Amazon workers are staging strike in the UK which is the first formal industrial action in the country for the US tech giant, saying that robots are treated better – as a protest over poor working and calling for pay raise.

Workers say they are constantly monitored and upbraided for “idle time” lasting just a few minutes. Two of them said the robots in the warehouse “are treated better than us” and that the managers track staff performance, and time that is not spent scanning items is accrued.

The 24-hour strike action began Wednesday a minute after midnight with the protesters expected to picket outside the company’s site in Coventry in central England throughout the day. The GMB Union, which represents the workers involved, said it expects 300 employees out of a total 1,000 at the plant to turn up to the walkout.

Poor working conditions, meagre pay

Darren Westwood and Garfield Hilton described how even a trip to the toilet can lead to questions by managers. “The thing with stopping work is that they want to know why,” said Hilton. “So if the time is beyond a couple of minutes they can see it on the system.”

Hilton, who has diabetes, says it is not always possible to find toilets close by in the building and the process of locating one and returning can sometimes take upwards of 15 minutes. “They will then question you, what were you doing?”

Staff are unhappy with a pay increase of 50 pence (56 US cents) per hour, equivalent to 5 percent and well below inflation. Amazon introduced the pay hike last summer. But warehouse workers say it fails to match the rising cost of living. They want the company to pay a minimum £15 an hour.

They also want better working conditions. Amazon workers have raised concerns about long working hours, high injury rates, and the unrelenting pace of work, as well as aggressive, tech-enhanced monitoring of employees.

Inflation has soared due to increased energy costs and supply chain disruptions stemming from the war in Ukraine. Consumer prices rose 10.5 percent year-over-year in December; in response, the Bank of England has hiked interest rates to tame rising costs.

Westwood said that he and his partner were in a reasonable financial position for now. But he worries for other employees, one of whom he said was working 60 hours a week to meet mortgage payments. “Someone the other day said we’re treated like robots — no, robots are treated better,” Westwood said.

Wednesday’s action in the UK comes as Amazon is laying off thousands worldwide. The company began laying off 18,000 workers last week in an attempt to dial back some of the expansion it undertook during the Covid-19 period and brace for a possible recession in 2023.

Earlier this month, Amazon launched a consultation to close down three of its U.K. sites, where it employs a combined 1,200 people. The move is not part of Amazon’s 18,000 job cuts, according to the firm.

Amazon has long been criticized for labor shortcomings, with the company often accused of poor working conditions in its warehouses and delivery operations and squashing attempts from employees to unionize. In April, staff at the company’s Staten Island warehouse in New York became the first group in the US to vote in favor of joining a union.

“We stand in solidarity with the Amazon workers of Coventry fighting for higher pay and benefits,” Chris Smalls of Amazon Labor Union, which established the union, said. “It’s time Amazon who claims to be Earth’s best company come to the table and bargain in good faith with its unions.”

Amazon has previously said its employees have the right to join or not join a union, but that it doesn’t believe unions are the best choice for its workers.

Westwood and Hilton say working conditions are taking a toll on their colleagues, some of whom are working 60-hour weeks to keep up with the cost of living.

Hilton said that he has seen workers falling asleep on the short bus ride to Amazon’s warehouse. “There’s a huge amount of them in the building virtually in ghost mode.”

He said Amazon wants “every minute in that building to be maximised”. “You have to look at it this way, if the box with the product is not moving, you’re not making money. This is Amazon. If there’s a problem with a box, it’s a loss-maker. If the box leaves a building it is making money.”

Amanda Gearing, a senior GMB union organiser, told the BBC’s Today programme that Wednesday’s strike action was having a “massive impact” on the Coventry warehouse.

“Coventry might be the start [of the strikes], but it won’t be the finish,” she said. “We know there are workers in other centres that feel exactly the same.”

She added: “People are having to choose between heating their homes and… eating really, so it’s not good enough, not from someone like Amazon that’s got billions and billions of pounds of profit during the pandemic.”

We are not greedy. Just look at Amazon’s profit

Amazon’s global sales and profits soared as Covid restrictions forced people to shop online. Between 2019 and 2020, profits nearly doubled to $21.3 billion and rose again the following year to $33.3 billion.

Westwood said “people might think we’re being greedy” by asking for £15 an hour. But he pointed to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, executive chairman and space adventurer, who has a $120 billion fortune according to Forbes magazine.

“We don’t want his boat or his rockets,” said Mr Westwood. “We just want to be able to live. I just want to be able to pay my bills at the end of the week. That’s all we’re asking for.”

Only faction of workers on strike

A spokesperson in a statement said the staff involved represent “only a fraction of 1 percent of our UK employees” and added that pay for Amazon’s UK warehouse workers had increased 29 percent since 2018 while a £500 one-time payment was also made out to the staff to help with the cost-of-living crisis.

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