Swipe to Finish: How Amazon exploits its drivers to subsidise your deliveries, by ‘White Van Man’, is a memoir about the experience of being a self-employed delivery driver for Amazon in the UK. The book is officially being launched today [13 June].
In this article exclusively for the Gig Economy Project, ‘White Van Man’ explains the key themes of Swipe to Finish and what inspired him to write the book.
Click here to order your copy of Swipe to Finish.
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com.
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in Europe is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.
IN 2019, I attempted an ambitious career change to that of a (hopefully) Oscar-winning scriptwriter. Sadly, the subsequent COVID-19 lockdown was the iceberg to James Cameron’s Titanic for this scheme. Simultaneously, my pension plummeted and technical writing work – my career of 25 years – also suffered. On the wrong side of 55, finding some form of employment would be challenging. The endless days of sitting around in the house were also starting to grate. I needed a job. Any job.
Six months earlier, Amazon had opened a new distribution centre a few miles away from where I live. I had often noticed the morning queue of white vans heading in to pick up their loads and then whizzing out half an hour later. These were ‘key workers’, ferrying vital supplies to the sheltering masses, such as industrial quantities of toilet paper and megapacks of dog food. In the light of not having a better option, I applied to join, becoming a self-employed Amazon Delivery Associate (DA), or ‘White Van Man’ – one of the staple jokes of the British road network.
Preparation for this role started with two days of regurgitated PowerPoints in a classroom, concluded by the world’s easiest open-book test. Next, it was a further two days shadowing other drivers before picking up my own van. Five days after enrolling, I delivered my first parcel on behalf of Mr Bezos. Two weeks later, I was paid. Or rather, I received an invoice.
The days themselves were very much the same – get up, check my van, make a couple of flasks of tea and coffee, then head off to the depot. Once there, check the van again, banter with my fellow drivers, before driving through the distribution centre to load up my vehicle. After ten hectic minutes frantically stuffing in bags of parcels and outsized items, it was off to the first drop. The only requirement was to deliver every parcel to its rightful owner at the designated rate and not bring any back.
Effectively, we shouldered all the risks of last-mile delivery; while out on the road, we could be hit by other cars, scrape our vans along the drystone walls that lined the single-lane roads or, worse, end up swamped on a tidal stretch of road while attempting to drop off a parcel to a coastal farm. Any minor repairs were at our expense; however, writing off a vehicle could cost more than £3,500, which we would then have to pay off in £100 a week instalments for the next seven months.
Remember that most Amazon Delivery Associates are not employees. Instead, we’re self-employed contractors engaged through one of several competing Delivery Service Partners (DSPs). These are typically artificial entities, designed by Amazon simply to offload the day-to-day management of delivery drivers, thereby avoiding both responsibility and taxation. But DSPs are in business to make profits and an easy way for them to increase their revenues is by syphoning as much money as possible from their drivers. Consequently, our fuel reimbursement rates were salami-sliced downwards while fuel costs at the pump were increasing; meanwhile, I discovered that Amazon hadn’t changed the rate and the DSP appeared to be skimming off the difference. This company also charged £5 weekly for the privilege of providing its drivers with pay statements.
Just to be clear: I didn’t get into this role because I was an investigative journalist researching a story. What subsequently inspired me to write this memoir was a strong sense of injustice that stems both from my childhood and from my time in the Armed Forces. There, any suggestion of financially exploiting soldiers would be taken extremely seriously.
‘Swipe to Finish’ also isn’t a moan at Amazon’s ability to make money doing what they do more efficiently than other organisations. It is more about their unwillingness to take responsibility for the people who make their last-mile deliveries. Rather than recruit DAs as full employees with all the rights and benefits that employment brings, they contract out this management function to a bunch of profit-driven chancers, who often have little leadership experience and demonstrate very poor motivational skills. Unsurprisingly, this outsourcing leads to horrendous turnover rates, with the DSP I contracted with losing two-thirds of its drivers in just three months. Even Amazon’s all-pervasive metrics expect that a DSP will replace all its DAs within a year.
The reality is that an Amazon DA’s job, like most others, can be challenging at times. What makes it unacceptable is the degree of risk that Amazon fobs off onto the people who are in effect, the human face of the company. If Amazon wants to be the most customer-centric and safest company in the world, it needs to change how it treats its delivery drivers and do it fast.
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