AMAZON has been one of the real success stories of the pandemic, thriving as people relied ever more on online shopping during prolonged periods of lockdown.

The firm hired 10,000 permanent staff in the UK last year, as well as more than 20,000 agency workers on fixed-term contracts to deal with the busy Christmas period.

This short-term, agency-based work offered vital income to people at a time when coronavirus continued to play havoc with the economy.

But despite the boom in sales - worth a reported £19.4 billion in the UK last year - agency staff told the South Wales Argus that oft-heard complaints about working in Amazon warehouses have not gone away.

In collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), the Argus spoke with Gwent-based agency workers about their experiences at Amazon.

Among their allegations were communication problems with their agencies, and fears they would be laid-off with little advance notice.

Amazon runs a distribution hub in Newport, and the nearest 'fulfilment centre' (main warehouse) is located just over the Severn Bridge, in Avonmouth.

A common complaint heard by the Argus is that agency workers feel powerless as they approach the end of their fixed-term contracts, with little indication if they will be kept on or let go, regardless of how hard they have been working.

One worker, employed by PMP Recruitment, said job security is "shocking" for agency staff.

He alleged agency workers are given little notice that their jobs were being culled.

"They always deliberately leave it until one week before contract expiry to inform you if you have been offered an extension or not," he said.

“This is done to keep people working themselves to the max every day, in an attempt to gain a longer term [of employment].

"I’ve witnessed several people in tears over this and felt frustration and anxiety myself.”

Another former PMP worker, who was released at the end of his contract, alleged there is a reluctance to help temporary workers with work-related queries.

"When asked if I could be put in contact with the agency's HR (human resources department) to see if I could resolve something, they would not provide me with any contact details," he said.

Mick Rix, national officer for the GMB trade union, criticised such practices.

He told the BIJ: "Amazon for years has exploited the use of temporary labour by hiring and firing at will.

"Temporary agency work can be one of the worst forms of exploitative employment methods.

"Where this is used in other sectors the agency workers have some idea on how long they will be working on a particular job, and in fact that it may lead to the offer of permanent employment.

"Amazon basically fires the vast majority of its agency labour it takes on prior to seasonal peak, and does so without notice."

Responding to the Argus and the BIJ, a PMP spokesperson said: “Temporary recruitment agencies such as PMP exist to support the flexible labour requirements of customers.

"As a result, we are unable to offer our workforce full-time guaranteed hour contracts but we do, on a regular basis, offer 40-hour weeks or hours to suit personal circumstances. Many of our agency staff progress into permanent roles with us or our customers."

Adecco is another recruitment agency that supplies Amazon sites with fixed-term workers.

One employee told the Argus he feels there is “a distinct difference” between the treatment of agency staff and full-time staff.

He claimed agency workers such as himself are "singled out" to do tasks, and he also alleged agency workers find it difficult to access adequate PPE for some tasks.

The same worker also raised concerns about job insecurity.

“I have seen first-hand people being scared and anxious as their nine-month tenure is about to run out and they have children to feed," he said. "Now more than ever you don’t want to think about losing your job.”

In response, an Adecco spokesperson said: "The welfare of our associates is an absolute priority for us and we work closely with clients to ensure they have the best possible experience.

"Associates are paid fairly and we offer up to 40 hours per week of work, part time or flexible shifts.

"We are in regular communication with all our associates to ensure they have a clear understanding of their work assignments and we will always endeavour to find opportunities that best suit their requirements."

In recent years there have been numerous media reports on working conditions at Amazon warehouses, some of which have included allegations similar to those heard by the Argus.

But other current or former agency staff who responded to the Argus this week said their experience at Amazon has been positive.

"The pay is well worth it for the work that we do, and the staff couldn’t be more nice and supporting," one reader said.

"Whoever says that they treat us like robots is completely wrong, and I’m speaking from experience."

Another reader said: "Working for Amazon is hard work and long hours, but believe me all the horror stories you hear are not definitely true."

One of the PMP workers quoted earlier, however, alleged he is regularly reminded of "very challenging" targets and feels under constant pressure.

“I’ve never been shy of hard work but Amazon take that to the next level," he told the Argus, describing "10-hour shifts where I've regularly covered well over 12 miles on foot".

He added: “I had the fact I was on a fixed term contract used as a weapon to increase my personal production."

Some staff are "tasked with trying to increase productivity by patrolling the work area all day, saying things like 'if you want a permanent role you need to work faster,'" he alleged.

The Argus asked Amazon to comment on these allegations.

"Like most companies, we have a system at Amazon that recognises great performance and also encourages coaching to help employees improve if they are not meeting their performance goals," a spokesperson for Amazon said.

"Performance metrics are regularly evaluated and built on benchmarks based on actual attainable employee performance history.

"We look at the performance that associates are naturally setting and then set the benchmarks from there, with a focus on safety in mind."

Amazon also said performance will be measured over "a long period of time", rather than for any given hour or day; and employees' performance will not be measured when they log out of their station if they need, for example, a toilet break or to speak with their manager.