Convinced you'd rather work for Amazon than down a coal mine? Read this first

How the world's largest virtual retailer Amazon operates in the real world by detailing how the fortunes of Rugeley has changed now that the online giant has replaced the coal mine as the economic heart of the small English town.

The's (paywall) Sarah O’Connor asks in Amazon Unpacked why if the internet retailer is creating thousands of jobs, "are some employees less than happy?" and introduces the article this way:

First the conditions of workers in Amazon’s warehouses – or “associates in Amazon’s fulfilment centres” – according to the official corporate lingo:

Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle – the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today. It is almost Christmas and the people working in this building, together with those in seven others like it across the country, are dispatching a truck filled with parcels every three minutes or so. Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything. They also walk past a life-sized cardboard image of a cheery blonde woman in an orange vest. “This is the best job I have ever had!” says a speech bubble near her head.

Inside the warehouse, Amazon employees wear blue badges and the workers supplied by the agencies wear green badges. In the most basic roles they perform the same tasks as each other for the same pay of £6.20 an hour or so (the minimum adult wage is £6.19), but the Amazon workers also receive a pension and shares. A former agency worker said the prospect of winning a blue badge, “like a carrot, was dangled constantly in front of us by management in return for meeting shift targets”. Amazon’s Darwinian culture comes from the top. Jeff Bezos, its chief executive, told Forbes magazine last year (when it named him “number one CEO in America”): “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove, we’ll settle for intense.”

Now a glimpse into life in the town more than 40 years ago when the coal mine opened, itself a shining example of modern technology at the time:

Soon, miners from all over the country were swarming to the modern new mine. The Coal Board and the local council built housing estates and schools to cope with the exploding population. “Peartree estate was built for the Geordies, the Springfield estate was built for the Scots and the Welsh,” remembered Brian Garner, who helped to build the mine when he was 16. “It was unbelievable, it was buzzing in the town, there was that much money about then. I could leave my job at 10 o’clock in the morning and start at five past 10 on another.” On Friday and Saturday nights, the queue outside the Lea Hall Miners’ Welfare Centre and Social Club would wrap right around the building.

Rugeley’s mine was soon the most productive in the country. It was a “young man’s pit” with all the latest machines and techniques, says Ken Edwards, who started there at 25 as an electrician. The work was still dirty and dangerous, though. In 1972, a local reporter took a tour. “All is silent except for the movement of conveyor belts which carry the coal and the murmur of the air pumps. The blackness is relieved only by narrow shafts of light coming from each person’s headlamp,” she wrote. It took her two days to remove the black dust from her nails, ears, nose and hair.

The good times didn’t last. By the time the pit closed, four days before Christmas in 1990, a spokesman for British Coal told Reuters it was losing £300,000 a week. More than 800 people lost jobs that paid the equivalent of between £380 and £900 a week in today’s money. The town council’s chairman tried desperately to say something reassuring.

“It has come as such a shock,” he told the local paper. “[But] we have got to do what many have done and look for new areas, particularly information technology and high technology. We have a lot of expertise and a wonderful geographical spot. There’s no reason why it should be the end for Rugeley.”

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Image of miners working at Bersham Colliery near Wrexham in Wales c.1960 from the National Archives