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The UK's Amazon warehouse during the holiday season (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
The UK's Amazon warehouse during the holiday season (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

the insider

Confessions of an Amazon elf Add to ...

Around the twentieth time I shipped a box containing both Michael Bublé’s Christmas album and Justin Beiber’s Under the Mistletoe, I realized that while Christmas might be the most magical time of the year, it’s definitely not the most original.

If you live in Canada and have a friend with an Internet connection and a credit card, chances are you’re getting either a calendar, Star Wars Lego, or a book by a Giller Prize nominee. Trust me, I know. I’m what some might call an Amazon elf.

For eight hours a day, I stand in front of a table equipped with a computer, scanner and a tape machine, stacks of brown Amazon.ca boxes stacked at my feet, while I send your loved ones their holiday shopping. I do not have a scraggly white beard. My boots are steel-toed, not pointed. But here, in an unmarked and unremarkable building in the industrial hinterlands of Mississauga, I’ve found myself working at the digital world’s equivalent of the North Pole. (If Santa’s elves were required to go through stringent security checks, that is.)

Three weeks ago, between jobs and in need of some cash for Christmas, I took a job at the shipping giant’s 905 warehouse. I wake up around 4:45 for the 6 a.m. shifts and 2:45 for the 4 a.m. ones, making the 20-minute drive in darkness, listening to morning DJs wondering aloud who, besides criminals, might be listening to them.

Inside the warehouse, shelving units that sprawl out in all directions hold books, CDs and miscellaneous goods waiting to be shipped. At one end are the workstations where conveyor belts buzz as “packers” finalize the shipping process. In between the shelving units, “pickers” scurry from one section to another pushing goodie-laden carts, scanner in hand as they search out that elusive Mad Men box set or King’s Speech DVD. A bottle of water is the only personal item I’m allowed to bring in: all food, cell phones and MP3 players are forbidden in the warehouse, part of an effort to curb theft and keep greasy fingerprints off your aunt’s new Kindle e-reader.

Enjoy your Steve Jobs biography, Canada

Every year, Amazon hires thousands of temporary employees during the holiday season. The job posting specified that eligible applicants must be able to stand and walk during 8-to-12-hour shifts and lift up to 50 pounds. I lied.

I arrived to interview at the warehouse in late November, and was ushered into a room with eight other applicants. We had been told there was going to be a test, and I had worried about answering LSAT style questions involving cognitive reasoning or being asked to solve complex problems about shipments leaving different destinations at different times.

Instead, I was handed one piece of paper containing a list of 10 books, CDs and DVD titles. On another page, there were pictures of each item. Being a native English speaker with two university degrees, I managed to match them all in just under the 12 allotted minutes. I thought maybe they were trying to trick me, so I checked them all twice.

Eventually, the manager who was doing the hiring came over to see if I had finished. I’m pretty sure he didn’t even look at my answers. I started a week later.

I work as a packer, for $12 an hour, one of about 700 employees split between two shifts. I’m required to ship 97 units per hour. A high UPH is gold in here: It brings gift cards, pride and promises of more gift cards, so obviously it’s pretty hard to think when you’re focused on your UPH. But you do notice things. A lot of albums and books these days have ridiculously literal names: Tony Bennett’s album of duets is called Duets. Paul Simon’s book about lyrics? Yup. It’s called Lyrics. A lot of people order weight-loss paraphernalia: DVDs by Bob Harper from the Biggest Loser and those giant, brightly coloured medicine balls. (Here’s a question: If you’re too lazy to walk to the store and get it, do you think you’ll use it after it’s delivered to your house?) And a lot of people have sketchy holiday taste: On my first day, I shipped a rack of orders that contained 30 copies of Ernest Saves Christmas but only one copy of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. There are orders that stop you cold, too. One person ordered eight books about alcoholism. Looks like someone’s Christmas dinner is going to turn into an intervention.

The Mississauga warehouse ships across Canada, but because the items are organized by bar code, it’s hard to tell what areas of the country are ordering Haruki Murakami and which cities prefer the wit of The Big Bang Theory. Last year, one of Amazon's most remote holiday shipments went to Grise Fiord, a tiny hamlet near the Arctic Circle. They ordered Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul, and Call of Duty: Black Ops.

When Amazon released a list of its most frequently purchased gifts last year, it included a Chia Pet in the shape of U.S. President Barack Obama, a wireless talking oven thermometer and The Gift, by Susan Boyle. If I had to guess, one in five Canadians this year will be receiving the Steve Jobs biography or a DVD copy of The Help.

So act surprised and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The PlayStation is our motivation

All day I stand. I stand and I pack. There is little to look at except for the boxes that are all around, the mobile cart that holds the orders that I am currently processing and the backs of my co-workers heads as they mimic me step for step. The monotony of the work causes my mind to wander briefly to random topics: Why didn’t I study something relevant in university like business or proper box management for warehouses? Are my co-workers speaking Gujarati or Hindi?

I look back to my order, another Harry Potter box set.

How long till break?

My important thoughts and work are interrupted by a fellow trainee calling for my attention. He always shows me the erotica and the borderline smut that comes across his station. This time he is holding up a DVD and asking me if I think Jennifer Love Hewitt is hot. It’s Eliza Dushku, but anything is better to look at than the Murder She Wrote box set I’m processing so I check it out and tell him yes, she is hot.

These brief exchanges are rare as we need to keep up our stats, our precious UPH. The best reward that a high UPH can garner is a fistful of Safety and Attendance bucks. They look exactly like monopoly money with safety advice like “Stay Alert” printed on the back. The money is given out for what appears to be any reason, but often for having high stats or knowing the right people. It will eventually be used in a silent auction, for items such as iPods, cameras and the coveted PlayStation. I thought I was doing alright with my “bank” of money ($5,900) until I learned that some people already have well over $500,000 in Safety Bucks.

My co-worker interrupts me again, this time to ask if Staples does good photocopying jobs. I know exactly where he is going with this. He’s obsessed with using his Safety Bucks to get his hands on the PlayStation and we’re probably not the first people in the warehouse to consider copying them. I tell him Kinkos or Kwik Kopy would probably do a better job. He asks me if there is one around.

I know what you’re getting from Santa

As warehouse jobs go it’s pretty good, it’s not dirty or dangerous. It’s been a good reminder of books I want to read. If I need entertainment, I look at people’s awful author photos.

And while it’s tempting to stay on – over the past 12 months, Amazon has converted more than 4,700 temporary associates into full-time employees – I only plan to work until Christmas Eve, when I’ll successfully pass through my final warehouse security check and say goodbye to my scanner forever.

When I get home at night, my friends and family ask if I saw their orders among the tens of thousands of products shipped through the warehouse each day.

The answer is no. But I do know what you’re getting for Christmas.

Enjoy that Michael Bublé CD.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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