John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for November, 2020

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How the Covid-19 pandemic has increased Amazon’s dominance – podcast

Thursday, November 26th, 2020

As high street rivals were forced to close this year, Amazon has gone from strength to strength. But reports of conditions in some of its huge warehouses have brought a new level of scrutiny, as John Harris explains

Before the pandemic struck, high street retailers were already struggling to stay competitive with online companies that offered low prices and rapid deliveries. When Covid-19 forced shops to close and consumers to stay at home, online retailers, particularly Amazon, were ideally placed to capitalise.

The Guardian columnist John Harris tells Anushka Asthana that having spoken to several Amazon workers in recent weeks and months, it is clear that rising demand is placing a huge strain on the workforce. While Amazon temporarily raised its wage rates, workers allege that only in April did masks become mandatory and warehouses over the summer were often uncomfortably hot.

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Local people have had to improvise during the pandemic. Could their solutions stick? | John Harris

Monday, November 23rd, 2020

A new kind of community politics – ‘flatpack democracy’ – has emerged in towns left to fend for themselves by the centre

About eight months ago, a fascinating social change began to ripple through hundreds of British neighbourhoods. Given the deluge of news that has happened since, it is easy to forget how remarkable it all seemed: droves of volunteers who were gripped by community spirit coming together to help deliver food and medicines to their vulnerable neighbours, check on the welfare of people experiencing poverty and loneliness, and much more besides. From a diverse range of places all over the country, the same essential message came through: the state was either absent or unreliable, so people were having to do things for themselves.

A couple of tantalising questions were triggered by all this. Would at least some of the energy and creativity that had been unleashed be sustained beyond the pandemic? And if that happened, might any of the people involved shift their attention to politics? Unfortunately, before any answers started to become clear, the end of the first lockdown saw many local efforts apparently being wound down or fizzling out.

Related: The rest of the country will suffer so long as Westminster holds the purse strings | John Harris

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How Amazon became a pandemic giant – and why that could be a threat to us all

Thursday, November 19th, 2020

Online retail grew massively in lockdown, and Amazon reaped huge profits. But where is the company’s relentless innovation and automation heading – and is it time to clip its wings?

For the last year, Anna (not her real name) has been working as an Amazon “associate”, in the kind of vast warehouse the company calls a fulfilment centre. For £10.50 an hour, she works four days a week, though, during busy periods, this sometimes goes up to five. Her shift begins at 7.15am and ends at 5.45pm. “When I get home,” she says, “it’s about 6.30. And I just go in, take a shower and go to bed. I’m always exhausted.”

Anna is a picker in one of the company’s most technologically advanced workplaces, in the south of England. This means she works in a metal enclosure in front of a screen that flashes up images of the products she has to put in the “totes” destined for the part of the warehouse where customer orders are made ready for posting out. Everything from DVDs to gardening equipment is brought to her by robot “drives”: squat, droid-like devices that endlessly lift “pods” tall fabric towers full of pockets that contain everything from DVDs to toys – and then speed them to the pickers.

There were problems with the air-con [in the warehouse]. Maintenance checked the temperature, and it was more than 30C

Do we say: ‘Be nice, Jeff?’ Or do we establish a legal framework that makes it impossible to do what they’re doing?

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The dream of going ‘back to normal’ is a huge distraction from the need for change | John Harris

Monday, November 16th, 2020

A vaccine will start to ease our collective anxiety, but the reasons why Covid-19 hit the UK hard will not be going away

Back in June, as people in England were adjusting to the loosening of Covid-19 restrictions, and Black Lives Matter was all over the news, I interviewed a number of young people who live in east London. As the conversations went on, a fascinating question came up: if they were presented with the opportunity to rewind to a time before the pandemic, would they take it?

Most of them answered with an emphatic no. “This world is crazy, and it really needs to change,” said one. “If it doesn’t, we’re all going to get hurt.” She mentioned the killing of George Floyd but also talked about injustices and inequalities she saw on her own doorstep, and the sense that since lockdown began everyone had learned things about the state of society. “This is a time to remember,” she said. All the issues this vivid, volatile period of history had brought to the surface were too important to be pushed back to the margins.

Related: The Covid-19 blunders drive home a harsh truth: the state has failed us

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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A lesson from the US election: we’ll never understand voters just by looking at polls | John Harris

Monday, November 9th, 2020

If a country has so lost the ability to comprehend itself that its best minds have to depend on surveys, it clearly has a problem

As well as the celebrations triggered by Joe Biden’s eventual victory, one quieter sound can be heard in the US: that of opinion polling once again being read the last rites. Pollsters and analysts may have got the winning candidate right. But, perhaps because many Republican supporters preferred to keep their political preference quiet, the reduction of politics to maths did not predict the knife-edge results that materialised in so many US swing states, Democratic losses in Congress, and the fact that untold millions were in no mood to reject Donald Trump and what he stands for.

From some quarters, there are now suggestions that polling’s disgrace means something almost sacred may have died. “The real catastrophe,” said David Graham of the Atlantic magazine, “is that the failure of the polls leaves Americans with no reliable way to understand what we as a people think outside of elections – which in turn threatens our ability to make choices, or to cohere as a nation.”

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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