Amazon is rapidly becoming the poster child for what is wrong with the so-called new economy. Critical to the online retailer’s success is its warehouse operation, which have been repeatedly found to demand unreasonable work output from its “pickers” as well as often being physically demanding, which is compounded by the warehouses too often being uncomfortably hot or cold. From a post last July:
Over the past few months, interviews with 20 current and former warehouse workers provided a glimpse of what it’s like to work at the facility near Allentown.
Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse.
During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat workers.
In a better economy, not as many people would line up for jobs that pay $11 or $12 an hour in a hot warehouse. But Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temporary employment firm that is hiring workers for Amazon, have found eager applicants.
And it’s not as if these practices are limited to the “employment at will” US. One of the best descriptions of what life in an Amazon warehouse is like came in the Financial Times in February, on the opening of a warehouse in Rugeley, Staffordshire, an old, down on its luck coal mining town. Here’s how the roles in a warehouse and why the work is hard:
Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle – the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today…Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything….
Workers in Amazon’s warehouses – or “associates in Amazon’s fulfilment centres” as the company would put it – are divided into four main groups. There are the people on the “receive lines” and the “pack lines”: they either unpack, check and scan every product arriving from around the world, or they pack up customers’ orders at the other end of the process. Another group stows away suppliers’ products somewhere in the warehouse. They put things wherever there’s a free space – in Rugeley, there are inflatable palm trees next to milk frothers and protein powder next to kettles. Only Amazon’s vast computer brain knows where everything is, because the workers use their handheld computers to scan both the item they are stowing away and a barcode on the spot on the shelf where they put it.
The last group, the “pickers”, push trolleys around and pick out customers’ orders from the aisles. Amazon’s software calculates the most efficient walking route to collect all the items to fill a trolley, and then simply directs the worker from one shelf space to the next via instructions on the screen of the handheld satnav device. Even with these efficient routes, there’s a lot of walking. One of the new Rugeley “pickers” lost almost half a stone in his first three shifts. “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” said the Amazon manager. “It’s human automation, if you like.” Amazon recently bought a robot company, but says it still expects to keep plenty of humans around because they are so much better at coping with the vast array of differently shaped products the company sells.
And Amazon keeps the heat on its warehouse workers:
Amazon can get away with this combination of difficult working conditions and low pay through the heavy reliance on temporary workers. They provide a ready pool that the company can tap into in case the slightly better paid full time workers slip in performance or become too uppity.
What did the people of Rugeley make of all this? For many, it has been a culture shock. “The feedback we’re getting is it’s like being in a slave camp,” said Brian Garner, the dapper chairman of the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre and Social Club, still a popular drinking spot.
One of the first complaints to spread through the town was that employees were getting blisters from the safety boots some were given to wear, which workers said were either too cheap or the wrong sizes. One former shop-floor manager, who did not want to be named, said he always told new workers to smear their bare feet with Vaseline. “Then put your socks on and your boots on, because I know for a fact these boots are going to rub and cause blisters and sores.”
Others found the pressure intense. Several former workers said the handheld computers, which look like clunky scientific calculators with handles and big screens, gave them a real-time indication of whether they were running behind or ahead of their target and by how much. Managers could also send text messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up, they said. “People were constantly warned about talking to one another by the management, who were keen to eliminate any form of time-wasting,” one former worker added.
Amazon is able to get away with these oppressive work conditions because many of its UK workers are temps employed through agencies, paid a hair over minimum wage.
But Amazon’s practices have been particularly poor in Germany. A February 2013 documentary charged various abuses beyond its typical demanding workpace, intensive surveillance, and low pay. A security contractor with alleged neo-Nazi ties was shown harassing temporary workers from Spain and Portugal, and that these temp staffers were often poorly housed. A summary from the Independent:
But Amazon has been particularly abusive in Germany, as reported in a February 2013 documentary. A summary from the Independent:
Germany’s ARD television channel made the allegations in a documentary about Amazon’s treatment of more than 5,000 temporary staff from across Europe to work at its German packing and distribution centres.
The film showed omnipresent guards from a company named HESS Security wearing black uniforms, boots and with military haircuts. They were employed to keep order at hostels and budget hotels where foreign workers stayed. “Many of the workers are afraid,” the programme-makers said.
The documentary provided photographic evidence showing that guards regularly searched the bedrooms and kitchens of foreign staff. “They tell us they are the police here,” a Spanish woman complained. Workers were allegedly frisked to check they had not walked away with breakfast rolls.
Germany launched an investigation and Amazon fired the security contractor.
Given this much fully deserved bad PR in Germany, you’d think Amazon would at least make a pretense of being conciliatory. But taking a page from the Walmart playbook, it is firmly resisting calls that workers be paid like retail employees (a higher wage grade) and better work conditions, and tactically is refusing to negotiate with a national labor union. Today over 1000 workers struck in Germany, out of a total of roughly 23,000 currently employed (9,000 full timers and 14,000 “seasonal” workers). The strike was concentrated at three distribution centers. So while it might have impacted those operations, Amazon cheerily maintained nothing was disrupted (as a past Amazon customer, the delivery time estimates I’ve seen are so generous this would almost certainly be true of a mere one-day strike regardless). Some background from Aljazeera:
Currently, Germany does not have a national minimum wage, but rather relies on collective wage agreements that govern things like minimum pay. The agreements are negotiated between employers and employees on a sector-by-sector and region-by-region basis.
The government, in turn, then endorses the deals, making them legally applicable to all workers in that particular sector.
Now in fact, these strikes are unlikely to have much impact unless more workers join and they are longer in duration. But the effect will hopefully be to cost Amazon on other fronts, by leading consumers to shift their buying elsewhere and to at a minimum and to lead to more challenges of this level of worker surveillance.
And getting the word out about Amazon’s labor practices matters because our neoliberal propagandist-in-chief, President Obama, would have you believe these are good “middle class” jobs. As we wrote in July:
Obama needed a visual to show that, no, really, truly, jobs really are being created somewhere in America for yet another one of his exercises in trying to pretend that he’s on the side of ordinary Americans. But it’s hard finding any really good success stories in an economy with 12.2 million counted as unemployed and over 28 million as “disemployed” which is the number of people out of work relative to normal labor force participation rates when the economy is in good shape. So Obama chose as his backdrop an American success story, Amazon, which is opening a new a warehouse in Chattanooga and hiring 7,000 people.
But Obama in trying to tout this as a success story revealed either that he’s completely out of touch or that he’s conditioning American to regard a state of peonage as middle class. Not all that long ago, “middle class” meant you could after a few years of work and savings, buy a house in the suburbs, afford to have children and have a reasonably comfortable family life, and send those kids to college. “Middle class” also generally meant college educated, white collar employment plus the higher-skilled, better paid blue collar jobs…
So notice, first, that those 7,000 jobs aren’t in Chattanooga, but all over the US. Second, Amazon’s cash comp is markedly below local averages. And although it offers a “benefits package,” it’s not clear that it’s better than what other area employers offer. The article doesn’t add that some of these 7,000 jobs are part time and/or seasonal.
A quick look at a Chattanooga job site shows the hourly for a comparable job at $9 an hour for someone with a minimum of six months recent experience. That’s just above the living wage for a single person in that city of $8.92. Given Amazon’s record in Allentown, there isn’t good reason to expect it to be paying over the prevailing rate in the local market.
The message from Obama is clear: Americans are now expected to celebrate when companies are willing to pay at or not much above a living wage. As long as you pay enough that the workers don’t wind up having to seek public assistance in the form of food stamps or emergency rooms for medical care, you’ll now be promoted as creating better conditions for Americans.
So even though this has been implicit in a lot of our previous posts, let’s be clear: if you want better wages and working conditions for Americans, that means you also need to reject the race to the bottom in your shopping habits and deal with retailers who pay their workers well (and let them know this is an important criterion in your purchase decisions). Otherwise, your consumer dollars are simply providing more impetus to growing income inequality.