be honest, because every manager, every leader, they are pushing you to do the targets,” said one young woman, adding, “we only get half an hour for each break time. If you are two minutes late they will ask, ‘what have you been doing?’”

“It’s a lot of lifting,” said one man. “It’s hard. Sometimes we take little breaks, maybe five minutes. It’s not allowed.” He said he travelled to the site by Uber, and the cost had gone up from £7 to £11 in recent months.

One of his colleagues, asked about the 50p pay rise, replied: “It’s ridiculous,” adding it amounted to £20 more a week after tax and would notcover the steeply rising cost of living.

Another woman, who said her own children were adults, said she had no complaints about her job but was taking part in the strike action to support colleagues with extra mouths to feed. “Lots of families are struggling to put food on the table. They are doing 60 hours a week just to pay for shoes or school uniform. It’s not right,” she said.

Amazon sought to play down the significance of the strike. A spokesperson said it involved less than 1% of their UK workforce and it had not disrupted activity at the site.

“We appreciate the great work our teams do throughout the year and we’re proud to offer competitive pay which starts at a minimum of between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour, depending on location,” said a spokesperson.

Responding to the claims of close performance monitoring, they added: “Like most companies, we have a system at Amazon that recognises great performance and also encourages coaching to help employees improve if they are not meeting their performance goals.”

Related: First industrial action at Amazon UK hopes to strike at firm’s union hostility

They added that targets were “regularly evaluated and built on benchmarks based on actual attainable employee performance history”.

The GMB says it has only about 300 members at the site – less than a quarter of the 1,400 or so staff it believes to be working there – but stresses the difficulties of organising in the face of Amazon’s well-documented hostility to unions.

GMB organisers said several delivery lorries arriving at the site through the morning had turned around rather than cross the picket line – but other deliveries were coming and going as usual.

One staff member emerging from the warehouse at the end of a shift said managers had taken the unusual step of joining the packing lines, apparently to fill in for missing staff.

The local MP Taiwo Owatemi, who has long supported the GMB’s battle for recognition at BHX4, tweeted her backing for the strike, calling it “a historic moment in their fight for fair pay, decent working conditions and trade union recognition”.