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Life and Death in the Warehouse: 'People are thought of as bits of an algorithm'

Director Joseph Bullman and writer Helen Black on their latest drama Life and Death in the Warehouse.

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Every day, shoppers across the UK buy items online. The products will, usually, come from a large warehouse where they're stored before being shipped off and delivered to your door.

Most of us probably don't think too much about this process or the people who work in this industry.

BAFTA-winning director Joseph Bullman, however, started thinking deeply about it while he was shooting a documentary - on a different topic - in a small, former mining town in Wales.

He was having lunch and chatting to someone who lived in the village, who told him that the best prospect for a day's work was temping at the local distribution centre - a big warehouse at the bottom of the hill.

"People were getting the text on the morning to come down and work in the distribution centre," Joseph says, "but the text was sometimes getting there too late for people to get the bus down the hill to start work in time.

"So people had started sleeping in the village bus shelter in the hope that they were going to get this text."

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After realising there were stories like this in lots of places with lots of different companies, he began work on new BBC Three drama Life and Death in the Warehouse

The drama, written by Helen Black, tells the fictional story of warehouse worker Alys (played by Poppy Lee Friar), whose childhood friend Megan (played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards) joins the same distribution centre as a trainee manager.

In an attempt to keep her new job, Megan presses pregnant Alys to improve her work performance, putting Alys and her baby at risk.

Joseph - who earlier directed the award-winning BBC drama Killed by My Debt - and his team went through a years-long process of research while making this drama, including speaking to people who work in the industry.

"There's stuff that makes your jaw drop so you look at it and think, 'Is this a joke, or is this true?'" Joseph says. "Well, I can reassure you that every single scene and every single line is marinated in real-world research. It is true."

The film looks at the real-life issues that warehouse workers can face including: surveillance, monitoring when they use the toilet, very high work loads picking and sorting items from shelves and zero-hour contracts.

It also looks at anti-union activity, people staying at work even though they feel unwell for fear of losing future work and women who have had a miscarriage at work.

"For me, that's the point of it: to have a little bit of a clearer idea about how our country actually works and how we get the stuff that arrives on our doorstep," Joseph says.

Helen, who is from a former mining town in West Yorkshire, has family members who work in distribution centres like those in the drama.

"It's really hard work and it's really physical," she says. "They get zero contract hours so they don't know how many days they’re going to work each week.

"The working conditions are just not right and just not fair."

'The way they're treated is completely unnecessary'

The film focuses a lot on the tough work loads for people who work in distribution centres - including pregnant women.

"One of the striking stories that we heard again and again when we met people when we researched this, is that you have these 'pick rates' or 'aspirational rates'," Joseph says, where workers have to pick more than 100 items off the shelves per hour, scan them and get them to dispatch. 

"And you have to do that for 10 hours a day and you'll probably walk about 12 to 17 miles a day.

"When a woman gets pregnant, they'll often ask to be reassigned but they're often ignored.

"We heard stories about women miscarrying on the picking floor and, because there's a PR consciousness in some companies about not calling ambulances, we heard of one woman who they wouldn't call an ambulance for, so she was asked to walk to the bus stop in her bloodied trousers after miscarrying."

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The film also looks at anti-union activity in this industry.

"We met people that were trying to unionise inside some of those places, but they were having to do that in secret," Joseph says.

"There's a whole class of people in our country that have to go to work, and they're not looked after by trade unions, who are just treated like extensions of an algorithm and the only point of them is to extract more value.

"That life is a really grim, automated, soulless life."

Helen adds: "The way they're treated is just completely unnecessary."

'It's rare a team wants to tell working class stories'

Joseph says he did find some good companies in the logistics sector while researching the drama but on the whole, he argues: "There is this overall obsession with metrics and driving people to make this target number of 'picks' an hour.

"And ordinary working people, often young people, are just thought of as bits of the algorithm. That's an industry-wide thing."

Both Helen and Joseph recognise that people will continue to shop online but they hope their drama can make people think about how and where they buy their products.

"We all shop online," Helen says, "and all we're saying is to see if we can collectively put a bit of pressure on these corporations to just treat people like humans not like robots - and the way we can do that is through our wallets."

Helen and Joseph are also especially proud that their drama tells a story about working class people.

"There aren't many working class writers, there aren't many working class directors, there aren't many working class producers," Helen says.

"So it's rare that you get a team together that wants to tell working class stories."

How can you shop ethically online?

"When it comes to online shopping, it's easy to overlook how items are made, who made them, and their environmental impact," says influencer Besma Whayeb, author of sustainable fashion and lifestyle blog Curiously Conscious and director of Ethical Influencers.

"We need more transparency around the supply chains that our items come from, and how brands are working to treat staff fairly and respect the environment."

In terms of workers' rights, she argues: "We need better regulation and monitoring of global supply chains, and more legislation, because many of these brands simply can't be trusted."

Besma's advice for anyone wanting to shop more ethically is to ask yourself these questions:

Do you need it?

"Make a list, or bookmark the page, and if in two weeks you still need it, buy it," she says. "This will also help you to avoid common sales tactics and reduce your consumption too."

Can you buy it second-hand?

"One of the easiest ways to shop more sustainably is to go for second-hand items instead," Besma adds.

Can you shop "ethical"?

"If second-hand isn't an option, consider buying from ethical and sustainable brands," she says. "Many of these brands go above and beyond to show their credentials, but if you're ever in doubt, look them up and check research by Ethical Consumer or Good On You."

Can you purchase it from an ethical retailer?

"If shopping with a sustainable brand isn't an option, at least try to buy from a retailer that's operating ethically here in the UK," she adds. "I'm talking about the ones that pay the Living Wage, pay their taxes, and are making commitments to reduce their environmental impact too."

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