An Amazon operator waits for a shelf to roll in to pick up the products that any customer in the Barcelona area has just purchased from the e-commerce giant. When she appears, he grabs a few items from a couple of shelves and deposits them in one of six black plastic boxes that he has to fill. And he waits for the next one to come. The young man, like many other colleagues distributed on the same floor of the center, is alone in his workplace. His activity depends on the supply through these shelves and, above all, on the small robots that move them by crawling on the floor.
For every worker that Amazon has in its BCN1 center —the one with the largest capacity in Spain— there are two of these machines, called drive. 3,000 workers against 6,000 of those roomba of large dimensions that was initially manufactured by a specialized brand and that ended up being made its own by Amazon Robotics. They last 24 hours without rest thanks to their batteries, they support weights of 1,500 kilos and they barely have to undergo a minor revision every 26 weeks.
The transfer of drive has left its mark after three and a half years of activity that accumulates the large distribution center located next to El Prat airport: the floor seems engraved by a geometric drawing full of very straight lines and perfect circumferences that could be a technological version of the Nazca lines. Every certain distance a QR code appears attached to the pavement. It is used by the cameras built into the robots to geolocate and find the way to their new stop.
That dance floor is closed to humans (except when there are problems, such as a product crash or a breakdown). It is an organized chaos, without clashes. And a key place in the business of the e-commerce giant: it allows the order to leave the distribution center in a margin of two hours and that up to 60,000 packages per hour can be dispatched on the busiest days (the Christmas campaign). , a million annually. This Wednesday, when Amazon invited EL PAÍS and other media outlets, the activity was around 25,000 per hour.
The frenzy of the moving yellow shelves collides with the supposed calm with which the employees who load and unload them work with the most common and unlikely products that appear in the infinite Amazon catalog. However, Victoriano Mouriño, representative of CC OO in the company committee of the center, points out that all that glitters is not gold: “The worst thing is the crushing of people with repetitive movements,” he says in reference to the pain of knee or wrist that end up appearing over time, bending down and getting up, carrying boxes of up to 15 kilos… The next few months will be tough, with the textbook campaign: “You have to get on the bottom of the shelves, because that’s where they fit, and that means you have to bend down every time to pick them up”. The company avoids talking about percentages of absenteeism linked to professional illnesses; he suspects it is above 20%.
He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.
Labor controversies, especially at the risk of those arising from the difficulties of unionizing in the United States, are constant for the group founded by Jeff Bezos. The director of Labor Relations in Spain, Alejandra Rodríguez del Castillo, denies the majority. She points out that all workplaces pay above the provincial agreement for the sector, which means that in cities like Madrid and Barcelona starting salaries are around 1,700 euros gross per month.
In Spain, the group has 18,000 workers and 195 union representatives. Of the more than 40 work centers distributed throughout the Spanish geography, only a fortnight have company committees, although the legislation covers their creation as a labor right. “In the last year, 12 union elections have been held in the company, which includes above all new company committees, but also new union delegates. Elections cannot be held in a center until they have a minimum period of six months,” says Rodríguez del Castillo, who acknowledges that in smaller centers there are usually fewer company committees.
The executive influences the collaboration with the unions. The latest test of that understanding, in his opinion, came two weeks ago, when workers in the Barcelona center participated in a vote to renew an agreement signed three years ago that allowed activity in the center on weekends. On this occasion, it has been ratified with the commitment that Amazon pay 45 euros for each Saturday or Sunday worked, in addition to granting a holiday during the week. The change is that, for the first time, there will be a work shift at night on weekends. The company, in a job marketing campaign, highlights the virtues of the deal on a handful of posters that still hang outside the center. “New shifts would be created from Monday to Friday for up to 750 people,” says one. The drive they still need humans for their work.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits