Rob Hart's new book: When Big Brother meets Big Business

Inspired by the ‘gig economy’, The Warehouse is set in a near future world that is horribly believable – zero rights, low pay, devices tracking your every move. Author Rob Hart hopes it will be a wake up call for us all, writes Suzanne Harrington

Rob Hart's new book: When Big Brother meets Big Business

Inspired by the ‘gig economy’, The Warehouse is set in a near future world that is horribly believable – zero rights, low pay, devices tracking your every move. Author Rob Hart hopes it will be a wake up call for us all, writes Suzanne Harrington

Imagine a future where low- paid workers run around endless aisles grabbing random items as fast as they can, so that they clock up literal kilometres every day, as their shoe soles wear out and the danger of dehydration is ever present. Where they dare not sprain an ankle, and their performance is constantly starred out of five.

Imagine they all live in at their jobs in vast soulless facilities, where they sleep in cramped units, eat, drink and socialise at in-house catering outlets, and work savage hours with almost no time off.

It would be a life where they have little or no employment rights or benefits or trade union representation, but are told that they are the lucky ones because they have a job in the first place.

Outside these air-conditioned facilities is the scorched earth of a climate-changed planet; inside the workplace, their every move is tracked and monitored by tracker devices which must be worn at all times apart from when the workers are asleep.

Welcome to Cloud, a fictional online retail company with enormous live-in warehouses called Mother Clouds dotted around a climate-ravaged US.

This is the immersive setting — “a corporate panopticon” of a new novel by political journalist turned publisher Rob Hart, who has created a world that is terrifying and entirely recognisable.

A near future Amazon perhaps, or a version of the current iPhone City in Zhengzhou, China.

Rob Hart was inspired to write The Warehouse, whose film rights have been optioned by director Ron Howard, by the story of Maria Fernandes, 32.

In 2014, Maria was found dead in her car, having accidentally inhaled fumes from petrol spilled in the boot, while she was asleep.

Maria Fernandes with her boyfriend Glen Carter and his daughter, Hannah Wilson. Fernandes was found dead in her car, having accidentally inhaled fumes from petrol spilled in the boot, while she was asleep.
Maria Fernandes with her boyfriend Glen Carter and his daughter, Hannah Wilson. Fernandes was found dead in her car, having accidentally inhaled fumes from petrol spilled in the boot, while she was asleep.

She kept petrol in the boot in case she ran short as she drove between her three jobs at three different Dunkin’ Donuts outlets dotted around New Jersey, sleeping in her car between shifts because she so often didn’t have time to get home.

Had she been allocated shifts in the same location, or given rotas more consecutively, she would not have had to sleep in her car; she would most likely still be alive.

Maria Fernandes earned €8.25 an hour, and struggled to pay the $550 (€500) a month rent on her basement flat in Newark. .

Rob Hart’s novel is dedicated to her memory. He includes an 1891 quote from US president Benjamin Harrison: “I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process.”

More than a century on, and not a great deal has changed, beyond the technology.

“I could point to dozens of examples like this to explain why I wrote The Warehouse,” says Rob Hart.

“Poultry-processing workers wearing diapers because they’re denied bathroom breaks. Amazon fulfilment centre employees being made to work through sickness and injury.

The proliferation of the ‘gig’ economy, stripping workers of health insurance and job protection. Walmart employees requiring public assistance, like food stamps and subsidised housing, because they can’t afford rent and groceries.

In the UK, the gig economy is the subject of director Ken Loach’s new film Sorry We Missed You. In real life, its latest victim, Ruth Lane, was recently served an eviction notice after falling into rent arrears, despite working full time at Marks & Spencer. Since the death of her husband from a diabetes-related heart attack aged 53 widow now faces homelessness on top of bereavement.

He had worked for a courier company and was fined £150 (€165) for attending a doctor’s appointment. He had skipped subsequent medical appointments and died.

Instead of writing something journalistic and data-based about the treatment of low-paid workers in late-stage capitalism, Hart decided on a novel because while the former might make people angry, a novel is more likely to elicit empathy.

And, if it’s made into a mainstream movie, will reach a far wider audience.

The most chilling aspect of The Warehouse is its relatability; Hart says it is far easier for readers to understand how a tracker wristband works than a ray gun, because right now we are all being tracked, with our explicit consent, by tech companies like Google who continually harvest our data to create and maintain their products. Ray guns, on the other hand, are still a bit Star Trek.

“If it’s more fantastical, it’s harder to relate to,” says Hart. “The Warehouse feels like a funhouse mirror version of now.”

Its three main characters are Paxton, an ex-prison guard turned reluctant Cloud security guard – a vaguely Winston Smith character, whose entrepreneurial dreams are crushed by corporate greed, and Zinnia, a corporate spy who infiltrates Cloud to gain its secrets.

The third character, Gibson Wells, is the folksy, faux humble CEO of Cloud, and richest man in north America:

Look at the sorry state of the world. Small towns collapsed. Coastal villages under water. Cities packed to capacity. Some third world countries are practically wastelands.

“I’m trying to help. Has everything I’ve done been perfect? Hell no. That’s the price of progress.”

It is this very humility, this Steve Jobsy, Mark Zuckerbergy, Jeff Bezosy man of the people schtick which makes Gibson – never Mr Wells — the novel’s creepiest character.

It’s his utter plausibility. He exists, right now.

By creating a near future world that is horribly believable – since the Black Friday Massacres, people prefer drone- delivered online shopping; novels like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are barely read anymore, because they have become too close to reality. Hart is urging us to look at our own current world.

He is not, however, being preachy.

“The only way to be an ethical consumer would be to live in the woods, be off grid, kill your own food,” he says. (Meat features heavily in The Warehouse, and not in a good way).

I have an iPhone, which I know is assembled under conditions that would be illegal in the US. I use Uber, a company with a long track record of bad behaviour towards customers and employees. I eat chicken and drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. I do these things because they are convenient.

He says that we have been gaslighted into believing that it’s acceptable for corporations to treat workers “like disposable products”. That “even if your job is terrible, you should be thankful because at least you have one.”

That we need to wake up before it really is too late.

- The Warehouse is published by Bantam Press

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