Life and death in the warehouse

Life And Death In The Warehouse: this devastating miscarriage scene is inspired by a warehouse worker’s true story

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Trigger warning: this article includes an account of miscarriage and spoilers for BBC Three’s Life And Death In The Warehouse.

There are many horrifying storylines in the new BBC Three drama Life And Death In The Warehouse. There is the dystopian 24-hour surveillance network, which monitors every moment of employees’ idle time down to the second. There is the insidious bullying from warehouse staff who harass their employees to up their ‘pick rate’. There are the mercenary disciplinary hearings and spontaneous sackings. 

Undoubtedly the most nightmarish one of all, though, is the horrifying miscarriage suffered by British warehouse worker Alys, played by Poppy Lee Friar.

A fictionalised account of the gruelling conditions faced by warehouse workers from many different companies in Britain and around the world, the drama follows the story of Megan (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), a young Welsh woman who joins a distribution centre in her local town as a trainee manager. On her first day, she reconnects with her old school friend Alys, a warehouse worker with a coveted permanent position on the team.

Life in the warehouse, as we quickly discover, is hellish. Supervisors want the ‘pick rate’ (the number of items picked from the shelves per hour) to be one product every 30 seconds, and to ensure that workers are hitting their target, they constantly monitor them through CCTV and algorithmic surveillance. Toilet breaks and idle time are measured, and when they start to slip, they’re either given a disciplinary hearing or ruthlessly sacked.

Life And Death In The Warehouse
Life And Death In The Warehouse: Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Megan and Poppy Lee Friar as Alys

The stressful environment leads to workers doing whatever is necessary to keep their jobs. They skip their toilet breaks to urinate in plastic bottles, chug energy drinks and take pills to stay alert, and scurry about like dervishes as they frantically attempt to reach their impossible targets.

When Megan is informed by her boss that Alys has a dwindling pick rate, she falls under pressure to improve her performance. Alys soon confides in Megan that she’s pregnant, and that her doctor has warned her against any heavy lifting or excessive exercise because she’s got high blood pressure. But when Megan tries to get her friend reassigned to the packing team, her boss refuses to accommodate Alys’s physical needs. Instead, they force Megan to put Alys on a “personal enhancement plan” to get her pick rate back up, which essentially involves running faster with her trolley.

Life And Death In The Warehouse
Life And Death In The Warehouse: trainee manager Megan addresses her team of workers
The toxic company culture has disastrous consequences. Under pressure from Megan to improve her performance, Alyss collapses during a shift. Megan is then swiftly disciplined by her manager for calling an ambulance, who informs her that she took the easy route instead of thinking of her team. It transpires that the warehouse has come under the spotlight for a spate of medical emergencies in the past year, even making the news for its questionable working environment.

After a pregnant Alys is subjected to a brutal disciplinary hearing, Megan is instructed to start building a case of gross misconduct against her. Alys rapidly begins to deteriorate throughout her shifts, and when she she goes to the toilet, she finds blood on the tissue. Facing mounting pressure from her boss to improve her team’s average, an unsympathetic Megan tells Alys that she can’t go home because she’ll be in breach of her contract.

Life And Death In The Warehouse
Life And Death In The Warehouse: Alys (Poppy Lee Friar) faces a disciplinary for her poor pick rate
Then the inevitable happens. So weak she can barely stand and delusional from pain, Alys starts to miscarry in the toilet. When she’s discovered by her colleagues Nadia and Devon, they scream at Megan, who is the only person with a phone, to call an ambulance. But as she stands rooted to the ground watching blood seep across her friend’s clothes, Megan is too scared to call 999 again in case she loses her job. Devon then snatches her phone from her hands and calls an ambulance himself. It’s all ultimately too late.

In a damning moment after the tragedy, Megan stands in the toilets attempting to scrub Alys’s blood from her hands. The scene makes it clear that by pressuring Alys to improve her performance, she has become responsible for the death of her unborn baby.

But while Life And Death In The Warehouse tells a fictional story, the issues that inspired the show are grounded in real life. Speaking about making the drama to the BBC, Bafta-winning director Joseph Bullman explained that he undertook a years-long process of research while making the show, including speaking to warehouse workers for their stories about the industry.

Life And Death In The Warehouse
Life And Death In The Warehouse: the senior managers implement a a gruelling work regime and obsessive monitoring

“One of the striking stories that we heard again and again when we met people when we researched this, is that you have these ‘pick rates’ or ‘aspirational rates’,” he explained. “And you have to do that for 10 hours a day and you’ll probably walk about 12 to 17 miles a day.

“When a woman gets pregnant, they’ll often ask to be reassigned but they’re often ignored.

“We heard stories about women miscarrying on the picking floor and, because there’s a PR consciousness in some companies about not calling ambulances, we heard of one woman who they wouldn’t call an ambulance for, so she was asked to walk to the bus stop in her bloodied trousers after miscarrying.”

Life And Death In The Warehouse
Life And Death In The Warehouse: Poppy Lee Friar as Alys and Aled ap Steffan as warehouse worker Devon

It’s especially important, therefore, that the plight of Alys is front and centre in the drama. With approximately one million Brits now working in distribution centres, it’s time we started caring about the injustices faced by those on the warehouse floor. And by taking a closer look at our consumer habits and ensuring that we support brands that treat staff fairly and respectfully, we can all take steps to move away from the life of convenience that can and does have a severe human cost.

Images: BBC

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Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is Stylist's Entertainment Editor whose specialist interests include pop culture, LGBTQ+ identity and lore.