Rugeley, a town in the British Midlands, is home to a new Amazon fulfillment center.

Locals hoped that it would replenish jobs that disappeared when Rugeley’s coal mine, the area’s main employer, closed in 1990.

But, as Ben Roberts’s photos make clear, working in the warehouse can be a soul-sucking exercise. An Amazon fulfillment associate might have to walk as far as 15 miles in a single shift, endlessly looping back and forth between shelves in a warehouse the size of nine soccer fields. They do this in complete silence, except for the sound of their feet.

"The workers at Rugeley are effectively human robots," Roberts says. "And the only reason Amazon doesn’t actually replace them with robots is they’ve yet to find a machine that can handle so many different sized packages."

The atmosphere is so quiet that workers can be fired for even talking to one another. And all the while, cardboard cutouts of happy Amazon workers look on, cartoon speech bubbles frozen above their heads: "This is the best job I ever had!"

Most of Rugeley’s workers come from mining families, a stock not exactly known for its weak-livered dandyism. It doesn’t matter that these jobs are hard. It’s that they have no future.

"Mines aren’t by any stretch of the imagination utopias. Any kind of mining is a dirty, dangerous, high-risk job." Roberts says. "But what the mining industry did offer workers was a job for life.

Roberts hopes viewers will become aware of the human cost buried in Amazon’s low prices.

The jobs in the Rugeley fulfillment center are almost always temporary positions handed out by agencies on zero-hour contracts. As such, the local economy is not recovering as locals hoped. Amazon is not investing in the town’s people; instead, it’s mechanizing them.

Co.Design

Think Your Office Is Soulless? Check Out This Amazon Fulfillment Center

When Amazon opened its warehouse in the former coal-mining town of Rugeley, England, residents thought the company might bring brighter economic prospects. As photographer Ben Roberts hopes to show, that’s not exactly what happened.

Shining blue and bright above a subterranean labyrinth of hollow shafts, a warehouse sits upon the abandoned remains of a coal mine that once defined this working-class English town. It is as bright as the mines are dark, as vast as the shafts are claustrophobic, as clean as they are filthy. This warehouse represents a future of shopping that does to brick-and-mortar retail what it has already done to the coal mine that used to thrive in its place: Bury it without filling the hole it left behind.

This warehouse is the focus of one particular vision of retail’s future captured by Ben Roberts in Amazon Unpacked, a haunting series of photographs exposing the inner workings of Amazon’s massive fulfillment center in the English Midlands.

Roberts was originally sent to Amazon’s fulfillment warehouse to contribute to a Financial Times article about the online retail giant’s impact upon the town of Rugeley, which fell on hard economic times after the closure of the area’s main employer, a coal mine, back in 1990. In 2011, Amazon announced its intent to set up a fulfillment center in the once vibrant town. It would be a packaging and delivery nexus through which Amazon’s centralized computer brain orchestrated the shipment of millions of packages every year, all throughout the U.K. More important? It would hire a significant number of locals, some of whom had been out of work for 20 years.

Rugeley was hopeful that Amazon’s move into the city limits would result in brighter prospects for the area after two decades of economic gloom. As Roberts’s photographs show, however, Amazon’s future may be bright…but it’s also soulless.

"Vast but one-dimensional. That’s what the Rugeley center is like," Roberts tells Co.Design. "It’s shockingly quiet there."

Workers at Rugeley spend their days wandering the massive warehouse, either squirreling away incoming products, pulling orders down from shelves, or packing them up for shipment. In each of these activities, the workers’ motions are not driven by the engine of human judgment or expertise but rather by the massive engine of Amazon’s exquisitely complex fulfillment mechanism: a computer that both tracks and commands every worker’s movements throughout the day.

An Amazon fulfillment associate might have to walk as far as 15 miles in a single shift, endlessly looping back and forth between shelves in a warehouse the size of nine soccer fields. They do this in complete silence, except for the sound of their feet. The atmosphere is so quiet that workers can be fired for even talking to one another. And all the while, cardboard cutouts of happy Amazon workers look on, cartoon speech bubbles frozen above their heads: "This is the best job I ever had!"

"The workers at Rugeley are effectively human robots," Roberts says. "And the only reason Amazon doesn’t actually replace them with robots is they’ve yet to find a machine that can handle so many different sized packages."

It’s a stark metaphor that emphasizes the way in which Amazon has managed to mechanize even the human element of its e-retail empire. In trying to capture it, Roberts found himself taking pictures that were very different from the tone of his usual work, which often focuses upon the intimacy and immediacy of the connection between people and their environments. There is no such intimacy on display in Amazon Unpacked. Instead, his photos of the warehouse are reminiscent of the massive industrial landscapes captured by Edward Burtynsky, a comparison that Roberts says is "almost inescapable" due to the barren humanity of the facility.

The issue at Rugeley is not that workers are ungrateful for the jobs Amazon has given them, or even that they find these jobs unpleasant. Most of Rugeley’s workers come from mining families, a stock not exactly known for its weak-livered dandyism. It doesn’t matter that these jobs are hard. It’s that they have no future.

"Mines aren’t by any stretch of the imagination utopias. Any kind of mining is a dirty, dangerous, high-risk job." Roberts says. "But what the mining industry did offer workers was a job for life. If you started working for the mine at 18, you could be the head of an entire team of miners by the time you were 35."

This is not the case at Amazon. The jobs in the Rugeley fulfillment center are almost always temporary positions handed out by agencies on zero-hour contracts. Nothing is guaranteed, and a fulfillment associate’s job can completely disappear between one day and the next. As such, the local economy is not recovering as locals hoped. Amazon is not investing in the town’s people; instead, it’s mechanizing them.

For Roberts, this isn’t about how something you order off of Amazon comes to your door. It’s about how fulfillment centers like Rugeley represent the invisible cost buried in every low Amazon price.

"When you buy something from an independent retailer, you might pay more than Amazon, but that extra bit is an investment," Roberts explains. "When you pay it, you’re investing in the quality of not only your own life but the life of the community around you."

Without that investment? No need to imagine a world without shops, just imagine the walls of a fulfillment center like the one in Rugeley—growing as fast as Amazon does—extending into the horizon, forever. And even shoppers might one day become the automatons wandering between the shelves.

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130 Comments

  • Richie Downes

    I live in Rugeley and you have made such a MASSIVELY true point... and I'm expected to work for them for the next three months... as a temporary worker. I'm seriously doubting I'll enjoy this time of my life...

  • lughsummerson

    What a nightmare image the last line of the article conjures up! Image if we had to go to a warehouse ourselves and trudge in silence through the aisles pushing a little metal hand-cart. How ghastly!

  • lughsummerson

    What a nightmare image the last line of the article conjures up! Image if we had to go to a warehouse ourselves and trudge in silence through the aisles pushing a little metal hand-cart. How ghastly!

  • pite234

    What a pointlessly negative and clueless article. To compare a job like this to working in a coal mine...my mind is too boggled to even come to a conclusion. I do think the families who watched their loved ones succumb to black lung might beg to differ.

    Not every job creates a community. Not every job has to be a soul-fulfilling self-esteem party. Not ever job is a teat full of ambrosia. They'd stop calling them jobs if that were the case.

    This is shamelessly inane journalism.

  • Uniqua Giddens

    I've personally worked at Amazon & I loved it. The pay is good, $12/hr starting off, plus monthly bonuses. Also, like someone else said, they do give aways for participating in safety procedures. The managers and stuff also work. They aren't standing around shouting orders. You meet a lot of different people. Its a great place to work.

  • John

    This is a great example of happy customers calling out a writer for BS.

    I find it odd there's not a bevy of interviews (even anonymous) so the workers true sentiments are shared. Feels like commentary on photos taken without any true research.

    Any facility this large has a structure and middle layer of management. Why wouldn't there be career progression in a facility of hundreds of people?

    Get off your high horse. These are jobs in a safe environment, replacing a far more dangerous livelihood.

  • Eric Kipkorir Kitur

    I call BS on this article. This is one of the most pristine working environments for anyone doing a menial job. Seems way better than mining jobs (health comes to mind) and I highly doubt there's such a thing as getting fired for talking at work. The author, as someone noted before, seems to be a white collar yuppy who for the first time has seen the work place of blue collar jobs. Again it seems like an awesome environment

  • John Korpics

    I imagine Jeff Bezos sitting here at the end of his life whispering "Rosebud" into the glow of a digital fireplace

  • Brendon Stewart

    Inoffensively; why has an American wrote an article about this? Excuse me if John has stayed/lived in England (or the rest of the UK) and has pretty good knowledge about it all.. Anyway.
    From my frontline experience the work is anti-human, like 80% of this type of work. The expectations outweigh worker health, destroy and loyalty or respect for the individual, and most clearly (ironically) show that Amazon has no interest in it's business, other than the money. They hardly bother to defend that. It's shocking how they just about abide by working conditions laws etc. Unfortunately in a region with high unemployment, the recession going on as usual, outsourcing (temp workers) and lack of any job security, anyone will take any job to pay the bills. There's no choice the majority of the time.

  • brownlee

    I lived in Europe (Belgium, Ireland and Germany) for a decade, if that helps.

  • Guest

    This article is BS!  I work for Amazon in a fulfillment center just like the one in the photographs.  Associates are allowed to speak to each other.  You do not get fired for speaking to another person.  The author of this article has alot of nerve.  Furthermore, the associates are happy.  The company places the associates safety above their bottom line.  They even give away free Kindles and Xboxs for participating in the safety process.  They get treated better by Amazon than most other people do at their jobs.  Now let's talk about your comment about walking 15 miles a day.  From what I've heard, and remember that I'm not a doctor, but apparently getting this much exercise everyday is actually good for you.    I've personally seen a large number of associates that have had significant weight loss due to just working at Amazon.  I know one associate personally that was able to come off of her blood pressure medicaton simply from working here.  You are disrespecting your profession with the article you have posted.   Why don't you get your facts straight before trashing someone.

  • terminationshok

    I am rather shocked by all the comments with the sentiment of "this is work, it's supposed to suck" and "Someone else needs to create my perfect job". Get real people.

    What's lamentable is that this massively scaled warehouse replaced thousands of community bookstores and main st style businesses. Those sort of places provide the venue to interact with your neighbors and you know, be a human that feels something ever. Amazon didn't directly replace those things, it's been happening slowly for some time. I believe that amazon is a better shopping experience, but we need to build places for community.

  • Ceci Pipe

    Those "main st style businesses" didn't offer me books on Old Norse or Terry Pratchett novels, they didn't have any CD's beyond the top 40 pop charts, and they made a lot of money by selling their stock for many times the price of the same piece in the UK or USA. I do miss one or two stores for their selection of international magazines I can't find elsewhere but Amazon offers much more to the average consumer than those stores ever did.

    Community interaction and rampant commercialism aren't the same thing, they don't need to be the same thing. Simply funding a park would increase interaction, we don't need bad stores for that.

  • D Sylvester

    I would love to be able to walk 15 miles a day at my job. Doesn't this writer/photographer know that a sedentary life is bad for human physiology?  Instead, I am chained to a desk, where my only exercise occurs in my fingers typing or clicking the mouse as the rest of my muscles slowly atrophy. 

    And the daylight? Is even, diffuse light "soulless"?

  • Cory O'Brien

    I used to walk 15 miles per day doing audio for hotels/conventions. Pushing heavy gear carts through rat filled tunnels while wearing a suit in the summer time, and getting screamed at by clients and contractors all day. Man working at Amazon sounds great. Also, EVERY corporate menial job has lame posters and catch-phrases hanging around. 

  • I Smell BS

    I am happy to see all the comments that see right through all the BS in this idiotic article. And what about the publisher? Makes you look pretty shallow, elitist and desperate (for content) too.

  • Bradley Gawthrop

    I can't vouch for the backgrounds of Brownlee and Roberts, but they write like yuppies encountering the blue collar world for the first time in their lives. The warehouse is clean, bright, and not dangerous, that puts it three steps up from lots of places I've worked, and most of my neighbors, too. Say, If the coal mine offered a "job for life" why are they unemployed? give me a break. having a "job for life" is basically a myth for most of the world, and has been for generations.

  • amazon rules

    Also, i have a friend who works at amazon. he worked his way up and became a supervisor in short time.

    boy, how did THAT happen when this article just states the amazon workers are mindless robots!