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Meet Your Driver: Film, Gig Workers and Big Tech

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Kris Hitchen in Sorry We Missed You, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

“When you walk into an Amazon fulfillment center, it’s like walking into the Chocolate Factory, and you won a Golden Ticket,” says Janelle, one of the employees featured in videos posted to Amazon’s YouTube page. The introductions share a format, with titles like “Meet Ricardo” and “Meet Ron, military veteran and Amazon Delivery Service Partner.” These documentary-style videos sometimes air as advertisements on streaming services. One of the people interviewed just had a baby. Another narrates in American Sign Language. Janelle talks about providing for her young son. She says he loves packages from “Mommy’s work.” He appears briefly in phone-shot footage, lifting a cumbersome delivery box with joy. 

These short videos give an inside look at the warehouses that facilitate the world’s largest online retailer. Sped-up footage of workers on the floor and driving forklifts accompanies Janelle’s narration. Dressed in safety vests, they snake through a maze of pallets, robots and conveyer belts, while boxes slide down spiral chutes. The concrete floors are clean, and the space looks vast and orderly. The workers in the background of the videos don’t look happy, but they don’t look unhappy, either. They just look like people at work.


In “Meet Kent,” another worker talks about his son and his son’s admiration for his job. “Every time he sees the blue Prime trucks,” Kent says, “He says, ’Daddy! There’s your people!’” Whether Janelle and Kent are real people and their commentary unscripted isn’t really the issue. The point of this video collection is to cast doubt on allegations that Amazon warehouse staff are exploited and to bury the reams of reporting that depict the workplace as a living nightmare.

It would be easier on Amazon if its customers imagined all of its operations were conducted by robots. But, as a company with more than a million employees, it’s impossible to hide the existence of the humans on the route from a click on a website to a cardboard box on a front door. This year, plenty of customers, newly working from home, have even had the chance to meet their Amazon delivery drivers. The idea of who might be considered a “tech worker” also has shifted, and a few recent films have explored the change.

In the past, stories about tech companies, like Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs and the HBO program Silicon Valley, which debuted in 2014, have zeroed in on young upstarts working under slightly older tech industry lions. Think of the software developer Ryan Phillippe plays in the 2001 movie, Antitrust, versus Tim Robbins’s Bill Gates-like CEO. Even the cult classic Hackers positions computing as a generational battle: The young punks wish to free digital technology from the corruption and avarice of corporate adults. But in 2021, the lower-level tech insider’s tale has begun to sound predictable. Plus, given the number of stories in recent years about bad behavior by “tech bros,” it’s harder to find a hero in the computer guy who just happens to be a little less senior than the other computer guy.

In contrast with the vulnerable warehouse and gig labor that powers these newly global empires, tech office culture has banausic stakes. As people like Janelle—and the workers in the background—have grown more visible, films have begun to represent their struggles with more honesty than Amazon’s video team would allow. Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (debuting in 2008, years before the “gig economy” had a name) was early to diagnose the problem. His film features workers in Mexico remotely powering robot laborers across the border. A decade later, another brilliant film, Boots Riley’s 2018 Sorry to Bother You, featuring Amazon-like corporation WorryFree, exposes bottom-rung work life, as well as the fig leaves and Potemkin villages that such companies create to deflect media scrutiny. This year, Lapsis, directed by Noah Hutton, cleverly leads with characters in a fictional gig position—part Google Map photographer and Instacart shopper. They face exploitation, but in Amazon-style promotional videos, the CEO declares that sustainability and “doing the right thing” are the company’s ultimate objectives.

Sorry We Missed You, released in 2019, is a direct hit, told as only the director Ken Loach could. The film reveals how the everyday burdens of this line of work can destabilize an entire family. Amazon goes unnamed, but it’s strongly implied when Ricky finds a job delivering boxes of products people ordered off the internet. He’d rather starve than go “on the dole,” and his pride and need makes him an easy mark for the hiring supervisor at the warehouse. “You don’t work for us, you work with us,” he tells Ricky.

The strength of Paul Laverty’s script lies in the scenes set at home. Ricky’s job, the means to provide for his family, has torn them apart. His wife gives up her car so that he can afford a van. Seb, his bright teenage son, skips school and has brushes with the law. Shouting matches between the boy and his father make clear that they want the same thing—for Seb to flourish, for Ricky to have an easier life—but know the deck is stacked, so they take their rage out on each other. When Seb shouts that he doesn’t want to “end up like you” to his dad, Ricky is devastated. I thought of Janelle and Kent when I watched this scene. What they said about their children delighting over boxes and branded trucks feels like a calculated response to those who might have anguished kids like Seb. Amazon has a lot to sell. It’s the “everything store.” What it sells in the video propaganda campaign became clearer to me through Loach’s film: Get a job at Amazon, and your son will be proud of you.

But Janelle has more to say in the video, which was posted online last year. She highlights how people on her team wear masks and have plenty of hand sanitizer. Workers are “going home to babies,” Janelle says, “[and] to grandparents,” and Amazon is trying to keep them safe. Last year, there were regular outbreaks in warehouses across America, and tens of thousands of workers were infected. Alec MacGillis, in his book on Amazon, Fulfillment, published in March, reports that workers relied on rumors about COVID infections because the company refused to inform them when someone was out sick. That’s just last year. Over the company’s history, workers have been injured and have even died on the floors that look so tidy in these videos.

Amazon’s video output coincides with the new style of tech worker movies. In one of the first employee introductions, posted in 2017, “Amazon Area Manager, Day in the Life,” the workers—managers, but on the floor—mention where they went to school (“Virginia Tech with a business management degree”). It is a perfect illustration of the mangled trajectories of tech disruption and social mobility in America: Dropouts can be tech billionaire CEOs, while college graduates end up in Amazon warehouses, and anyway, the opportunities for those without degrees are minimal for everyone besides a privileged class of white people. As Amazon attempts to stage manage its most vulnerable workers, movies like Sorry We Missed You and Lapsis bring the reality of the job in focus.




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Feds seek input into gig worker vulnerability

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OTTAWA—The latest Canadian Construction Association newsletter reports that the federal government through Employment and Social Development Canada is looking for input on potential updates to the Canada Labour Code to accommodate gig workers.

Labour Minister Filomena Tassi has issued a request for information, “citing COVID-19 as having exposed a number of vulnerabilities for gig workers and those that rely on them for essential services.”

The government is seeing input on the experiences of gig workers in federally regulated sectors including those who work through digital platforms such delivery or freelance work; and how federally regulated workers could benefit from a “right to disconnect” from their cellphones after they finish their workday.

The initial consultation period is open until April 30. Further consultation with employers, unions and other stakeholder organizations will follow in the third quarter of 2021.

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Welsh campaigners condemn gig-economy employers after report finds insecure workers are twice as likely to die from Covid-19

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WELSH campaigners condemned employers of insecure and gig-economy workers today after a report found that they were twice as likely to die from Covid-19.

The Morning Star reported today that TUC research had linked insecure work to a much higher risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19.

Welsh Labour’s Senedd candidate for Pontypridd Mick Antoniw called for the devolution of the Health and Safety Executive powers to Wales and pledged new powers.

He said: “The pandemic has exposed the consequence of 10 years of funding cuts of the Health and Safety Executive. There is now a real need to devolve health and safety responsibilities to the Welsh Parliament.”

Wales TUC general secretary Shavanah Taj said: “It is incredible that, over a year into the crisis, the UK government still fails to recognise both the practical and moral case for fixing our broken sick-pay system.

“No matter your race, gender, disability or background, everyone deserves fair pay and to be treated with dignity and respect.”

PCS union regional secretary Darren Williams said: “The research highlights the point that it is the same sort of bad employers who deny their staff job security who are also more willing to expose workers to unnecessary risk of Covid.

“We have many members who work in outsourced roles. These workers are often employed in agencies like the DVLA [Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency] in Swansea, where management decisions have contributed to 600 staff testing positive for Covid and one person tragically losing his life.” 

Unison Cymru lead for social care Mark Turner said: “Over 60 per cent of care in Wales is provided by the private sector. That’s why Unison is calling for a publicly delivered national care service in Wales.”

Mr Antoniw said that while employment is legally reserved to the Westminster government, the Welsh administration can promote socio-economic change and ethical employment standards through procurement policy.

“This is what underlies the draft Social Partnership Wales Bill, which is currently out for consultation,” he said.

“Putting the current partnership of government, trade unions and business on a statutory basis and using the leverage of public spending to drive ethical standards, worker representation and promote collective bargaining, it is an opportunity to use Welsh powers to drive change and bring working conditions for many into the 21st century.”

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UK gig workers: tell us your experiences during the pandemic | Gig economy

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In recent months, concerns around working conditions and precarious employment have been voiced by workers at several major companies including Uber, Hermes, Amazon and Deliveroo. They are among millions of gig workers in the UK who have continued to drive, deliver, clean and cook – among many other services – throughout the pandemic.

As part of The Guardian’s coverage, we would like to hear about gig workers’ experiences. You can tell us using the form below.

Share your experiences

You can get in touch by filling in the form below, anonymously if you wish or via WhatsApp by clicking here or adding the contact +44(0)7867825056. Your responses are secure as the form is encrypted and only the Guardian has access to your contributions.

One of our journalists will be in contact before we publish, so please do leave contact details.

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