Amazon’s flexible work offer is no substitute for fair pay

Amazon’s latest attempt to appease striking workers by offering parents school holidays off is the ultimate test of flexibility versus pay – and it appears that pay is winning
An Amazon Lorry Passes A Picket Line During A Strike Over Pay At The Amazon.com Inc. Fulfilment Centre In Coventry Uk

The contents of employment contracts are rarely headline-grabbing material. But Amazon’s new term-time offering, which gives parents and carers guaranteed time off during the school holidays, was picked up by numerous news outlets yesterday.

In a breathless announcement that used language akin to that of a new product launch, the company claimed that the “innovative new contract” would provide much-needed flexibility for parents.

“Term-time contracts are another great example of how we are using feedback from our people to support them with their childcare needs, giving families more time together,” says John Boumphrey, Amazon’s UK country manager.

While offering greater flexibility may seem like a nice gesture, it offers little recompense to those staff who are struggling to make ends meet each month. The GMB union’s senior organiser Amanda Gearing was forthright in telling the BBC what Amazon’s 70,000 UK workers really want. “They want more money in their pocket,” she explained. “What they’re telling us is they can’t live on poverty pay.”

In their eyes, these new contracts are merely a cost-effective way to try to placate those agitating for union recognition. When compared to union leaders’ demands for a £15-an-hour minimum wage, it’s clear which will put a larger dent in Amazon’s profit and loss statement.

It also remains to be seen whether its staff, many of which are paid by the hour, will be willing to work fewer hours in return for more time off during the school breaks.

Inflation has changed employee priorities

But while it’s natural to be sceptical of the ecommerce giant’s new policy (some of its previous employee workplace ‘innovations’ have included wellness chambers and cages for staff, to keep them safe from its warehouse robots) the term-time contracts do offer an interesting solution to two challenges facing companies at the moment.

First is the growing importance of flexibility for staff. A 2022 survey by Aviva found that more workers were attracted to their current role due to the work/life balance it offered, rather than pay (41% versus 36%). This is in contrast to the results it found pre-pandemic, when more employees cited salary as their main consideration when choosing a company to work for.

As companies struggle to attract talent in a competitive market place, flexibility is a key differentiator that prospective hires are looking for when considering their options. 

The second challenge it seeks to address is the question of how to get people back to work. Office for National Statistics figures show that more than 1 million people have removed themselves from the labour force due to caring commitments

This is a key economic issue for the government, with chancellor Jeremy Hunt pledging new childcare reforms to help parents with young children return to the workforce sooner. Amazon will be hoping that offering more flexible contracts will be enough to persuade some of these parents and carers to come and work in its warehouses.

But if Amazon were to look at what its competitors are offering, it would soon realise that flexibility alone might not be sufficient. Aldi and Lidl have given their warehouse staff three pay rises over the past 12 months and both offer starting wages in excess of the £11 hourly rate offered by Amazon.

With rising interest rates and inflation putting added financial pressure on individuals, the question employers need to ask now is whether flexibility is still favoured over pay.  For Amazon’s warehouse workers, the answer is a resounding no.