Hello, welcome to the Dispatch Room, come on in, mind your step. Is this your first day? OK, let me show you what we do here, don’t worry it’s not rocket science.
See these flimsy brown cardboard envelopes, filling those four big crates with another crate’s worth in a sort of mountain on top of them? Well, each envelope has an address label, each label has a number, and these numbers must be matched with the numbers stuck on these 80 or so plastic boxes along the walls. The packages have to be thrown into the boxes - or ‘totes’, as we call them. When the boxes are filled new ones must be started. As you can see, some of the boxes are stacked up on top of each other. Oops, yes, as I say watch out as there’s not much space - we have to put these extra totes down on the floor for more envelopes, so try not to trip over them as you walk from one end of the room to the other. We grab armfuls of envelopes from the large crates (or ‘magnums’), distribute them, then come back and get more. But as quickly as we empty the magnums, they’ll fill up again. See over there, that oblong container on wheels, that’s a ‘coffin’ (no, really). We use that to collect the envelopes from the room next door, where they’re filled and labelled. Careful though, one of its wheels is knackered so it doesn’t steer very well, but the supervisor won’t accept that excuse if you accidentally ram his swivel chair while he’s sitting in it, believe me...
You’d think that by now technology would’ve enabled the invention of machines to do these endless, mindless tasks of packing, collecting and distributing, but no. We’re cheaper, obviously. Perhaps robots would also be less adept than human drones at navigating the cramped space and more prone to malfunction after repeatedly bumping into each other. Besides which, they’d be more time-consuming to re-program if sent to work in another part of the warehouse, and when they became obsolete they’d have to be scrapped, whereas us humans will disappear all by ourselves.
There are usually between three and six of us doing the ‘dispatch’ job in here, collecting hundreds of packages in the coffin and emptying the contents into magnums and totes, although this varies; at one point I counted nine of us, including one inside a magnum lifting stuff out. Plus there are the three people standing at benches along the wall. They have to empty every tote we’ve filled, weigh the envelopes and put them into mail sacks which are loaded onto these metal trolleys or ‘yorks’. When they’re full the yorks are taken outside for Royal Mail to pick up. As you can see, these contraptions take up all the space in the centre of the room, leaving us to shuffle along a narrow path with the yorks on one side and the totes on the other.
It’s not so bad, though. The fact that this room is generally seen as the best place to work in the entire warehouse tells its own story. While we are of course closely supervised and subjected to the same regimented breaks and performance indicators as the rest of the department, due to the layout of the building we are partially shielded from the concentrated, ultra-disciplinary atmosphere of the main packing room, where people have targets of how many packages to fill per hour and are routinely told off, like naughty schoolchildren, if they pause in their tasks for even a few seconds. All the while a local radio station pumps out banal pop at a volume which is either distracting or deafening depending on whereabouts in the room you happen to be situated. The international equivalent of our UK dispatch area is also located in the main room, right next to the blaring stereo.
Here in the side-room at least a self-contained soundscape is possible: an iPod can be used at a civilised volume and conversation can be carried on alongside the work – although the fear of surveillance still lurks in the background of every fleeting interaction or non-work-directed gesture.
When people are sent here for a short time from another part of the warehouse, they usually express relief. ‘Scanning’ appears to be the worst department, where the products are entered onto the stock system or put aside for disposal. After spending half a day lifting boxes onto shelves in the vast picking area, over in another building, I can confirm that the role of ‘putting away’ is also crushingly grim and potentially injurious: the signs instructing workers to ‘lift correctly’ are there to serve the company rather than the employee, fulfiling its legal requirements while leaving the worker to manoeuvre heavy loads in confined spaces and contort his body simply to get the job done.
These departments make the packing area seem positively Utopian in comparison. As if to underline this, a few weeks earlier a supervisor used his farewell speech to admonish us in the packing room on our supposed slackness and excessive sociability, which he saw as diverting our energies away from the work we were paid to do. “When I come in here it’s like coming into someone’s living room,” he said, in a disdainful tone. Surveying the benches surrounded by packaging and boxes of products, and the glazed faces waiting for the signal to leave at the end of another day of low-paid, monotonous labour, I remarked to a co-worker that it didn’t resemble any living room I’d ever seen.
So we walk up and down all day, like clumsy, glitchy robots, throwing these envelopes into boxes, talking about anything to distract us from our tiredness and boredom, remarking occasionally on an amusing name or address, apologising as we inevitably get in each other’s way and cursing the unsticky packages which we constantly have to re-seal as, due to a combination of the speed required of the packing staff to exceed their targets, the no doubt cheap materials and being thrown multiple times from one container to another, they often gape open, exposing the products inside.
But what are the products in these envelopes that skid under our feet and tip from overflowing racks onto our heads? What are these things that we can never shift fast enough and despite our best efforts keep materialising at an ever-increasing rate? Books, that’s what; oceans of books, slapping and sloshing all around, heaving up against the walls and streaming along the floors. Books, books, everywhere, nor any word to read – for to browse or even ponder a jacket would be to shirk one’s duties. The room resembles a post-literary labour camp, a sort of Fahrenheit Minus 451 where books are all over the place, but due to some immense but unspoken disciplinary pressure have ceased to be seen as books, and have become empty objects passed blindly from one room to another, one hand to another. Only when they reach the remote customers, those trustworthy citizens far beyond the warehouse and the industrial estate, will the objects become books again.
Admittedly I have witnessed people stealing glances at pages here and there, perusals as fleeting and furtive as our conversations, and yes - and I tell you this in confidence – I have even indulged in this practice myself. But predictably, the only volumes which tend to be openly inspected and discussed with the approval of management are those titles whose subject matter is the human figure, preferably in large, pictorial format.
Still, if one did harbour an interest in such matters, the range of literature is astonishing. In the course of a typical day one might spot several Penguin Classics, Heart of Darkness, a history of the Soviet Gulags, a self-help guide to succeeding in business, several charming children’s books and glittering celebrity autobiographies, Depression For Dummies, a spongy cookbook, a monograph on the architecture of Milton Keynes and a landmark text of Marxist theory; all of varying ages and editions, some out of print, some very much still in, all bought and waiting to be delivered to eager readers.
But this is not a secondhand bookshop, at least not in the traditionally understood sense of that phrase. It is an online retailer, with all the logistical issues that term implies. And of course this isn’t Amazon, either; it’s a much smaller, grubbier operation. Nevertheless Amazon might well be the model for its cosy public profile and not so cosy employment practices. The company sells so many items through Amazon as to be practically a subsidiary, and must soon be ripe for buying up by the virtual behemoth. This company is World Of Books, and it lives up to its name. A veritable planet of reading matter passes through the gates of this compound at the end of a grey industrial estate; and its products are sent out to the whole of the UK and Europe, to the US, China, Australia and everywhere inbetween by an ever-rotating population of local and global workers.
The Big Bang for World Of Books was eight years ago, and it has been expanding ever since. Throughout the recession it grew at a phenomenal rate. Its sales increased from £2.2 million in 2009 to £19.3 million in 2012, when it was ranked 22 in a Sunday Times list of 100 fastest-growing companies, recording annual sales growth of 107%. During this time it has colonised neighbouring units on the industrial estate and recruited a workforce (supplemented at intervals by temporary agency staff, like air pumped into a fire by a pair of bellows) which is constantly being ordered to work faster to keep up with the increasing levels of stock and orders. Back in 2009 the company reportedly had yet to make a profit, but going by the subsequent acceleration in trade and equally impressive array of fast cars in the directors’ parking spaces, it would seem that this goal of profitability has now been more than achieved.
It would appear, then, that the founders of World Of Books have alighted upon a business model as miraculous as a plot from a Harry Potter novel. How do they manage to obtain such a range of products and sell them at such competitive prices, while remaining commercially viable?
The answer is that the company buys its stock in bulk from charities. Lorries arrive regularly at the warehouse, their canvas sides bulging with hundreds of sacks, and collections are also made from charities’ premises. Books are bought by the tonne, regardless of the contents. Once unloaded, these books-as-raw-materials are manually separated according to a computerised system which decides which titles won’t sell and which will. The excess is tipped into huge containers in the yard and periodically taken away to be pulped. The ratio of books thrown away to those sold is apparently 80%-20%.
World Of Books lists its suppliers as including The British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the RSPCA. There are signs around the place that other well-known charities are involved too. It may be that the company’s expansion has relied in part upon making deals with new charity suppliers. The company makes much of its recycling role, which it claims enables the charities to save on disposal costs. Indeed, the sign at the warehouse entrance bears the honourable motto: “recycling books on behalf of charity”. In addition the company associates itself with various charity events which no doubt generate good PR and maintain an ethical brand identity.
In reality, however, the recycling, along with the 10% of turnover given back to charities (whether this is the same as the payment-by-weight or additional to it is not clear), are not altruistic, socially responsible gestures but essential costs, necessary for the acquisition of new raw materials which can be worked up into profitable commodities. This cold hard capitalist reality is obvious in the warehouse itself which, as you will have gathered, hardly buzzes with the feeling that everyone is working together for a good cause. The charities and their projects aren’t mentioned in the supervisor’s end-of-day speeches about productivity, or used to justify the pitiful wages. There is no impression that this disciplinary regime of labour is driven by a need to maximise the contribution to any cause other than World Of Books itself.
And what stories might be told by the truckloads of books delivered to this literary abattoir? Obviously there will be several unwanted Clarksons to wade through and dispose of before reaching a Bronte or a Keyes, but the sifting process is clearly a lucrative one. The company even has a dedicated department, ‘World Of Rare Books’, which sells older, more collectible items, some over a hundred years old. But even by non-vintage standards, the quantity and quality of books they obtain in this way is startling. Some titles might even conceivably be sold, read, donated back to charities, then delivered back and sold again. School revision guides are especially popular, for instance. Customer addresses are often universities.
Many books look as if they were part of personal collections built up over years, and were not given up willingly. If a loved one died of cancer or a heart attack, what more reassuring and respectful way of disposing of their lifelong library than to donate it to the British Heart Foundation or Cancer Research? According to its website, the company also has arrangements with several hospices. Are the supporters of these charities told if their donations are destined to fund the Porsches of World Of Books directors? Some books arrive bearing charity shop price stickers which have to be cleaned off, so were presumably unsold locally, but whether all the ‘surplus’ stock has seen the inside of a charity shop is debatable. Packing staff are instructed to check books for any personal effects, such as photos, letters or bookmarks, which might be left inside. These are removed and either stuck up on the walls around the packing room or thrown away.
After decades of mass production and consumption, there is a huge reservoir of books which people don’t want to keep, or cannot take with them into the next life, and which charities cannot accommodate or sell in their high street shops. Hence this treasure trove, first stumbled upon by the founder of what would become World Of Books (so the mythic origin story goes) when he was passing a local charity shop and eyed some discarded stock. I mean, we’ve all seen some unwanted chazza gem and thought, ‘I could sell that book/record/Dinky toy on eBay’, right? A few of us might even have done so a few times, thinking there’s no harm in it. But only one man, it seems, had the vision to base an entire business plan on this thought, and the resources to implement it on an industrial scale.
Like all good entrepreneurs, he and the other World Of Books bosses are surfing the crest of a historical wave. Printed books no doubt seem like bloated relics to today’s e-book downloader, and charity shops might appear to be drowning in useless donations, but these impressions conveniently disguise the fact that if those physical books are efficiently filtered and matched with a global network of potential readers, they are still valuable. How much more money would these charities make from their donations if they set up their own organisation to perform this role, rather than outsource it to a private business, so that all the accumulated surplus revenue, not just a small percentage of it, went to the charities themselves?
Finally: for those charities campaigning on issues of health promotion and disease prevention, where, if at all, do the 200 or so World Of Books workers fit in? As suppliers to a commercial enterprise, are these charities also happy to be the conduit for low-paid, monotonous, stressful employment with no sick pay? Does this constitute a healthy workplace, or one which incubates the very problems about which these charities strive to raise awareness? After just three months I can sense the answer to this question forming in my mind and in my bones, as I drag the coffin around on its wonky wheels.
I often wonder whether any of the VIP visitors who pass through the packing room on their guided tours, scrutinising the products with barely a glance at us, are charity representatives. Or maybe they are prospective buyers, or applicants for senior jobs. It’s difficult to tell.
I think that pretty much covers everything. Now, I suppose we should-
Oh, you’re leaving already?