Amazon is offering its rapidly growing army of low-paid staff up to £8,000 towards tuition fees if they want to go on to take further education courses.
The bold offer to employees at Amazon's eight UK mega-warehouses covers studies in construction, computer science, engineering and other skilled vocational fields.
"For some of our fulfilment centre employees, Amazon will be a career, for others it might be a stepping stone to a different job which may require additional training. If learning new skills can make the difference, we want to help," said Roy Perticucci the former Tesco executive who is now Amazon's vice president of European operations.
The business has faced increasing criticism of its employment terms in Europe, with strikes last month in Germany and industrial unrest in France earlier in the year.
The offer is open to staff with 12 months service or longer at the group's call centre and its warehouses in Swansea, Doncaster, Rugeley and elsewhere. They must be employed on a permanent contract or on a fixed-term contract.
Under the terms of the deal, which was piloted by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in the US two years ago, successful applicants will have 95% of their tuition fees and course books paid for in advance, costing up to £2,000 a year for four years.
Perticucci yesterday said: "It can be difficult to have the flexibility and financial resources to learn new skills or fund new qualifications. Our goal with the Career Choice Programme is to enable choice."
Eligible courses will be those that lead to nationally recognised technical and vocational qualifications in fields such as engineering, computer science, health and social care, construction and accounting. They include HNDs, NVQs and BTEC diplomas, and up to a Level 5 foundation degree, or Scottish equivalent.
Skills minister Matthew Hancock welcomed the initiative, saying: "Learning and education lies at the heart of all career development and giving employees the opportunity to strengthen their potential and learn new skills in this way will no doubt give many Amazon employees new vigour and direction."o
Amazon grew its UK permanent employees by 2,000 last year to about 7,000, of which more than 80% work in its warehouses. The company says there are currently about 1,450 temporary or agency staff working for the business.
Several other large, low-wage-paying employers have sought to engage with the aspirations of low-skilled workforce by offering positions under the government's apprenticeship scheme, with training tailored for potential jobs within company or the same industry.
Amazon's new programme, however, seeks to empower ambitious staff to pursue other career options elsewhere, recognising the limitations on career advancement in a predominantly low-skilled business.
Martin Smith, national organiser for the GMB union, said: "It sounds great. And if this was going to be extended to the thousands of day-labour, casual staff who make the business go, that would be superb."
Amazon has a policy of not recognising unions.
"We firmly believe the most effective way to understand and respond to our workforce needs and concerns is to work directly with our associates. We have multiple avenues to listen to and respond to our associates, including employee surveys, anonymous helplines, voice of associate boards, All Hands meetings, roundtables, and other mechanisms."
But Smith insisted: "Our members just want a permanent job with Amazon, they don't want to be grovelling from week to week for more hours."
He said GMB membership at Amazon was comparatively small, blaming a the high numbers of casual staff in the warehouses and a climate of fear. "We are still building membership and we are trying to overcome that fear... Real or not, the fear is there. We have to have meetings a long way away from the plant. We have to guarantee anonymity. People are terrified of the loss [what is] a fair low quality job.
"Amazon is the poster child of what is wrong with the economy. There's lots of other companies out there – I'm sure Amazon feel a bit picked on – but they are the definition of the tax-dodging, wage-dodging new economy business. On that basis, we are going to carry on focusing on Amazon as a way of ecouraging the others. I'll sure well come to terms with them eventually, as we did with Asda Walmart."
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