The shirtless man who greeted me at the door of his Oshawa bungalow was incredulous.
He stared at the cardboard box as I handed it to him.
“Did you just order it today?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, still looking at the package. “It’s crazy.”
He turned back inside and let the screen door close behind him.
I swiped left on my “Rabbit” — Amazon’s handheld GPS that tracks all of its packages and, by extension, me — to register another successful delivery and walked back to my unmarked rental van. It was a little after 5 p.m. on Nov. 29 — Black Friday — and I still had dozens of packages left to deliver.
I got this job because we wanted to see how this worked — how Amazon, the online retail giant, actually gets its packages into people’s hands hours after they’ve ordered. We wanted to try to understand the true costs of free shipping and look at the ways in which Amazon’s rapid delivery guarantees are changing not only customer habits, but also the nature of courier jobs and, in some ways, the city itself.
More than a million packages are now delivered to homes in the Greater Toronto Area every day, according to research by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a university outside of Albany, New York.
“It’s stunning, I know,” says José Holguín-Veras, an engineering professor at Rensselaer who leads the university’s Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems and calculated the figures for the Star based on models he and other researchers developed from data collected in the U.S. His calculations for the GTA, based on 2016 census figures, come to an estimated average of 1.03 million packages every single day. Right now, in the middle of peak holiday shopping season, the number is even higher.
Home deliveries in most cities have tripled in the last decade, Holguín-Veras said. “That is producing major problems,” he added, citing rising emissions and worsening traffic.
Not every delivery is from Amazon, of course. The company wouldn’t tell me how many packages, on average, it delivers in the GTA. But online shopping from all retailers has dramatically increased in recent years. Between 2016 and 2018, the average number of online purchases by Canadians rose by 58 per cent, according to Canada Post’s latest e-commerce benchmark report. The survey of 5,000 Canadians also found that 34 per cent of those who shopped online in 2018 made 13 or more purchases, up from 21 per cent in 2016. The percentage of those who made more than 41 purchases doubled.
Our patience has thinned, too. When paying for shipping, 60 per cent of Canadians now expect to receive a package in three or fewer days, according to the report.
I’m reminded of a woman in Ajax who opened her door before I could knock. “I was expecting you,” she said.
This has always been Amazon’s goal. Even in the company’s earliest days, when it sold only books and it would take more than a month to deliver an order, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos dreamed of delivering packages to customers the same day they ordered them. Now it’s part of Amazon’s main pitch to customers and central to its popularity.
But while ordering online is easier than ever, how things get to your door is more complicated.
Outside the entrance of Amazon’s nondescript Scarborough warehouse on McNicoll Avenue is a sign with one of the company’s corporate mantras: “It’s still day one. Are you ready to make a difference?”
But I’m not here for a job with Amazon, not technically anyway. I answered an online ad for E.V.K. Limousine Services, a third-party subcontractor, or, in Amazon parlance, a “Delivery Service Provider.”
Amazon uses big, unionized courier companies, such as Purolator, UPS and Canada Post, to deliver some of its packages. But in order to make its most time-sensitive deliveries — the same-day, next-day and two-day shipments to Amazon Prime members — it relies on a network of much smaller companies, like E.V.K., and even individual drivers who sign up for shifts through its Amazon Flex program.
Amazon, which pays its subcontractors for every route their drivers complete, is able to exert more control over these smaller companies, some of which were created to exclusively serve Amazon.
Since 2017 the number of courier companies operating in Ontario has dramatically increased, according to data from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. Between 2009 and 2016, the number of courier companies registered with the board was steady, fluctuating a little from year to year, but always around 700. Then in 2017, shortly after Amazon launched same-day deliveries in Toronto, the number of courier companies jumped to 876, a 25-per-cent increase over the previous year. The number of companies grew again in 2018 to 916.
It’s not clear how many of the companies deliver for Amazon. The company won’t say how many subcontractors it has working for it in the GTA, but since 2017 it has encouraged people to start their own delivery companies — “Whether you have one van or a fleet, our volume and your business could be a great match” — in an attempt to meet its ever-growing demand.
My interview with E.V.K. was mostly just filling out paperwork. I provided a criminal background check and clean driving record and completed a short safe-driving quiz. I concealed my identity only slightly by using my middle name, Craig, and a new email address and cell phone number. My driver’s licence and other documents were authentic.
I was told to sign a document saying I had read the company’s manual, although it wasn’t provided to me. I asked the woman conducting my interview, Eveline Cammack, who is in charge of safety, recruitment and training for E.V.K., about the manual and she said she would email it to me. (I eventually received it a month later after asking for it repeatedly.)
Cammack told me that before I could deliver packages I had to sign in to Amazon’s online training program on my own time and watch a series of training videos. The system would track if I had watched all the videos. I would also have to job shadow another E.V.K. delivery driver for a full shift. All of this training was unpaid, she said.
Employers in Ontario are obligated to pay employees for any mandatory training.
When I asked E.V.K. about this, a lawyer for the company said they are “actively looking into this issue” and that all employees who were not paid for their job-shadowing shift will be paid retroactively. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”
The driver I shadowed, an amiable college student from India, had been working at E.V.K. for two months. He told me that he also drives for Uber.
He said he liked the job and that it was much better than his last gig working in a restaurant.
After a short staff meeting in the warehouse — during which an E.V.K. manager cautioned us against locking our keys in the rental vans, saying it was a fireable offence — we loaded our van with our assigned rack of about 100 packages, scanning each bag of presorted parcels and envelopes before stacking them in the van.
It was a bitterly cold day — temperatures reached a low of -16.5C — and the season’s first big snowfall had come two days earlier. Whether it was due to the weather, my burdensome presence or the high number of apartment buildings and businesses to which we had to deliver — delivering to businesses and buildings without a concierge take more time than houses — we fell behind early and were rushing for most of our shift, even after getting “rescued” by a morning-shift driver who finished early and took some packages off our hands.
“Let’s jog, ok?” my trainer told me as we parked the van in front of a North York condo.
At one point in the night, desperate to pee but unable to take a break, I ran to a cluster of trees behind an apartment building and tried to be discreet, which, when you’re wearing a fluorescent vest, isn’t easy. So things were harried at times, but we eventually made it back to the warehouse by 8 p.m. and ended our shift on time.
Unlike some of Amazon’s other Delivery Service Providers, which pay between $15 to $17 per hour, E.V.K. pays its drivers a flat rate for the day. I was assigned to the afternoon shift, 12 to 8 p.m., which paid $140. It works out to $17.50 per hour, $3.50 above the minimum wage, but I was warned that some days may go longer and others shorter, depending on the volume of packages.
For the eight shifts I worked, including my unpaid job shadow, I worked a total of 67.75 hours, not including two half-hour lunch breaks I was able to squeeze in on the slower days. I was paid $980, which comes out to $14.46 per hour, or a little better than minimum wage. I had more days that went long than short, but presumably if I had continued working into January I would have had some lighter shifts and my per-hour rate would have improved.
That’s what E.V.K. says. They believe my per-hour pay is “not an accurate and fair representation” of what their longer-term employees receive. They said on average their employees make approximately $16 to $17.50 per hour.
I only worked long enough to receive one paycheque, which included accurate vacation pay and all of the required deductions for taxes, employment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan. I did not cash the cheque.
In an emailed statement to the Star, an Amazon spokesperson highlighted the fact I only worked eight shifts saying my “statements are not an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to work as a delivery associate.” I asked the company spokesperson to clarify what they meant by my “statements,” since they hadn’t yet read the story, but they did not respond.
CHASING THE “RABBIT”
My days started at 11:45 a.m. at an arena parking lot a short drive from the Amazon warehouse. That’s where we were given keys to a rental van — usually an unmarked cargo van from U-Haul or Enterprise — and also a Rabbit, which was loaded with Amazon Flex software.
The Rabbit is a smartphone, GPS and package scanner all in one. After signing into my Amazon account, it showed me my assigned packages for the day and the route to follow. It allowed me to call customers as well as Amazon support staff if there was a problem with a delivery.
The Rabbit was easy to use and, as far as I could tell, idiot proof. It was also indestructible. I accidentally dropped mine multiple times on roads and sidewalks and it was never damaged.
At each address, I would find the package to be delivered, walk it to the door and scan the package with the Rabbit. Ideally, I would hand the package directly to someone at the house, but if no one was home I would leave it at the door and take a picture with the Rabbit.
There was the odd bug now and then. Sometimes a large box was listed as an envelope; on one occasion a package meant for the town of Richmond, south of Ottawa, was included in my Richmond Hill route. But for the most part Amazon’s technology was nearly flawless.
The Rabbit is a topic of discussion at the Ontario Labour Relations Board, where a union is arguing that Amazon is the “true employer” of subcontracted drivers. They cite the Rabbit as one example of Amazon’s control over workers, saying it not only directs the couriers, but also measures their performance and can lead to discipline from Amazon.
“Not only does it dictate your route to you, it also surveils you while you’re doing your work,” says Fathima Cader, a labour lawyer who was previously retained by the union in their case against Amazon. Cader, who is currently based in New York, is no longer working on the case.
In its filings to the labour board, Amazon denies that it has any control over its subcontractors’ employees. It says the purpose of the Rabbit is “purely functional: to ensure (Amazon) can track its products within its supply chain, and monitor on-time delivery.”
E.V.K., in its own filings to the board, said the Rabbit is used by Amazon to track its packages, not manage E.V.K.’s couriers. “E.V.K.’s dispatcher manages E.V.K.’s couriers.”
Amazon says their routes are designed by a computer algorithm and calculated to include driving distances, the time it takes to complete a delivery, two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch. That may be theoretically true, but in practice there are scenarios for which the algorithm is unable or unwilling to account. Quirky, hard-to-find addresses. New subdivisions that confuse the GPS. Lack of parking. Really long driveways. Mixed-up unit numbers in strip malls. Buildings with lousy elevators. Businesses that close early. I encountered all of it in my short time on the job, and it meant that I often took longer than my scheduled shift time to complete the route.
Amazon says it sets “realistic performance expectations that do not place undue pressure on Delivery Services Providers or their drivers.” They said the “sophisticated technology” they use to plan delivery routes ensures drivers don’t have too many packages and that there are policies to limit the number of hours drivers are on the road. Amazon says drivers can raise concerns with them directly and the company will investigate.
ON THE JOB
Type relentless.com into your web browser and it will take you to Amazon’s home page. Bezos registered the domain in 1994 when he was spitballing names for his new company. It persists today as an illustrative bit of company lore, but it could also describe the daily onslaught of new packages and the pace required to deliver them.
Our company had 25 minutes to be in and out of the warehouse before the next subcontractor’s time slot. It was just enough time to drive in, park the van, find your assigned rack of packages — typically between 50 and 150 for an eight-hour shift — load your van and drive out. E.V.K.’s managers cheerfully hurried us along. “All right guys, one more minute. Let’s go!”
The packages came in all shapes and sizes, from featherlight envelopes that seemed to hold a single piece of paper to portable dishwashers, electronics and even food. (I’m pretty sure one of the packages I delivered was simply two boxes of Kraft Dinner.) My heaviest package was a weighted vest for strength training (it was in its actual package, not an Amazon box) that must have weighed 40 or 50 pounds. (It would have been helpful to me if that customer had cleared the ice from their steps as part of their training.)
I delivered packages to sprawling mansions and dilapidated apartment buildings, luxury condos and modest bungalows.
Amazon clearly prioritizes speed for its deliveries above all else. On Black Friday, I showed up to a townhouse in Oshawa around 7:30 p.m. at the same time as another Amazon delivery guy from a different subcontractor. It was not uncommon to make deliveries to a house that already had Amazon-branded packages waiting on its doorstep.
There are costs for this inefficiency, said Holguín-Veras, the engineering professor studying the impact of increased home delivery on cities. He worries that Amazon’s convenience is creating an unhealthy dependence that’s doing “tremendous damage to the environment.” Deliveries by passenger vehicles produce seven times more emissions on a per-package basis, he said. “Of all the things that we purchase on the internet, what percentage of that is truly urgent?”
With daylight so limited, half my shifts were spent in the dark, when everything became more difficult. It was harder to drive, harder to see the numbers of the houses, harder to not look suspicious when I was walking around suburban neighbourhoods trying to read the numbers on the houses, harder to see steps on an unlit walkway and other tripping hazards.
E.V.K.’s managers regularly told us that safety was our top priority. Every day in the WhatsApp group chat used to communicate with drivers, they sent a daily safety message and encouraged us to drive defensively.
But in practice, they could have done more. I never had any issues with the rental vans I was assigned, but other drivers complained in the WhatsApp group, sometimes posting videos of their tires spinning in the snow. One morning, a manager sent a message asking if anyone who wasn’t already scheduled wanted to come in to work.
“This time of the year Your Role is very important,” the manager wrote. “You are like Santa Claus everybody’s waiting for their special packages.”
One driver responded: “Santa Claus needs snow tires and snowbrushes or Santa Claus not safe!”
According to data from the WSIB, E.V.K. had 8.39 lost-time injuries per 100 full-time-equivalent workers last year — four times the average for courier services.
“WSIB injury rate calculations are complex and not necessarily a true reflection of the injury history of an employer,” E.V.K. said in its written response, adding that the company “promotes a culture of working safely.”
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All of the company’s vehicles now have winter tires, they said. When I was working for them they were “in the process of transitioning … to winter tires.”
The warehouse where I picked up my packages was a “Delivery Station,” not the much bigger warehouses where Amazon employees pick and pack orders as they come in. Those are what Amazon calls “Fulfillment Centres” and their proliferation has enabled shorter delivery times. There are Amazon Fulfillment Centres in Mississauga, Milton, Brampton and Caledon, and earlier this year the company announced plans to open another one in Scarborough. Packages are trucked from the Fulfillment Centres to the Delivery Stations, where they are assembled into individual routes and picked up by drivers like me.
Workers in Amazon’s Ontario warehouses have suffered injuries at a higher rate since 2017, according to WSIB data. From 2013 to 2016, the company’s rate of lost-time injuries was at or below the average for its industry sectors. Two years ago, after Amazon started offering same-day deliveries, its rate of lost-time injuries increased by more than 50 per cent and now sits above the average for its industry group.
On Dec. 1, the Sunday after Black Friday, the driving conditions were brutal. Freezing rain, sleet, and snow. I was already on the bus when we got word that our shift would be delayed. One driver invited me to warm up in his car as we waited in the parking lot. He complained about a long shift the night before that ended with him needing to be towed out of a small ditch on a country road. He was trying to find a rural address in the dark and had already been on the road for 10 hours. “They say, ‘Drive safe,’ but how can you say ‘Drive safe’ and you give me 150 stops?”
He said he complained to an E.V.K. manager who told him the length of the routes were out of their hands. “She said, ‘It’s Amazon.’”
WHO’S THE BOSS?
I was employed by E.V.K., but everything I did was in service of and ultimately directed by Amazon. I delivered packages sold by Amazon, followed a route designed by Amazon, told customers I was from Amazon and was required to watch Amazon training videos. So who was my boss? That’s the question at the heart of an ongoing labour board case filed against Amazon and a number of its subcontractors by a union that successfully organized drivers at two courier companies only to have one of the companies fold and the other close the unionized part of its operation.
The United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 175, say that in both instances Amazon responded to their unionization efforts by first orchestrating the firing of key organizers and, when that failed to thwart the union drive, withdrawing routes from the subcontractor until they were forced to close.
“Amazon has engaged in a course of conduct intended to defeat unionization by contracting shell companies or sub-contractors to supply it with courier drivers over whom Amazon has complete direction and control,” reads the union’s filing to the board. “… Amazon’s consistent and notorious pattern of reassigning routes from unionized courier drivers to non-unionized courier drivers serves to intimidate and coerce courier drivers to refrain from becoming or continuing to be members of the Union.”
The union argues that Amazon is the “true employer” of all subcontracted drivers, saying the company “directs and controls all aspects of the delivery of their products.”
Amazon denies decreasing route assignments to unionized subcontractors. “Rather, any route-assignment reduction … was done entirely for legitimate business reasons unrelated to any Union activities,” reads the company’s filing. It says it has entered into “legitimate arms-length contracts” with independent couriers which it does not control.
In its written response to the Star, Amazon said it “regularly audits Delivery Service Providers to ensure compliance with applicable laws and Amazon’s own standards.”
Arash K., a York University graduate, started delivering Amazon packages for DEC Fleet Services in February 2017. (The Star agreed not to publish his last name because he feared it would hinder his future employment.) Arash worked out of the same Scarborough warehouse as I did, but his experience was far worse.
“I almost forgot I was working in a First World country,” he told the Star in a recent interview at the UFCW Local 175’s offices. Arash said he was forced to work 12-hour shifts without any breaks and the company’s managers were verbally abusive, regularly “barking” orders. “It had a military feel to it,” he said, adding that the company didn’t pay overtime and safety concerns went unaddressed.
He started researching unions and reached out to UFCW, which agreed to try to organize the drivers. Shortly after the union drive started in the summer of 2017, the company laid off Arash and other drivers on the organizing committee, saying there was not enough work. Arash believed he and other drivers were targeted for their union activities, so the union took the company to the labour board and reached a settlement to have all of the workers reinstated.
That fall, the company’s drivers voted to join the union. They were the first subcontractor at the Scarborough warehouse to organize. But negotiations of their first collective bargaining agreement stalled almost immediately, the union says, because the company said they had no control over certain parts of the job. “They said, ‘We work under Amazon’s rules,’” said Rick Wauhkonen, the union’s organizing director.
Additional bargaining dates were scheduled for the spring, but on April 14, 2018, the company announced it was closing because it could no longer afford to operate. The next week it filed for bankruptcy.
“Place becomes unionized and then suddenly all the work they were getting from Amazon is gone,” said Wauhkonen.
In an email to the Star, Mark Montgomery, the former co-owner of DEC Fleet Services, said that the company simply did not make enough money to cover its costs. He said the work was “very fast paced” with “high expectations for driver performance,” but allegations of unpaid overtime are not true. “If a driver felt it was unsafe to operate a vehicle then they were not forced to operate it,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Mississauga, the union says they ran into the same problems after organizing another Amazon subcontractor called All Canadian Courier.
In their filing to the labour board, the union says it proposed “standard language” regarding seniority rights and All Canadian said they could not agree because “Amazon alone dictates the assignment of courier drivers to particular shifts and routes.”
In the middle of collective bargaining, the company announced it was closing its Mississauga operations due to “unstable and declining volumes” of work.
“We certified two places and both places ended up closing down as a result of work being taken away,” Wauhkonen said.
In their filings, All Canadian Courier, which is a subsidiary of TFI International and is now known as AC Final Mile, denies the union’s allegations, saying it “exercises exclusive control over its workforce” and “directs and controls the work of its delivery drivers at all times in respect of any customer, including Amazon.”
The case resumes next month.
I spoke to some former All Canadian drivers, most of whom did not want their names published. They described a high-pressure working environment and a lax approach to safety. “We were basically working directly for Amazon in all but name,” one former All Canadian driver wrote in an email. “(The managers) used Amazon as a boogeyman to keep us in line, always implying that our jobs (or at least future routes and shifts for the company) were on the line.”
A lawyer for AC Final Mile said the company is “not prepared to comment” while the case is still before the labour board.
As part of their submissions to the board, the union included images of text messages drivers received from their dispatchers. “According to Amazon’s standards of 17 packages per hour you are currently behind schedule,” one reads. “You are required to catch up in a safe and efficient manner.”
WHO PAYS FOR FREE SHIPPING?
I never received any texts like that from E.V.K.’s managers, who generally treated me well. The job wasn’t easy and some days were long, but I never felt I was treated poorly. At the same time, while nobody told me I couldn’t take breaks, it simply wasn’t possible during most of my shifts if I wanted to finish on time.
But even in my situation, which wasn’t as bad as what’s alleged in the labour board case, it’s easy to see why drivers would want to unionize. For starters, unionized drivers at the major courier companies earn two or three times as much with benefits and bargaining power. But there were also more mundane inconveniences. The schedule was typically posted only a day or two in advance. On a few occasions, our shift start time was changed just minutes before we were scheduled to start. There wasn’t a clear process to raise safety concerns with managers.
Amazon’s use of subcontractors is not unusual in and of itself, said Sylvia Fuller, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia. (The Star subcontracts delivery of this newspaper, for example.) What’s different, she said, is the extent to which Amazon controls the work. “They’re maintaining really tight control over (deliveries) while disavowing control in the places — working conditions, wages and so forth — where it suits them to disavow control.”
The drivers, meanwhile, have far less power in this arrangement, Fuller said, especially compared to their unionized counterparts. If workers at Canada Post or UPS are unhappy with their working conditions they can strike and have a major impact on the economy, she said.
“They have real power. Five, 10, 15 workers working for some small subcontractor? They try to unionize and if they manage to unionize they strike for better working conditions, well, Amazon just cancels the contract and goes somewhere else, right?”
Fuller compared the dynamic to that of Uber classifying its drivers as independent contractors.
“You have a lot of control, but you’re claiming that you don’t have any responsibility that would go along with it, and you’re offloading as much risk as you can onto the independent contractor. Amazon’s doing the same thing, but they’re doing it to the subcontracted companies.”
Inside the Scarborough warehouse, the dispatchers for the courier companies — who compete for routes from Amazon — sit side-by-side at a long table, using the same computer software to monitor their respective drivers. There are at least six subcontractors operating out of the Scarborough warehouse, maybe more. “They’ve fragmented the workplace,” says Cader, the labour lawyer. As a result, the workplace is more difficult to unionize and easier to control, she said. “Amazon is protected by these subcontractors.”
Some of the subcontractors also use workers from temp agencies, adding an additional layer between the worker and Amazon. I met one temp agency driver at the bus stop outside the warehouse who wasn’t sure which courier company actually employed him. “I think it’s Sybil’s Group,” he said.
SPINNING THE FLYWHEEL
In The Everything Store, Brad Stone’s 2013 book on Bezos and the rise of Amazon, Stone describes a frantic holiday season in 1998, when the rapidly growing company realized it had taken more orders than it could handle. Declaring an all-hands-on-deck emergency, Bezos ordered every head office employee to work late-night shifts in the warehouse to ensure they could complete every order in time for Christmas. The CEO apparently held contests to see who could pick orders off the shelves fastest.
“After Christmas was over,” Stone writes. “(Bezos) vowed that Amazon would never again have a shortage of physical capacity to meet customer demand.”
In the 21 years since then Amazon has incrementally refined its logistical capabilities, obsessively streamlining the customer experience and strengthening control over distribution, which has allowed them to continuously shrink delivery times.
Amazon Prime was initially unpopular among some of the company’s executives because it seemed like a guaranteed money loser. But it soon proved Bezos’s favoured “flywheel” concept, in which improving the customer experience at all costs spurs a perpetual cycle of growth that eventually pays for itself. A convenient online shopping experience leads to increased sales volumes, which leads to lower shipping costs and better negotiating leverage with product vendors, which further lowers costs, and the cycle continues.
Prime turned customers into what Stone calls “Amazon addicts who gorged on the almost instant gratification of having purchases reliably appear two days after they ordered them.” Today, two days is the most Prime customers have to wait.
After I picked up my paycheque on Dec. 10, it was time to reveal myself to E.V.K. I wanted to speak directly to Eveline Cammack, the woman who hired me, but she wasn’t at the warehouse or answering her cell phone. So I had to tell her by text and email. I explained that I was actually a Toronto Star reporter and I would be writing about my experience working for the company. I also sent her a list of questions and told her that I would like to interview her or another representative of E.V.K..
Her response confused me. She asked if this meant I wouldn’t be taking any more shifts.
(I know everyone is hustling these days, but I’m not currently looking for a side gig.) I wrote back and said no, I wouldn’t be working for them anymore.
This seemed to bother her more than my month-long deception or the prospect of this story.
“I was really hoping for two weeks notice,” she wrote. “We are approaching a busy time of the year and it is not a good time of the year to leave.”