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When Amazon came to town: Swindon feels strain as new depot sucks up jobs | Amazon

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On an industrial estate outside Swindon, it’s the busiest time of year at Amazon’s newest warehouse in Britain. Black boxes rattle along miles of conveyor belt, carrying everything from toys to painkillers amid a cacophony of alarms and the faint hum of Christmas songs.

“I’m looking around here at anything that might not be right, but it’s actually running very smoothly,” says David Tindal, the general manager of the Swindon fulfilment centre. “The team has been fantastic. We spend the whole year preparing for this peak time, like a good football club preparing for the cup final.”

Known internally as BRS2 – using a naming system based on the nearest big airport (in this case, Bristol) – the warehouse is a vision in gleaming concrete, steel and glass landed on the Wiltshire countryside.

The vast site is a stark reminder of Amazon’s might. As well as upending consumer habits and standing accused of gaining an unfair advantage by paying too little in tax and hollowing out high streets, the company is creating huge distortions in the jobs market. The new depot has created its own gravitational force sucking staff away from other businesses such as care homes.

The latest outpost of Jeff Bezos’s empire also illustrates the shifting economic sands in the western world. In July, the nearby Honda car factory closed – a decision blamed partly on Brexit – with the loss of about 3,000 direct jobs plus thousands more in the supply chain, many of which were high-paying, skilled roles.

Staff at Amazon’s warehouse in Swindon
Staff at Amazon’s warehouse in Swindon. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Amazon has hired 2,000 staff in a matter of months in Swindon, opening the site earlier than planned at the start of November to exploit the online shopping boom in Britain, and advertising roles as “a job for life, not just for Christmas”.

With hiring bonuses of up to £3,000 at some of its 150 UK warehouses, and starting pay of £11.10 an hour – more than £2 higher than the legal minimum, and above the £9.90 real living wage – the firm is aiming to shake a reputation as one of Britain’s worst employers, notorious for low-paid jobs and bleak working conditions.

Sue Houldey
Sue Houldey, of Coate Water Care. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

For Sue Houldey, the operations director at Coate Water Care, which runs three care homes in the town and six others across the west country, Amazon’s arrival in the area coincides with the toughest hiring challenges of her career.

“We’re competing with Amazon and the big warehouses, as well as hospitality, for the same people. It can be very frustrating,” she says, sitting in the cafe of the Church View nursing home in a quiet residential area of the town.

Coate Water hasn’t lost staff directly to Amazon, but competition for a slim pool of candidates is fierce. Insufficient funding for social care and soaring fixed costs make it difficult to raise pay much higher than the £8.91-per-hour legal minimum, making a job at the nearby Amazon depot 25% more lucrative.

With more than 100,000 vacancies in the care sector nationwide, many staff are leaving to work for Amazon and other higher-paying jobs across the country. “Nobody wants to discuss it because it’s unpalatable. But the funding that we get doesn’t allow us to pay probably what we want to pay for our staff,” says Houldey.

As with retail, winter is peak time for the care sector, except the stakes are far higher than the rush for Christmas presents. Houldey must meet Care Quality Commission requirements for sufficient staff numbers. “If [you are Amazon and] one of your workers doesn’t turn up, it’s like: hey ho, everyone else can just work a bit harder, or we might not get stuff done. Those rules don’t apply in care. It’s not an equal playing field.”

Official figures show a record 1.2m job vacancies across Britain, with shortages of lorry drivers in particular attracting national attention amid panic-buying of petrol and gaps on supermarket shelves this autumn.

Approaching Christmas, there are many reasons for the employee drought. Britain’s workforce has shrunk since the onset of Covid-19, with more than half a million more people out of work and not looking for a job. as Some have taken early retirement and young people have pushed back the start of their working lives. More than 200,000 EU citizens have left the workforce, and Covid restrictions and Brexit migration rules are limiting arrivals.

With more than a million furloughed workers leaving the scheme after it closed at the end of September, and others looking for a new job in the so-called “great resignation”, job switching has hit record levels.

Amazon’s warehouse in Swindon
The warehouse covers an area the size of six and a half football pitches. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Amazon has played a substantial role in Britain’s labour market flux, hiring 10,000 people in the past six months alone to take its overall UK workforce to 55,000.

The arrival of a new warehouse might be hailed by local politicians for “creating jobs”, but switching from an old employer is more likely, in a form of labour market creative destruction with winners and losers.

In Swindon, a town with a total workforce of about 110,000 where unemployment is below the UK average at 3.9%, the arrival of a big new employer hiring thousands of staff has a noticeable impact.

“When you drop a stone like Amazon into the local labour pool, it makes quite big waves,” says Tony Wilson, the director of the Institute for Employment Studies.

He says the company is following a similar path to McDonald’s two decades ago, when negative media coverage pushed the fast-food chain to clean up its act.

“They have to have good employment practices because there’s so much attention on them. As a consequence, a misconception can form relatively quickly that this is all crap work, and the reality is it isn’t.”

In the ripple effect of Amazon coming to town, Domingos Dias has seen more than 100 of his colleagues leave the Marks & Spencer warehouse (run on an outsourced basis by DHL) where he works. The departures have left resources stretched.

“Where you would have 10 people, 20 people, they now try to do it with five,” he says. “Since Amazon came, they had these opportunities and people went for the better prospects for higher salary.”

The GMB trade union shop steward is pushing for higher pay for employees and agency staff, who are paid less than at Amazon on £9.45 an hour. “Suddenly there was a thing that this new warehouse is coming. The guys who were working for 20 long years on agency contracts, they didn’t have any loyalty for Marks & Spencer and DHL, so they saw this and grabbed the opportunity.”

Amazon’s warehouse in Swindon
Amazon has hired 2,000 staff in a matter of months in Swindon. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Pay is rising fast in warehousing work, according to figures from the jobs website Indeed, with the median hourly wage up 11% this year from £9.25 to £10.27. Pay in other sectors is rising more slowly, and failing to keep pace with soaring living costs.

The prospect of higher pay is enticing workers to the warehouse, contrary to the reputation of Amazon as a poverty employer. Still, critics argue that Bezos – among the world’s richest people, with a fortune of more than $200bn (£150bn) – could easily afford to pay more, rather than launching a space tourism business. Hours are still long and the company does not recognise trade unions.

David Tindal
David Tindal, general manager of the Swindon fulfilment centre. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The timing of Amazon’s arrival could prove helpful, however, after Honda gave up on its factory after more than three decades in Swindon. Tindal bumps into former Honda employees on a regular basis at BRS2, including an engineer with 30 years’ experience maintaining robotic arms – used for spraying cars with paint – who now looks after the army of blue robots that scuttle goods around a vast cage of consumer goods in the Amazon warehouse.

Jay Colsell, who worked on the final shift at Swindon after five years with Honda, is another. He says pay was higher and hours shorter in his old job, but there are more opportunities for career progression at Amazon. “Honda was busy. It was hard work; good money but you worked for it. Amazon is also good but you don’t have to run around lots, you just have to be proactive.”

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A modern-day equivalent of a Victorian factory, only on a dual carriageway rather than the railway that put Swindon on the map two centuries ago, the new warehouse covers an area the size of nearly seven football pitches.

Tindal recruited about 600 staff ahead of time and trained them at Amazon’s older Bristol fulfilment centre in order to launch as smoothly as possible at the start of November. The general manager, who has opened three other sites for the firm from scratch – at Daventry, Rugby and Milton Keynes – says even more expansion is expected after the Christmas rush.

“We’re probably still advertising, I haven’t checked. We’re going to pause for now until the new year, but then we’ll be hiring some more.”

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VMware fixes buggy vSphere release – and Log4J, too • The Register

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VMware has restored availability of vSphere 7 Update, a release that it withdrew in late 2021 after driver dramas derailed deployments.

Paul Turner, Virtzilla’s veep for vSphere product management, told The Register that the source of the problem was Intel driver updates that arrived out of sync with VMware’s pre-release testing program. When users adopted the new drivers – one of which had been renamed – vSphere produced errors that meant virtual server fleet managers could not sustain high availability operations.

Turner said around 30,000 customers had adopted the release, of which around eight per cent encountered the issue. That collection of around 2,400 impacted users was enough for VMware to pull the release before the other 270,000 vSphere users hit trouble. That level of potential problems, Turner admitted, was considered a sufficient threshold to justify a do-over and the embarrassment of a pulled release.

VMware has since reviewed its testing program and procedures in the hope it will avoid a repeat of this error. Doing so, and repairing the release, meant a busier-than-usual holiday period for VMware developers. Turner said those who put in the extra hours will be compensated with extra time off in the future.

VMware also used the time needed to get the release ready to ensure that vSphere 7 U3 thoroughly addresses the Log4j bug. It took the opportunity to update to the latest version of the tool – which is free of the critical bug that allowed almost any code to execute without authorisation.

But VMware decided not to add anything new to vSphere while it addressed Log4j and sorted out the driver drama. Users will have to wait a few more months for another dose of VMware’s usual concoction of security updates and feature tweaks.

There’s more interesting stuff on the way, too. VMware has promised a full vSphere-as-a-Service offering is in the works, and the Project Capitola software-defined memory tech that will pool RAM across hosts. The company has also dropped hints that its plan to run its ESX hypervisor on SmartNICs is nearing release.

VMware has detailed the new/old release here and made downloads available here

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Facebook given EU go-ahead to pursue controversial Kustomer acquisition

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The EU’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said she was satisfied for the company now known as Meta to pursue its Kustomer acquisition after it struck a deal for rivals.

Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, has secured antitrust approval from the EU to pursue its acquisition of US customer services software start-up Kustomer.

The social media giant’s decision to acquire the start-up attracted EU scrutiny last April, months before its rebrand. Then known as Facebook, the company planned to integrate Kustomer’s products, including a chatbot, into its service.

Now, Meta has assured the European Commission that it will provide rivals free access to its messaging channels for 10 years.

The EU was satisfied that this addressed competition concerns which previously arose from the company’s decision to acquire Kustomer.

“Our decision today will ensure that innovative rivals and new entrants in the customer relationship management software market can effectively compete,” EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

Last December, Vestager’s Digital Markets Act was passed by EU lawmakers as part of the body’s plans to tighten the monopoly large multinationals hold in Europe’s digital space.

Facebook had initially announced its acquisition plan in November 2020. In February 2021, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties wrote to the European Commission outlining its concerns over data that Kustomer had gathered and what might happen to that data under Facebook’s watch. The Commission also received a referral request from Austria flagging concerns over the Kustomer deal.

Other Meta acquisitions have also attracted the scrutiny of competition regulators. Last November, the UK ordered Meta to sell Giphy after its acquisition of the GIF making company was found to have breached competition rules. In the US, it is facing an antitrust suit that could force the company to sell WhatsApp and Instagram.

The EU’s decision to allow Meta to pursue the acquisition of Kustomer comes following a recent vote in the European Parliament in favour of the Digital Services Act, a companion of the Digital Markets Act. The act represents the EU’s attempt to shift the balance of power away from Big Tech in favour of ordinary people.

The long-debated act was hailed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as a “gold standard”.

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Now that I’ve finally played The Last of Us, who wants to talk about that ending? | Games

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‘OK, Dad, this is an incredible essay on the effects of grief and grey morality in a postapocalyptic society,” says the eldest child, AKA the millennial. “It’s got proper female characters, progressive takes on sexuality and tonnes of rain.”

“They’ve made a video game of The Handmaid’s Tale?”

“No, Dad. It’s The Last of Us. Don’t worry. It’s still a zombie shooter. And both games have the best ending ever.”

Now she has my interest. Video game endings fascinate me, because my generation started out with arcade games that didn’t have them. Pac-Man kept eating dots and chasing ghosts and the Space Invaders kept coming, wave after incessant wave. The first arcade game that had an actual ending was Dragon’s Lair and nobody actually saw that because it was so hard to complete.

I have a tough start with The Last of Us because I hate games where you search for stuff in every room of a house. I spend my normal life doing that with car keys and headphones. I want games where you walk into a room and all the objects get sucked into a magic pocket. But that isn’t realistic, I hear you cry. Well, neither is only being able to carry three shivs in a world where, despite the zombie apocalypse, cargo pants clearly still exist.

The Last of Us.
Jaw-dropping … The Last of Us. Photograph: Sony

I also hate any form of crafting, because that was what my generation had to do for “fun” as kids before we had video games. Whether it’s smoke bombs from sugar and explosives or a set of Action Man drawers from matchboxes, it’s all boring to me.

“Keep going,” I tell myself. “The millennial says it’s got the best ending ever.”

Throughout the first chapter of Joel and Ellie’s jaunt across a post-infected US I keep trying to guess what this great ending will be. Maybe Ellie isn’t immune to infection after all? Maybe Joel is her real father? Maybe they’re both unwitting participants in some reality TV show, I’m Infected Get Me Out of Here?

As you will all know by now – and if you’ve yet to play The Last of Us then please stop reading – the ending has Joel murder a perfectly innocent and well-intentioned doctor who wants to cut Ellie open to find a cure that will save humanity. But Joel has no truck with utilitarian philosophy, because Ellie has now become a replacement for the daughter he lost. So, he disregards mankind’s future and, by stopping the operation, effectively murders the entire human race (alongside a whole hospital’s worth of doctors).

“Why does he do that?” I asked the millennial, in one of many fantastic discussions we had about the game.

“Because he’s a white male,” came the answer, because it’s 2022 and she’s in her 20s. And maybe she’s right. Either way it is a jaw-dropping, supremely brave ending and the terrific Left Behind side-story also brought the feels.

The Last of Us Part 2
Grey morality … Ellie in The Last of Us Part 2. Photograph: Naughty Dog

So, when it came to The Last of Us Part 2, I was beyond excited. Fifty million hours later I was beyond disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, the millennial nailed it when she said it was a great exploration of the effects of grief and grey morality. But after spending the whole game switching between two strong female characters (literally, have you seen Abby’s arms?) and contrasting factional creeds, you have the final confrontation. They fight. And … they both live. And go their separate ways. The only real damage is Ellie losing a couple of fingers, and the game portrays the worst consequence of this as not being able to play guitar any more. Seriously? That’s the biggest drawback to being fingerless in a zombie apocalypse? The first game ended with Joel murdering an entire civilisation, the second ends with Ellie murdering one song on a guitar. It’s a scene you might have found in The Secret of Monkey Island. It’s hilarious.

The Last of Us Part 2 leaves us with exactly the same non-ending as those original arcade games. Ellie and Abby will go on killing to keep their respective postapocalyptic factions going, both driven by the grief of murdered loved ones. They are both trapped, endlessly chasing ghosts. Sounds familiar…

The millennial says this shows there are no winners when it comes to revenge. I say they want both protagonists alive for The Last of Us 3. It’s a cynical cop out. But then, The Last of Us Part 2 is a game that features the most cynical scene ever, where apropos of nothing, after genuinely bravura portrayals of women, transgender and gay characters, alpha female Abby suddenly gets rogered from behind by some guy. It happens out of nowhere. The game spends umpteen hours portraying progressive sexuality, and then it’s like some marketing man decided they needed to toss the incels a piece of red meat to stop them hate-bombing all over 4chan (which didn’t work). It is easily the most gratuitous bit of nudity I have ever seen in games, and I have played The Witcher 3. The rogerer in question even has a girlfriend. Who is pregnant. Way to shit on a sister, Abby.

“It’s basically Pac-Man with gratuitous boobs,” I say to my eldest, who sighs and pours herself a large cup of coffee. This will be another long discussion.

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