FOR THE forward-looking gang at internet-based gadget emporium Firebox.com, 2004 was a great year. The small, private business saw another gargantuan leap in profits. In December the company was named Britain’s 13th fastest growing private company in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100.
References in the Independent, Life Magazine, Time Out, Metro and The Times use adjectives like “funky”, “cool”, “innovative” and “fun” to describe the “shopping site with a difference”. But securing heavyweight corporate bedfellows is not the only weapon in the company’s arsenal. To increase sales from £262,000 in 2000 to £4.4 million in 2003, requires special measures.
One of the most efficient ways to save cash and keep outgoings to a minimum is to pay your staff next to nothing and to provide them with only the most basic of conditions. Officially, Firebox.com is made up of 16 members of staff. These white, middle-class graduates lounge around in open-plan offices in south London.
They test quirky gadgets and toys for grown ups in between answering calls from their satisfied pundits.
Japanese robots and retro Muppets beam down on the fresh-faced Firebox crew, vying for wall-space with the obligatory baby photos.
Tacked onto the office, though only accessible by a separate door so as to prevent any unnecessary intermingling with what some Firebox staff have lovingly dubbed the “warehouse monkeys”, is the hub of the operation. Three vast, dirty, metallic warehouses are home for the teams of anonymous workers—who are disproportionately black or foreign— who pack and pick and send out the company’s stock to clients all over the globe.
There are no baby photos on the walls here.
One of the warehouses can get so cold that it is difficult to make out faces beneath the hats, hoods and scarves. The segregation between the office and the real labour of the operation could not be more pronounced.
Warehouse staff have their own toilet—a virtual outhouse without heating and near-freezing running water. Conversation between workers is instantly interrupted with a, “Get on with your bloody work.” Breaks beyond the obligatory hour per nine-hour shift are frowned upon.
Staff wages are meagre. Daytime work pays £5.50 an hour, 65p more than the minimum wage for over-22s. This is relatively low for this type of work in the capital.
Orders are so abundant that the factory stays open throughout the night. The more desperate can work from 8pm to 7am for £6 an hour—just £4.50 extra per shift, for anti-social hours.
Pickers and packers are lured by the promise of performance-related bonuses. In a further example of corporate ingenuity the criteria for attaining these bonuses is kept secret from the workers. Working for up to 60 hours a week in busy periods is sometimes not enough to secure the bonus. As well as helping to avoid the loss of valuable seconds of staff productivity, preventing communication between workers serves another purpose.
One member of the workforce, on contacting the agency that paid him with an inquiry about his hourly rate, was told it would be £6 an hour.
After questioning whether it was really worthwhile doing the night shift at all, he was offered £6.50 an hour but told not to tell any other staff members or this would be revoked.
In true Orwellian style, CCTV monitors the workers’ movements to prevent stealing. Workers have been dismissed on the assumption of guilt. Others have been forced to explain their movements, going over CCTV footage with an accusatory foreman, despite protestations of innocence and a lack of evidence.
There are also random checks on workers’ lockers, cars and on their person.
This creates a workforce that is resentful, impoverished and lacking a voice. Because a large number of the workers are paid through an agency, they have no recourse to complain when they feel they are being treated badly.
To survive, a large proportion of the staff do second jobs in the daytime. One female employee lamented the lack of time she had to spend with her three children.
After working an 11-hour night shift she would spend the next three hours cleaning offices. She said that £190 a week was simply not enough to make ends meet living in London.
The media’s widespread backing of Firebox.com is disconcerting because it shows a failure on the part of the press to scratch beneath the veneer of a glossy website and a healthy balance-sheet.
An internet-based company may operate beyond traditional, physical boundaries but the “means of production” are still desperate and exploited workers.
A truly innovative and forward-thinking company must treat its workforce with respect, acknowledging the integral part they have played in helping to amass spectacular profits.
Its workers deserve, at the very least, a decent wage.
Awards like the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 applaud companies for their ability to raise capital quickly without taking into account the treatment of staff.
The success of Firebox.com is indicative of an unchecked capitalist system which values profit margins above people, and sees unskilled workers as disposable. To praise such a company for its new and innovative practices is unacceptable.