A behind-the-scenes look at Amazon’s new (and oddly serene) warehouse in Singapore

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

The year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday events may be in the rearview mirror, but the engines of the retail industry must chug on. Especially so for the biggest retailer on the planet, Amazon. 

It took some time, but the e-commerce juggernaut finally made its way to Singapore in October with a bona fide local online store, its first digital outpost in Southeast Asia.

It wasn’t easy, of course; the region has long been saturated with Chinese and homegrown (albeit with Chinese backing) online retailers. Despite Amazon's dominance in the United States, the likes of Lazada, Shopee, Taobao and Tokopedia are the more familiar names in our neck of the woods. 

But what Bezos wants, Bezos gets. Two years after the Amazon Prime fast-delivery service membership programme was launched here, Amazon.sg is officially here, opening the floodgates to millions upon millions of products available for purchase from both local and international vendors. 

Those millions of products, however, need somewhere to be housed and stored before they get delivered to you. And so the company established its first warehouse in Singapore in 2017 — but don’t call it a warehouse, Amazon says.

Call ‘em fulfilment centres, because these massive, air-conditioned godowns are where customers orders get fulfilled. There’s also some spiel about these centres being fulfilling for its workers’ career paths that you can read over here

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

The new Amazon Fulfilment Centre — located in the industrial heart of Toh Guan — opened its doors recently, a cavernous 170,000 sq ft premise filled with crates, trolleys, brown boxes, yellow bins, masking tape rolls, conveyor belts, and (disappointingly) not a whole lot of shelf-toting robots. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Filling up the spaces between all those elements are people, and not a lot of them around during a guided tour for the media. For a billion-dollar company that apparently processes 35 orders per second, it was a bit odd to experience some tranquility at the centre, the quietude broken only by the whirring of the industrial air conditioning units above, the shuffles of our feet, and the eager oration by Amazon Singapore country manager Henry Low. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

It’s extra surprising when you consider that Amazon warehouses have to be well-oiled machines to process customer orders by the thousands during the Christmas season. We’ve all seen the reports. Hundreds of Amazon warehouse employees apparently pushed to the brink, victims of allegedly dehumanising, data-driven methods to maximise labour productivity and efficiency.

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

In various reports, Amazon Fulfilment Centre employees have relayed the taxing physical stress, scan guns monitoring and timing workersinhumane task quotas, gruelling work hours, and the omnipresent pressure to keep the wheels turning. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Amid the protests and strikes by labour unions and disgruntled Amazon Fulfilment Centre workers overseas, the scene in Singapore is entirely conflict-free — pleasant, even. The company couldn’t provide an exact figure, but it employs hundreds of workers across its fulfilment network in Singapore, and paid “competitive wages as per industry standards”. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

The crew of workers (or “associates” as Amazon refers to them) are diverse, ranging from matronly aunties to young adults who look to be in their 20s. While all of them had poker-faces during the course of the media tour (with their big boss right beside them explaining the process), they seemed at ease even without any of us in sight, unhurried but not sluggish in their paces. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

“No,” replied an Amazon spokesperson when queried if employees in Singapore are subjected to any fixed work quotas. Though the work hours remain undisclosed, fulfilment centre workers are free to “sign up for the shifts they choose to work in”. 

“Depending on the nature of work being performed by an associate at the fulfilment centre, the Amazon technology supports the associate to receive, stow, pick or pack products within the building.” 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Speaking of technology, Amazon has not implemented any sort of robotics in its warehouses here, but the company assures that automated functions are a “relentless focus” for the organisation. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

As the tour went on, it became clear that the centre wasn’t operating at full capacity. Yet. Rows upon rows of shelves were void of any items, but Amazon assures that the centre’s over 200,000 cubic feet of storage space will house hundreds of thousands of products expected to arrive before being packed and shipped to customers throughout the holiday season. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

“We are expecting this holiday to be the biggest festive season for us in terms of traffic and new customers yet. With the launch of Amazon.sg last month, we are offering all customers in Singapore more ways to shop and millions of products to choose from, on desktop and mobile,” enthused the Amazon spokesperson.   “To ensure we continue to meet the demand of Singapore shoppers with Amazon.sg and Prime Now, we have increased our fulfilment capacity in Singapore.”

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Mo’ orders, mo’ potential problems, and the process between clicking the purchase button on Amazon.sg and having it arrive at your doorstep involve a series of tiny moving parts. As cheap as that AmazonBasics HDMI cable could be, there’s the high human cost — rates of serious injuries at Amazon warehouses in the United States were found to spike up severely during the holiday season

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

“The safety of our employees is of utmost importance to us,” said the Amazon spokesperson when I brought it up. 

“All associates go through extensive safety training prior to fulfilling customer orders. We also have safety procedures in place at the fulfilment centre to ensure a safe and positive work environment.”

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Still, Amazon’s obsessive-compulsive focus on fulfilling the needs of the customer remains prominent. Signboards and panels spouting mantras were frequently spotted across the premises, from the cold, clinical rooms to the cold, industrial shop floors.

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas SholihynPHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Robots may be absent at this fulfilment centre (for now), but it’s always good to get Amazon on record to say that it won’t treat its workers as replaceable automatons either. 

The year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday events may be in the rearview mirror, but the engines of the retail industry...

Posted by AsiaOne on Wednesday, December 4, 2019

ilyas@asiaone.com