When internet shoppers want their items yesterday, who pays the price? This is what it’s like to deliver parcels for the world’s biggest online retailer.
Alex Ayliff starts every Amazon Flex shift worried it will be his last.
“I’ve had five violations so far,” he says.
“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to have six.”
As a driver for the retail giant’s parcel delivery service, his livelihood depends on access to a smartphone app that tells him when to show up for his next shift, where to deliver his packages and how much he will be paid.
But he knows Amazon can — and will — cut him off from the app at any time for breaches of its strict rules.
“I could wake up tomorrow with an email saying that my agreement with Amazon Flex has been terminated,” he says.
In the social media forums and WhatsApp threads where Flex drivers swap shifts and stories of life on the road, Alex regularly hears of Amazon terminating drivers without warning — and with little explanation.
“They’ve created an atmosphere of fear,” he says.
“That’s what they want.
“They want drivers to think like they can’t do anything wrong.
“They have to do what Amazon says, like it or lump it.”
Amazon launched Flex in Australia with little fanfare in 2020 and now has about 2,000 contractors for the service described by some drivers as “Uber for parcels”.
Amazon promotes Flex as a way for people to earn extra money on top of their ordinary jobs, using their own cars to deliver packages to customers’ homes in 4-hour shifts known as “blocks”.
But ABC Investigations has spoken to more than a dozen drivers who depend on the platform for their livelihood, often juggling Flex blocks with other gig economy apps like Uber, Didi and Deliveroo.
Some, like Alex, rely on Flex for their entire income.
“For me, money isn’t the only thing in the world,” he says.
“But I would like to make enough money to actually live on. This is just no way to live.”
Amazon says only a small proportion of drivers, which it calls “delivery partners”, rely on Flex for their entire income.
“Eighty per cent of our drivers have another source of income and about 30 per cent of our drivers have a full-time job,” says Michael Cooley, Amazon Australia’s director of public policy.
“These are people who are looking for flexibility. They are looking to earn additional money around their existing commitments.”
The platform is just one link in Amazon’s rapidly expanding global supply chain, which has pioneered new ways of using contract labour and automation to drive down prices for customers and speed up delivery times.
‘A David and Goliath battle’
It is among the many controversial workplace innovations that have helped Amazon become the world’s richest retailer — earning $1.1 billion in Australia last year — and helped fund its founder Jeff Bezos’s history-making trip into space last month.
“I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” Bezos told a news conference in the West Texas desert after stepping off the spacecraft developed by his company, Blue Origin.
Flex is also emblematic of a wider shift in the workforces of established industries like the parcel delivery business, where salaried drivers are being replaced by subcontractors with fewer workplace rights and no guarantee of a secure income.
“This is the kind of work we saw in the 19th century, before the development of minimum standards under employment protection regimes,” says Michael Rawling, a senior lecturer in employment law at the University of Technology Sydney.
“This is a David and Goliath battle between vulnerable workers and large, multinational tech companies breaking into the Australian market and making conditions worse.”
Alex’s day starts with a drive from his home in Melbourne’s north-west to one of Amazon’s four depots around the city.
By the time he arrives, there’s usually a queue of other drivers waiting to collect their deliveries.
“If I start at 10 o’clock, I really have to be there at quarter-to-10 because of all the traffic of drivers queuing,” he says.
Once inside, he loads up the 30 to 40 packages Amazon pays him $108 to deliver in his 4-hour block.
The company pays a higher rate on weekends and public holidays.
Drivers use their own vehicles, which according to Amazon’s terms and conditions, must be a “four-door passenger vehicle, or a similar vehicle that is large enough to safely carry you and your packages.”
Vans, utes and trucks are not allowed. However, Amazon told drivers earlier this month it plans to trial eight-hour blocks for contractors with vans later this year.
‘Just not safe’, driver says
Alex usually has no trouble fitting the parcels into his 2002 Ford Laser but has seen other drivers struggle with their load.
“They’ve got parcels [stacked] up to the roof of their car,” he says.
“I saw one guy having to wind down his window to put packages in because they were all spilling out.”
Flex drivers have provided the ABC with photographs showing parcels densely packed in vehicles, obscuring their rear windows.
“It’s just not safe,” says one driver, who has asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution from Amazon.
“One day a Flex driver is going to have a serious crash because they can’t see out of their windows and it’s going to be Amazon’s fault. I can’t believe it hasn’t happened already.”
Amazon says it is the responsibility of drivers to pack their parcels safely and ensure they can see out their rear window.
“If when doing that they feel that their view is compromised in some way, shape or form, then they can ask a friendly delivery station staff member to help them repack the car more effectively,” Michael Cooley from Amazon says.
“If that happens, and there’s still issues around visibility in the delivery station, staff will actually remove items from the car so that the view is in no way impeded. We want people to be safe on the roads when they’re delivering.”
But Alex believes some drivers avoid rejecting packages at the depot because they are afraid of getting a warning from Amazon.
“They always push it back on to the driver,” he says.
“We have to do what they say otherwise we get a warning.”
Once his car is loaded, the clock is ticking for Alex to deliver all his packages in the next 4 hours.
The Amazon Flex app gives him a pre-determined route for the block, which usually spans one or two suburbs in Melbourne.
On the day ABC Investigations joins Alex on one of his blocks, he has been assigned 36 packages to deliver in the city’s outer west.
“This is going to be a dream compared to what you can get,” he says.
Alex prefers suburban routes to the inner city, where traffic and parking problems can easily eat into the time allocated to deliver the packages.
“If you have to deliver to 40 apartments on your route, it doesn’t take two or three minutes to deliver one parcel, it takes five or six,” he says.
Yet even a straightforward route can be delayed by unexpected problems, like when customers are not home to receive their parcel.
Alex must try to call the customer on his own phone, and if they do not answer, call Amazon’s support team and ask for permission to leave the package unattended.
“Because if the parcel gets damaged or stolen that’s on me,” he says.
“It can take maybe 10 or 15 minutes. If you do that four or five times on every block, it really builds up.”
Rewarded with smiles
Before starting at Amazon Flex, Alex spent years working in call centres — including at Australia Post.
“This is a much more simple way of life than having somebody shouting at you all day,” he says.
“It’s great to be able to just pick up your block, do your work, and then go home.”
Alex enjoys working alone and has an entrepreneurial streak.
More than a decade ago he made a living fishing off the beach on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, selling his daily catch to local restaurants.
He says working for Flex can be rewarding.
“I enjoy the interaction with customers,” he says.
“I’ve had situations where I’ve delivered a parcel to somebody that they’ve been waiting for, and you just see their smile. And you just know that … you’ve made that that person happy, just for a minute.”
But the enjoyment and flexibility come at a cost.
Amazon’s flat rate does not include expenses like fuel, insurance, car maintenance and parking costs. Drivers must also pay their own superannuation and workers compensation insurance.
His total income last financial year was just above $23,000. He spent almost $4,000 on petrol and about $1,500 on car maintenance.
“I would like to keep on doing this, but I think I’m going to have to go back and find another job.”
Alex usually manages to deliver all his parcels within the 4-hour block.
But on the days when he has packages left over, he has an unenviable choice: continue delivering without pay or return the parcels to the depot and risk getting a warning from Amazon.
“I will always return my parcels because I am not working for free. Why would you work for free?” he says.
Alex says he still loses out from returning the packages, because the trip back to the depot can often be an extra 20 or 30 kilometres’ drive on top of his route.
“A couple of days later you’ll usually get an email with a warning saying, ‘you didn’t deliver your parcels’.”
‘We’re asking for pretty simple things from our drivers’, Amazon says
Alex says he does not actually know whether drivers are required to deliver all their packages, even after their 4-hour-block has finished.
The wording in Amazon’s service agreement is ambiguous.
“Amazon expects that you will deliver all the packages you picked up as part of your Delivery Block,” it reads.
“In an instance where delivery is not possible, you are expected to return all packages to the Amazon delivery station, unless otherwise directed by Amazon.”
Alex says it is unclear what “not possible” means. He thinks it should mean that the driver was unable to deliver all their packages within their 4-hour block
“We ask delivery partners to still attempt to deliver the packages, even if the 4-hour block has expired,” Michael Cooley says.
“We know that approximately 90 per cent of delivery walks are actually completed in under the period of time it’s allocated to them.”
Amazon says if drivers cannot deliver all the packages within their 4-hour block, they can apply for a top-up payment through the Flex app.
Yet the company declined to say how many top-up applications have been lodged and how many have been successful.
Alex says he lodged one application for a top-up payment, but it was declined.
The consequences of breaking the rules are clear — Amazon will terminate your access to the Flex app.
“We’re asking for pretty simple things from our drivers,” Mr Cooley says.
“Where we run into problems is where drivers, for instance, will commit to doing blocks and repeatedly not turn up, or they’ll repeatedly cancel a block within 45 minutes of that block commencing or they’ll repeatedly fail to deliver parcels.
“Obviously, If drivers can’t do those things, then perhaps Flex is not the program for them.”
The mystery for Alex and other drivers who spoke to the ABC is exactly how many warnings and violations lead to termination.
Alex has received warnings for returning undelivered packages, refusing shifts that he believed would take more than 4 hours, and in one case, after a warning from a customer that he was not wearing a face mask properly during a delivery — something he denies.
‘Not once did I speak to a human’
Ryan McBain still has no idea why he was terminated from Amazon Flex.
“It makes me feel worthless … like I’m just a number,” he says.
He signed up for Amazon Flex in March last year, after being stood down from his job in retail during Australia’s first round of COVID-19 lockdowns.
Ryan stopped using the platform in August last year when he started picking up more shifts at his regular job.
But when he tried to log back into Flex when Sydney’s latest lockdown left him without work, he discovered Amazon had terminated him.
“I was devastated,” he says.
Ryan recalls receiving a handful of warnings last year for returning undelivered parcels, but his termination email from Amazon does not say exactly why he has been cut off.
“Due to violation(s) of the Amazon Flex Independent Contractor Terms of Service … you are no longer eligible to participate in the Amazon Flex Platform.”
Ryan says the email from “The Amazon Flex Team” made him feel like he was being fired by a robot.
“Not once did I speak to a human,” he says.
“It was just a computer on the other end. You’re not getting a human interaction.”
He is now trying to dispute Amazon’s decision though an internal appeals process.
“They said they would get back to me in about six days, but I still haven’t heard from them.”
After initially asking the ABC for details about Ryan’s case, Amazon declined to comment on the reasons for his termination.
The company says drivers can apply to be reinstated after being terminated, with 24 drivers being reinstated through the process.
But Amazon declined to say the total number of terminations since Flex launched in Australia.
Call for action on ‘capricious and arbitrary’ terminations
Michael Rawling from the UTS Law School believes cases like Ryan’s show the Federal Government needs to give the Fair Work Commission powers to adjudicate disputes between contractors and tech companies like Amazon.
“These terminations are occurring for capricious and arbitrary reasons,” he says.
“[While] employees have protections, unfair dismissal rights, and general protections rights in order to address these sorts of things, these workers don’t necessarily have those rights.”
He says the commission should also have powers to collectively bargain with Amazon to set the rate for blocks — something that Amazon currently decides on its own.
Amazon says it complies with pay standards set by owner-driver regulations in the states in which it operates.
The only way for gig economy workers to challenge the decisions of companies like Amazon and Uber is through the courts.
“By and large, the decisions are backing the companies saying that these workers are independent contractors, meaning that these workers have no rights: they have no minimum pay rights,” Dr Rawling says.
This is made even more difficult by the fine print in the Flex contract, which includes a clause banning drivers from joining any future class actions against Amazon.
“Amazon seeks to resolve concerns on a case by case basis with individuals,” Michael Cooley says.
At the end of each block, Alex questions how long he can continue delivering for Amazon Flex — and living with the uncertainty of each new day.
“The perception is that you do work for yourself, and you can set your own hours — you can be your own boss,” he says.
“But the reality is no, you really can’t. You’re still dictated to by this big company.
“It really gives you a false sense of security.”
Reporting: Pat McGrath, Marty Smiley and Max Chalmers
Photography and video: Danielle Bonica, David Maguire, Kyle Harley and Simon Winter
Graphics: Emma Machan
Video editing: Elahn Zetlin and Bridie Boyle
Digital production: Dan Harrison