Amazon Coventry warehouse staff vote to strike over 50p per hour pay rise in UK first

An Amazon worker tells Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana why he's striking

Amazon workers have voted to go on strike for the first time ever in the UK after a ballot at one of the company's vast warehouses in Coventry.

The walkout is likely to take place in January after staff reacted angrily to a 50p per hour pay rise in the summer - equivalent to 5% and well below inflation.

Amanda Gearing, a senior organiser for the union GMB, said the workers had "made history" by organising within this warehouse.

"They will be the first ever in the UK to take part in a formal strike. They should be applauded for their grit and determination, fighting what's right in the face of an appallingly hostile environment...

"Amazon can afford to do better. It's not too late to avoid strike action; get round the table to improve the pay and conditions of workers."

'It made us feel so unappreciated': Amazon worker Darren Westwood described the offer, raising pay from £9.96 to £10.56 an hour, as a 'smack in the teeth'

But Amazon said the vote had been held among a tiny proportion of the tens of thousands of workers in the UK and would not disrupt any deliveries.

The ballot, which was held among around 300 workers in the Coventry warehouse, saw a 63% turnout - so well above the necessary threshold, with 98% voting to strike. Although it is small, it is unprecedented for this tech giant in the UK.

One worker, Darren Westwood, described the offer - raising pay from £9.96 to £10.56 an hour - as a "smack in the teeth" - particularly after the effort workers' put in through the pandemic.

"It made us feel so unappreciated. When I used to come to work during the pandemic, my kids used to cry," he said.

"Obviously, they'd seen news and read reports about how Covid was impacting people. And they knew every night that I was going out to work with another thousand people in a warehouse."

Prime minister Rishi Sunak told ITV News the government would not 'get involved' with a private company's relationship

Mr Westwood also criticised working conditions in the warehouse, claiming that there were incidents of fainting because people spent so long on their feet.

He said he worked for "one of the richest men in the world [and] one of the richest companies in the world" adding "and they're saying I can only have 50 pence?"

He said colleagues were struggling to pay bills, with some forced to turn to food banks.

Amazon told ITV News that they appreciated the "great work" their teams put in through the year, and announced a one-off special payment of up to £500 as an "extra thank you". But they insisted that they were proud to offer "competitive pay which starts at a minimum of between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour, depending on location".

They said that was a 29% increase since 2018 and said there were many other benefits such as private medical insurance.

On working conditions, Mr Westwood described how Amazon demanded that workers hit a particular rate when packing boxes - but didn't tell them the required rate until halfway through, or sometimes after their shift.

Those who were among the slowest 25 workers would get a warning known as an "adapt" and could eventually face disciplinary action.

He also questioned the two half-hour breaks, saying that at a previous job at Tesco workers were given an hour break at lunch so there was time to sit down and recuperate.

"When you are stood up for 10 hours, it takes its toll. Even on young people."

He said the half-hour breaks were eaten into as staff queued to go through metal detectors, walked to the canteen and queued again.

"So that time just dwindles away because then you've got to get back to work again."

On people fainting, he said it could be particularly bad in the summer, on hot days.

"I was called to seven people [fainting] in one day," when he was one of three first aiders, he said.

An Amazon worker for eight years said the 50p pay rise offer was a "tipping point"

Amazon has also been criticised for a high number of ambulance call-outs to its sites. A freedom of information request by GMB found that ambulances were called to the Coventry site 59 times between September 2018 and October 2021 for reasons including burns and traumatic injuries.

There was a separate FOI linked to the company's warehouse in Rugeley that suggested over three years ambulances were called to the Amazon warehouse 108 times, while they were called to a similar-sized Tesco warehouse only eight times.

However, Amazon insisted their safety record was strong and said it was unfair to compare numbers based on the size of the warehouse when they claimed they had far more staff.

They also said that many of the callouts were about pre-existing conditions and not workplace injuries.

They pointed to a strong performance on official data around injuries requiring seven days off work (RIDDORs). They said that showed they had half as many recorded injuries as other companies in the warehousing and transportation sectors.

They also said they paid for one of the two breaks in a 10-hour shift unlike some competitors.

The Labour MP for Coventry North West, Taiwo Owatemi, told ITV news that she felt Amazon's pay offer in the summer was an "insult" especially during a cost of living crisis.

"I have met with Coventry Amazon workers repeatedly who have told me first-hand the impact this derisory pay offer has had on them, as they struggle to pay their bills."

She said the company's UK sales were over £23 billion last year.

Anna Thomas, director of the Institute for the Future of Work, argued that the strike was a "window" into frustrations being felt across many major companies that were changing the world of work.

"It is really significant - it is part of a wider transformation of work and society - it is not only about pay but conditions, about human dignity and quality of work."

In the particular case of Amazon, she pointed to an increase in the "intensity of work" and said methods were used in companies like this - including the work rate requirements highlighted by Mr Westwood - that weren't being fully disclosed or understood.

She said that the shift to the gig economy initially raised worries about robots replacing workers, but increasingly now the concerns were around people being treated like robots - and de-skilled as a result.

Asked if this strike surprised her, she said: "I'm not surprised and will be more until underlying problems are addressed."