Amazon Warehouse Workers Strike in Germany Over Pay, Sweatshop Conditions

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:

Amazon has been repeatedly cited here and abroad for abusive conditions in its warehouses. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011:

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.

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  1. vlade

    Amazon is trying to build two large warehouses in Czech Republic to serve Central Europe, and it’s having problems with both (locals are protesting). I suspect the BBC’s documentary a month ago didn’t help

  2. JL Furtif

    Hi Yves,

    I decided a long time ago to boycott Amazon for these and other practices. But I fail to understand why your ECONned banner still takes one straight to Amazon. Is your book not available via another outlet?


    1. Clive

      Hi JL Furtif

      I’ve sort-a addressed your point in my comment below (sorry, I didn’t see yours before I posted) — the best revenge is to use Amzon’s marketing budget (via click-through’s) to benefit whichever site generate the referral. And then the costs of serving the web pages, running the search database etc. But then denying them the sale proceeds. Thus Amazon gets all the costs and none of the benefits. And one of the key drivers which they will be watching like a hawk is the propensity of website visitors to then make a purchase. They won’t know exactly why you found something you obviously liked / were interested in, but then didn’t buy. But they’ll start to ask questions if enough people do it.

      1. borkman

        As a matter of curiosity, does anyone know how much of a cut Amazon gets from orders directed to Amazon merchants? You aren’t making use of their warehouse, so you avoid supporting that operation. But if merchant orders are highly profitable for them, you might not be doing enough to limit their returns.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Sadly, Amazon has a lot of reviews, and a lot of people regard them as important, so as a matter of convention, we can’t promote our book and not include Amazon (if nothing else, a lot of people already own Kindles). But yes, poking around Amazon does not mean you need to buy from them.

      1. Klassy!

        I don’t know if I regard the reviews as important, but I do find them useful. Well, the book reviews are useful. The other product reviews I have to expend more time to figure out whether they are genuine. Which leads to another point– the enormous value created by the uncompensated reviewers. More wealth transfer. I stopped shopping there years ago, but are they still making money off of me when I search?

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Reading comprehension fail. I told readers to avoid all “race to the bottom” retailers. Boycotting Amazon hardly does any good if you patronize someone functionally equivalent.

      2. Waking Up

        I “use” Amazon to review books and to get a quick idea of products which may be available in the market. However, I haven’t purchased anything from them for the past 3 years after I realized their despicable business practices. Agree with Yves, “reject the race to the bottom in your shopping habits”.

    3. Carla

      If for some reason you need to buy books online, as opposed to at your local, independent bookstore, check out They are a “B” corporation that puts a portion of their profits into literacy projects around the world. They sell new books, but also used books, to help keep the latter out of landfills. Shipping is free. I just checked and “Econned” is available as a new paperback for $16.98 and as a used hardcover (condition: good) for $6.98.

      I never order from Amazon anymore, just as I do not darken the doors (or the web site) of Walmart. Local sources supplemented by a few good online purveyors provide amply for my needs.

      1. diptherio

        +10. Thanks for the heads up on Better World. I’ll have to check them out. And only $6.98 for a hard-cover edition of Econned? I might have to upgrade…

        1. EmilianoZ

          You shouldn’t buy a used copy of Econned. Yves will get no royalty out of it.

          I’ve used Better World Books several times. The first time was through Amazon. The book never arrived but they refunded me. After that I bought directly from them. It’s actually a little bit cheaper if you buy from them directly and you have the possibility to “carbon compensate” (whatever that means). They use USPS without tracking if you choose the cheapest shipping method, which I always do. Delivery times are very variable. Sometimes it only takes a few days, sometimes it takes up to 2 weeks. I must have bought from them 6-7 times by now, without problems.

          I’ve read some criticism of their business model. First, they are a for-profit company. Some argue that they get students to donate their textbooks to them and they sell those that are sellable. They only donate those that are too old. I have no idea how true that is. Anyways, an old out-of-date textbook might still be useful.

    4. vlade

      To be honest, I don’t like Amazon’s work practices, but as far as I can see, Amazon at least does one thing – it doesn’t screw everyone (customers and suppliers) to enrich management.

      Top mgmt at Amazon pulls in not small amount of money, but most of it is in stock. Bezos has a salary of about 80k a year and no bonus (although he costs the company another 1.6m, providing undisclosed “security arrangements and travel”, whatever that is). Salaries of other C-suite are also relatively modes around 160-170k (compare with banks), although they can get substantial (as in around 15m in stock in 2012) bonuses in a “good year” – but then they got nil in 2011 too, unlike a number of bank execs.

      So it’s really customer who benefits most. I’d also say that while suppliers are being screwed, they also do get some benefit (as evidenced even here) by making their product available to much wider audience they could ever hope in an old brick&mortar. Of course, all that done while using as cheap a workforce as possible.

      Of course, the problem of screwing the workforce is that if everyone does it, the purchasing power disappears, so the whole economy is worse off, so as a long-term strategy it just doesn’t work. But then the 60s model doesn’t work either where we have more and more population while also having more and more automation. So we need a very radical rethinking of how not only our society works, but the whole moral paradigm we have (in the sweat of your brow will you… well, maybe not anymore and it’s ok that it’s not?)

  3. Clive

    They (Amazon) really are despicable.

    As Yves says, Amazon is leitmotif for everything that is unwholesome about what is driving the “recovery”. The unwholesomeness is the treatment of labor. More details of their equally exploitative UK operations can be found here

    What is predicable, but nonetheless depressing, is that Amazon targets deprived areas, former industrial districts which were in the vanguard of globalisation’s initial shockwave in the late 1980’s and that have never really recovered. Rather than bringing high skill, high value, high prospects jobs, they bring modern day slavery. Workers who cannot live with Amazon’s regime and quit will find that, according to Social Security rules, they have “made themselves” unemployed and are ineligible for many types of welfare.

    It is ironic that the Amazon distribution warehouses are often in the same towns where there were “dark satanic mills” ( from the dawn of industrialisation. I don’t suppose for one minute that the great social reformers (e.g. would have ever dreamed that, nearly a centaury on, we’d all have to fight the same old battles again. Exactly. The. Same. Ones. In the same places too. It is amazing how fragile the achievements of a 100 years of progress have been shown to be.

    Please everyone, boycott Amazon. Yes, their search facility and product listings are first-rate. As is their dominance of the search engine listings. But once you’ve found what you are looking for, it’s usually trivial to go direct to the vendor, supplier or publisher and purchase from there. This way, Amazon gets to pay the costs of the pre-sale process without getting the revenue from the actual sale. Boycotts do work. And what’s the alternative ? Continuing to prop them up by your spending £’s/$’s/Euro’s there ?

  4. John

    I am sure everyone saw the puff piece about Amazon Prime Air delivery service. The first thing that struck me was the lack of human interaction at the facility launch. Not a single Amazon employee was engaged in the launch of the package in the video. Very sterile and I am sure that was not an accident. Companies such as Amazon see workers as burdensome costs that should needs to be reduced or eliminated.

    I use to shop regularly on but no longer. We pay for the “low cost” strategy in other forms such as in higher unemployment, shrinking middle-class, more pollution because they shifted production to countries with lax environmental laws, reduced tax base, crumbling infrastructure, etc….

    Unfortunately, political analysts and economic theory preach low cost products and services are good for you while ignoring overall impacts. What we have are policies that are indeed costing us socially big time.

    1. theta

      If the problem is sweatshop conditions, then the replacement of workers with robots should solve it, no?
      But I suspect that is not really the problem. The real possible is rising income inequality and frankly I cannot see this changing at the source (it’s the nature of capitalism). What I suspect will change, and at the very least alleviate the consequences of this inequality is increased taxation and welfare state. My personal preference would be a guaranteed unconditional minimum income allowing acceptable minimum living standards (replacing all other benefits, thus having the positive side effect of reduced admin cost), funded by higher taxation, at a more progressive scale, and one focusing more on land as opposed to labour. In that scenario robots taking over the lower end of the job spectrum is a win win for everybody. The Amazons of the world and their former workers will both enjoy the resulting productivity gains. Even if the distribution for that additional gain is 99-1, they will still both be better off.
      The tricky part is establishing this guaranteed unconditional minimum income (plus perhaps additional universal high quality services, such as healthcare and education). This is where the focus should be, not in trying to stop Amazon from maximizing its profits, a futile attempt, given the lack of appropriate social welfare structures and current trends in technology and globalization.

      1. from Mexico


        Your comment and that of sporble (below) are, up to this moment, my two favorites on this thread. Germany is billed as a workers’ paradise, a neoliberal success story where neoliberalism has been good for everyone, including workers.

        The neoliberal rollout began in earnest in Germany with the Hartz Commission, later expanded with Agenda 2010 labor “reforms.” These began under Chancellor Schroeder in the early 2000s. They curtailed the power of labor unions, greatly enhanced the powers of employers to hire and fire at will, and drastically cut unemployment benefits.

        So the take-home statement from the post is this one: “But Amazon has been particularly abusive in Germany…” And here’s the crux of the matter: What does this say about the German neoliberal workers’ paradise?

        Germany’s neoliberal labor “reforms” are generally credited for the rise of German ‘competiveness.’ Wages in Germany fell in absolute terms at the same time German GDP rose rapidly. Wages in Germany fell relative to other countries in the Eurozone.

        This meant domestic consumpition was held down. This created superfluous production that was not consumed within Germany. This superfluous production was exported, making Germany an export powerhouse. The owners of the superfluous production under the new neoliberal regime — Germany’s greatly enriched ownership class — offered seller financing to consumers in the other countries of the Eurozone. Unsustainable trade imbalances and the large accumulation of debt of all but four of the other members of the Eurozone resulted.

        Unfortunately, debt collection more often than not devolves into the Mafia variety: sending the Cosa Nostra goons to break some legs. Germany’s enforcers in the Eurozone context are the comprador bourgeoisie, the political leaders in countries like Greece and Spain who the German overlords buy and sell like so many playthings.

        1. ChrisCairns

          Great point. If Amazon is operating in your country, you are in a low wage part of the world where there is a surplus of workers willing to work under such conditions.

          Inevitably, these jobs will be replaced by robotics as technology improves and cost comes down with scale.

          So good, we all get more leisure? Yes, but it might be imposed upon you and without the means to provide for yourself and your family – a real living income from the State – you are going to be hungry and living on the margin. This is the real battle, taxing capital and the rich, inheritance taxes and so on, so that the State can provide a reasonable life for those who are unable to find work.

          Nah, not going to happen here or anywhere.

      2. John

        I am stunned to see people still adhering to the Amazon capitalism model, as if there is no other way to make a profit. Yes, people can make a difference by voting with their feet and shop elsewhere. By the way, CO-OPs work fine, are more socially responsible than their greedy capitalist models as practiced by McDonald’s, Amazon, etc. and should be practiced a whole lot more.

        There is a high cost to low cost, winner take all strategies employed by capitalists — as executed by the likes of Amazon, Wal-Mart, etc… The real culprit of the inequality you mention is the ability of capitalists to shift production overseas to “lower costs” — to places with lower production costs. By design US workers are in direct competition with Vietnamese workers, for instance. This capitalist strategy has caused the US to be in a trade deficit in the neighborhood of $8T.

        What is left? High unemployment and high social costs. With such massive unemployment why should the capitalist pay more?

        The McDonalds, Amazon, etc… strategy enriches the few at the expense of the many — hence inequality.

        What you are asking for is a political solution as practiced in many countries such as in Europe and Australia. In these countries governments impose mandatory annual indexed COLAs to many industry sectors. Even there, capitalists are clamoring to knock down the indexes.

    2. Waking Up

      Amazon’s method for eliminating those pesky UPS, FED Ex and postal service workers and drivers…just deliver via drone. For years I have felt that CEO Jeff Bezos is someone who feels contempt for most people.

  5. sporble

    I’m all for people earning a good/fair wage, and I’m not a fan of amazon. And I’ve been living in Germany for 17+ years. That said:

    The “national labor union” you refer to is Verdi and, IMHO, they sometimes seem to be more concerned with their own profile/making headlines than with truly helping the workers. From the Tagesspiegel (German newspaper in Berlin – German only:
    “Die Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft rief die Beschäftigten vom frühen Morgen an zu einem ganztägigen Ausstand auf. Zudem reist eine Verdi-Delegation nach Seattle, um vor dem Firmensitz des US-Branchenriesen zu demonstrieren…”
    My quick-and-dirty translation: The union called the workers to a whole-day strike, starting in the early morning. Furthermore, a Verdi delegation will travel to Seattle to demonstrate in front of the US company HQ”.
    I pity the poor Verdi folks getting an all-expenses-paid trip to Seattle. Talk about oozing solidarity.

    The fight – which has been going on since summer – is over the classification (and pay) of the work being done. Verdi claims the workers should be paid according to Retail Workers standards; Amazon has been paying according to Logistics standards.

    Some numbers: starting wage in Amazon’s center in Leipzig is €9.55, goes up to €10.47 in the 2nd year, then €10.99 in the 3rd year. If the workers were treated as Retail (and not Logistics, as they are now), they would receive €11.39 (same in all 3 years). According to the Logistics industry, they should receive €9.17 in the 1st year and €9.61 in the 2nd and 3rd years. (Source – again, German only:
    Amazon is truly paying above this minimum (as they claim); whether that’s “good/fair” I cannot say.

    For orientation: one figure being bandied around for a proposed national minimum wage is €8.50/hr.

    I do enjoy your website and writing, but I feel the tone of this piece is not objective enough and below your usual excellent standard. Only a small part of the article is truly about Germany, contradicting the headline. And: the workers aren’t fighting against “sweatshop conditions”; they’re fighting for a different classification of their work (and the additional pay that would entail.) I personally hope they win.

    1. Banger

      Good comment, thanks, there is so little reporting on Europe in the American mainstream media it is always good to get something from those who live there–this is one site that has a good deal of input from Europe and not just the U.S. I think, in the USA, we are sensitive to the Walmartization of the labor force which has become the trend here. Low-pay, dreadful working conditions, management tactics that would make feudal lords blush, and so on. Work need not be demeaning and miserable. All this may or may not be a trend in Germany but I guess we’ll see over time how it works out.

    2. BigRed

      The 8.50 are “bandied about” by the neoliberal two-some of SPD and Greens, who brought us the Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV. The parties even further to the right oppose it.

      How about talking about The Left and their proposal of 10 euros instead? (which would still be too low)

      Because let’s do the math on the smokescreen minimum salary:

      8.50 for four weeks of 40 hours per month comes in at 1,360 euros. Per year at 16,320, which leads to a tax rate of roughly 11 percent, if I interpret Wikipedia correctly. This is better than poverty line but not great. In particular would life earnings at this level mean that pensions fall below poverty line. So Amazon paying better than this is nothing to crow about.

      But Amazon is not the scumbag in this story. Amazon does what companies do and maximizes profit. The scumbags can be found in the political class, which enables this kind of behavior.

      1. Waking Up

        Amazon IS as scumbag as the politicians who enable this behavior since Amazon provides money and lobbyists which directly bring about these results.

    3. Foppe

      Are those numbers relevant to subcontracted workers? Or do they apply only to workers already hired by Amazon directly?

    4. Yves Smith Post author

      I stand by the headline.

      1. The workers are also objecting to the intensive surveillance which is used to whip workers to meet productivity targets which various accounts deem to be unattainable. Pushing someone to work physically beyond their capacity, in conditions which are often sub par (Amazon is famed for under airconditioned and heated premises) is pretty much the definition of sweatshop labor.

      2. Your depiction of wages omits the fact that most of the workers are temps (14,000 versus 9,000 “associates”). In the UK, they were hired through agencies and paid one pence above the minimum permitted. Your figures similarly refer to full time workers (that’s typically the only information Amazon releases; what temps get on a net basis in other countries has been found out only via journalistic efforts, and I haven’t seen any English language reporting on this issue).

      1. bob goodwin

        I was in the belly of the beast. It is all true. Amazon pays market rate and no more, and then squeezes hardest.

  6. middle seaman

    Avoiding Amazon is marginal at best. Books are sold by others who also mistreat their employees. We can run but not hide. A change can only come with a major political and social change. Reform the Democrats, stop binge buying, support workers and unions.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      At a small bookstore, you have a lot more dignity even if the pay sucks there too. And you can read books when the store is empty.

    2. diptherio

      Not giving your business to capitalists who you know mistreat their employees is an ethical obligation. There are places, in real life and on-line, that sell everything Amazon does and at least some of those don’t mistreat their workers at all, and many treat their workers considerably better. It’s not that hard to find a more humane environment in which to make your purchases. If you choose not to do that, then you are helping support the less ethical business model and thus share in the guilt.

      You say you want political and social change and that only those things will make any real difference? Well it seems to me that if people refused to spend money at unethical businesses, that in and of itself would be a major social and political change. Boycotts and buying local are definitely not the entire solution to the problems we face, but that doesn’t mean that they are not useful in creating those solutions. Multiplicity of tactics, brother, that’s the ticket.

      And besides, there is no excuse for supporting evil when good is only a few clicks away.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Completely agree with you Diptherio, but that strategy does require some knowledge of places that treat their workers well and those that don’t. That is what is currently missing and I suppose it would be a difficult thing to establish a site with such a purpose (the good, the bad and the ugly) on the net unless one had a lot of free legal resources.

      2. Ulysses

        “It’s not that hard to find a more humane environment in which to make your purchases. If you choose not to do that, then you are helping support the less ethical business model and thus share in the guilt.”

        Yes, and now there are many ways to discover how well or poorly businesses treat workers. For example, before eating at a restaurant you can check out:

        When consumers in a community begin to avoid the worst and patronize the better employers a virtuous cycle begins to raise the living standards for everyone. Here’s a good resource for learning more about alternatives to Walmart, Amazon, etc.:

        A little solidarity goes a long way… when some carwash workers here in Queens unionized, some of my Teamster and building trade union friends decided to make their places the busiest in the county. The increase in business has helped reduce tensions with ownership and the “carwasheros” love the generous tips given by electricians, plumbers, and truckers!

  7. gonzomarx

    How Amazon works it’s magic on small businesses

    Ethical cosmetics company Lush takes ‘bullying’ Amazon to court
    As trademark case looms, Lush’s boss says online giant practises ‘piracy capitalism’

    “Constantine said Amazon’s alleged infringement of Lush’s intellectual property was a “way of bullying businesses to use its services and we refused”. In an interview in the New Review examining how Amazon operates, he said: “We’ve been in the high court this week to sue it for breach of trademark. It’s cost us half a million pounds so far to defend our business. Most companies just can’t afford that. But we’ve done it because it’s a matter of principle. [Amazon] keeps forcing your hand and yet it doesn’t have a viable business model. The only way it can afford to run it is by not paying tax. If it had to behave in a more conventional way, it would struggle.”

    1. sleepy

      I have had several friends who worked at FedEx’s superhub sorting facility in Memphis for somewhat above minimum wage while in college. From what they said, it sounds similar to the Amazon warehouses. And as usual, aside from its pilots, FedEx has no unions.

      I believe FedEx was among the first to implement the just-in-time logistics, cheap labor, model. As a result, Memphis is full of vast “fulfillment centers” which tie-in directly to the FedEx op.

      Fortunately for my friends, they were working their way through school and it wasn’t a permanent situation..

    2. J.Patrick Dore

      The working conditions at amazon warehouses sound like the norm for warehouses. Have you ever heard of a life affirming job at a warehouse? I worked at a few, they all sucked hard, and you had to work in horrible heat and super cold.

      I was also a bricklayer that worked in the sun in 100 degree heat. Lots of jobs are horrible and suck. The answer to all the complaints here are strong unions and a political class that is responsive to its citizens and not its donors.

  8. DakotabornKansan

    Edward Bernays would be proud of Jeff Bezos.

    Bezos is another “great American success story.” There exists a tremendous amount of admiration for him. Bezos is “awesome and an absolute genius!”

    And there is a whole lot of love for Amazon. People love bargains and Amazon has them in spades. The upper middle class, who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Walmart, enjoy shopping on Amazon. It is much more ‘royal’ to deplore cheap goods at Walmart for the hapless proles than it is to deplore cheap goods for oneself on Amazon. Amazon appeals to its large loyal customer base with low prices and great customer service.

    However, Amazon is not a great company story. Amazon is ruthless.

    Bezos is a billionaire megalomaniac.

    “I think that Napoleon was a terrific guy before he started crossing national borders. Over the course of time, his temperament changed, and his behavior was insensitive to the nations he occupied.

    Through greed—which it sees differently, as technological development and efficiency for the customer and low price, all that—[Amazon] has walked itself into the position of thinking that it can thrive without the assistance of anyone else. That is megalomania.” – Andrew Wylie, literary agent

    Excerpt from Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon:

    “In a way, the entire company is built around his brain—an amplification machine meant to disseminate his ingenuity and drive across the greatest possible radius. ‘It’s scaffolding to magnify the thinking embodied by Jeff…Now everyone is expected to think as much as they can like Jeff.’”

    [i.e., extorted money creates the foundation on which everyday low prices become possible]

    James Marcus, “The Mercenary Position,” Harper’s Magazine [paywall]:

    “Bezos classifies his giant, competition-quashing creation as a missionary enterprise — the Sisters of Charity with free shipping thrown in. Many of Amazon’s competitors would likely disagree. Book publishers in particular have seen little righteousness in the company’s goals…

    “Amazon has shown a peculiar genius when it comes to squeezing more dollars out of publishers, including university presses and indies that can ill afford to shave their margins any further. The company’s initial foray into shaking down these vulnerable parties was called the Gazelle Project, because Bezos had suggested that “Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” The legal team quickly rechristened it the Small Publisher Negotiation Program. (A similar program in Europe went from Pay to Play to the more sanitized Vendor Realignment.)…

    “…some publishers are now being pressured to pay the equivalent of 1 percent of their annual net sales to Amazon — levied on top of any existing fees — simply for the privilege of presenting their lists to the marketing team and buyers…failure to pay will make it awfully hard to get an Amazon buyer on the phone.

    “Amazon’s control of an estimated 65 percent of the e-book market, a near monopoly that’s apparently of no concern to the supine Department of Justice. So is its bare-bones price of $9.99 for popular e-books, a loss-leading tactic that might be classified as predatory pricing if there weren’t so many legal hurdles to making such a charge stick.”

    [a missionary enterprise? Smells more like mercenary behavior to me]

    1. rps

      “People love bargains and Amazon has them in spades…..”
      I haven’t had the experience of great bargains; at least not any more so than big box stores advertising loss leader items.
      Amazon is simply time saving Convenience online retailer. Most of us are Alice’s white rabbit “I’m late, I’m late” in our time deprived lives. Ordering online is quick and easy without the hassle of going to a mall, wandering the stores, aisles, shelves, racks, standing in the checkout line, trudging back home and of course the ‘no tax’. Then again, paying for shipping is the trade-off. Simply, we all do it with a couple of clicks and presto package is on its way. The best deal for books hardcover or online are at the public libraries, university libraries, Library of Congress, etc…. dependent on your tablet you can download/borrow online books

    2. bob goodwin

      I was the manager that built the first software for that 65% ebook market. We won that market with incredibly hard work and a large risk investment from Jeff. The publishers fought us tooth and nail, and I had numerous conversations on how to convert their library into ebooks. They did not want eBooks for good reason, (they could not say no because they needed Amazon revenue, so would draaaag you out as much as they could,) But the customer (in retrospect) did want ebooks for good reason. The $9.99 price point was essential to ‘prime’ the pump of people willing to pay for ebooks. 90% of the VPs at Amazon felt that NOBODY would pay 99 cents for ANY digital reading content because of the internet. Creating a market from scratch is no small thing. 20% of the books that were sold in the first few years were sold at a loss. If the book had a $26 retail price, then Amazon had to pay $13 and sell it for $9.99. Of course the publishers thought this would lower prices in the long term per book. But it has not lowered total revenue in what was supposed to be a sunset industry. Publishing is a tough business, and does not seem like a sustainable business practice. Publishers upfront the authors pay, print and distribute. The lose money on 80% of books, and make it up on a few block busters. How is that relevant anymore? I know exactly how to print, distribute and promote a book and be as effective. It is just the upfront now?

      But Amazon is monopolistic, and it is brutal. But all of high-tech is monopolistic because unprotected software markets go to 0% profit in 6 months. Only Amazon is a low margin tech biz.

  9. Bridget

    There is another side to the Amazon story… is wonderful for the consumer. Particularly for people like me who would rather take a beating than shop in any brick and mortar store. No more trips all over town looking for difficult to find items. Shop from your bed at midnight, or when stuck in traffic. Get product reviews from other buyers to help make purchase decisions. Amazon transformed Christmas for me from a dreaded ordeal to a semi pleasant experience.

    But I have read the articles about working conditions in the warehouses. As a Prime member, I am usually offered several shipping options at checkout. Instead of the shortest next day free shipping, I choose 2-3 day free shipping, hoping that my orders create less stress for the pickers and packers.

  10. diptherio

    This entire sentence needs to be deleted: “But Amazon has been particularly abusive in Germany, as reported in a February 2013 documentary. A summary from the Independent:”

  11. diptherio

    Comedian and pundit Jimmy Dore (whom I adore, for the most part) unfortunately gets kick-backs from Amazon to fund his show, and so encourages people to shop there. I was just giving him sh*t about it on Twitter (@jimmy_dore, btw) and here is his response (so far).

    @jimmy_dore 5m
    @diptherio I was a brick layer 4 12 yrs, & worked nights at a warehouse loading & picking, my jobs were harder. Support unions -solution.

    My reply: Supporting unions and supporting Amazon are opposites. Did your bosses send fake police to search your home? Amazon does.

  12. Waking Up

    From The Nation, “Ten Reasons to Avoid”:

    1. Amazon Dodges Taxes and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Doesn’t Contribute to Local Economies Through Charity
    2. Amazon’s Business Model Is Monopolistic
    3. Amazon Contributes to the Demise of Small, Independent Businesses
    4. Amazon Collects Your Information
    5. Amazon Removed WikiLeaks from its Cloud Server
    6. Amazon Was a Long-time Member of ALEC
    7. Amazon Fights Unionization
    8. Amazon Abuses Its Workers
    9. Amazon Has Turned Searching Into Another Way To Collect Users’ Information
    10. Amazon is JUST TOO BIG!

  13. Hugh

    Nah, nah, you have this all wrong. You have to look at it from Amazon’s point of view. Its workers are associates because Amazon cares about them so much. They are all part of one big family. If Amazon pays them so little, it’s because they don’t want to taint this loving relationship with money. And overheated sweatshop conditions??? Think spas on the move. It’s a perk, folks. You just aren’t seeing it. Same with those 7 to 15 miles. It’s a fitness program in the best high culture Nietzschean tradition. If you survive it, it only makes you stronger, at least until the joints start to go.

  14. Brooklin Bridge

    Home Depot, according to an employee I spoke to recently, is also changing over to a much higher percentage of temporary workers. It used to have a pretty good relationship with it’s employees, or at least most of the ones I spoke to on the subject. That is likely changing if they are indeed moving to a temp worker model. Does this have to do with ACA? Anyway, this employee was an elderly gentleman and I was a little surprised to find him quite aware that both sides of our narrow political spectrum (the Tweedledees and the Tweedledums) are equally at fault; grabbing everything in sight that doesn’t belong to them that they can while they can. Perhaps I need to re-calibrate my notion of how limited the general awareness is of what is happening.

    Be that as it may, I’m starting to look for small outlets, Mom and Pop shops when possible, for all my needs and I’ve more or less stopped shopping on the web (never did much of it anyway and now the interesting places are far far beyond the web-search event horizon if they are there at all anymore). This isn’t about just Amazon or Home Depot or WalFart. It’s about a full blown war – economic, legal, social, political – against the middle class, the elderly and the poor. I don’t think the aim is to make slaves out of these people as much as it is to exploit them as much as possible -no problem with slavery if that’s what it takes- while they are still around and I suspect that the resemblance of the logical consequence of this process to an indirect form of slow motion genocide is not considered a particularly bad thing.

    Anyone know of a website that keeps lists of US based companies, particularly outlets, that are treating workers well or poorly?

    1. bob goodwin

      This was pure PR. The day before black Friday. I also know that Jeff NEVER discusses a business advantage in public. Conspicuous PR.

  15. JTFaraday

    ““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.”

    You just knew those opposable thumbs would come in handy some day…

  16. tim Gawne

    Supply and demand, people, supply and demand.

    If the rich can import workers from the overpopulated third-world, well, this is what will happen.

    Cut off immigration, and this problem will go away. Refuse to do so, and watch as we all descend to the level of Bangladesh or Pakistan.

    It’s that simple.


  17. bob goodwin

    I had a senior position at Amazon for several years, and know the people that wrote the warehouse software, and know the guy who was promoted and retired young for building the efficiency of the fulfillment centers. All of what is written in the article is directionally, and probably factually true. Amazon doesn’t try to hide it. Even though I was paid well, I can tell you that there are no nice jobs anywhere in Amazon. The only person that matters is the customer. I can tell you amazing stories about being a customer. They have so much evidence about how to detect who is a valuable customer, and how to go to the ends of the earth to overcome a bad experience. But employees mean nothing, and ALL (I really mean 100%) of them can and will be replaced. Jeff had his mother and wife blistered working the centers during Christmas season for years. He is proud of how hard it is. He is not worried about the PR, and will openly say that backing down for anything except the customer is dangerous.

    On the software side (I know this, I saw the data), there was data on every employee, and where they were at what second of what day with which product. I saw charts of 99% employee behavior vs. 90% vs 50%. There were experiments with what to communicate to employees and what to communicate to bosses, and what percentage of people were not worth keeping. There were models of excess capacity, training time, and variations in demand, of length of working hours. Information is enormously effective. But I was also on the receiving end of that punitive information even more in my position. I wasn’t in fulfillment centers, but it doesn’t matter. A metric is a metric, and managers and above only exist to maintain metrics. When worker productivity falls, or products go out late, or product shrinkage happens it is noticed immediately, and we were expected to have a remediation plan immediately. Nothing in amazon is elegant. All of the ‘boots’ fit badly, as a metaphor, from the software, to the management, to the strategy. It was get the numbers or move on.

    Jeff believes in his heart of hearts that you only need to do a few things great, and everything else is fungible. Make and keep promises to customers. Measure everything. Push everything else to the limit.

    I can guarantee you he has enough spare capacity to absorb any normal strike (I am sure he expected his managers to provide strike scenarios and have data on impact. I am sure he spent 10 meetings on this subject alone.) If a government action or a “long tail” strike occurred, he would probably wait it out, or back out of the market, or relocate the plant. He does not accept anything except a customer or a metric to change his mind. He will keep firing VPs until he gets what he wants. I have seen it. I have felt it.

    I know Jeff pretty well over 20 or so meetings. He has built a sociopathic management structure that is generous to those who hold the numbers. But he is truly smart, and almost impossible not to like (you aren’t in the room unless you like the power of information). He believes that to be the best you have to sacrifice everything that is not primary, and you cannot allow any one person, or one plant, or one law to undermine the plan.

    But because I like the man so much personally, I will say that he is making a rational argument that I would be unable to implement. Successful companies are the ones that are 2 or 3 percent better than the pack. Retail is low margin. Whether it is Jeff or someone else, the winner is going to be the person who squeezes the hardest.

    Jeff is investing all his profits into robots. Warehouses should have few people. But he will hire 2 customer support people for every fulfilment job replaced with a robot. He also wants to start doing small robotic manufacturing in cities. This is going to happen, can’t be stopped, and Jeff wants to lead the way.

    I have been in debates on the “Amazon” approach in a lot of different situations because of my proximity to Jeff for a few years. Few believe that it works outside of markets where margin is small and execution is critical. It is brutal and punitive but successful. But the larger question is the convergence of Materialism (high control, winner by 2% takes all) and Informationalism (27 year old single man that lasts for 3 weeks at 125% of average capacity can be driven at the same rate for 13 more weeks with 10% bonuses and 3 reminders per day) is going to create a backlash. Materialism requires lies and a full stomach to keep the masses happy, and Jeff isn’t playing this game.

    Informationalism will be more effective at exposing the powerful than manipulating the weak. But right now the powerful have control of information. They cannot sustain it. Snowden proved that. We should all be careful of the word ‘privacy’. We think that privacy protects the weak from the powerful. It does not. This privacy is long gone, and the younger generation knows it and does not care. The word privacy is now used in a cynical game. The full transformation from materialism to informationalism will not happen until there is near full transparency. The materialists prefer not, and will scream about the violation of privacy. Remember who is really protected. Google is trying to monetize information, but informationalism hurts them too. They cannot monetize without captive information.

    Ultimately informationalism is what stops abusers, but there will be abuses during the long transition.

  18. Chris

    There are middle class jobs being created. Look at Chicago and the web software scene. Those are high skilled, high wage jobs being created, and in many cases there aren’t enough people to fill open positions. Look at the demand for iOS developers for example. Granted, these aren’t high volume positions – but can we expect high volume employment like we have in manufacturing in an increasingly automated economy?

    The warehouse workers are a prime example of low skilled labor, perfectly suited for machines. It’s mindless work. What those people lack are marketable skills – the only reason they are there is because Amazon doesn’t have a machine that can pick up odd sized products well. If I was working there, I would be investing in skills that a machine can’t do. Or invest in skills to build the machine to do the work for me :)

    The biggest challenge of the new economy is to create demand for more high skilled specialized jobs only humans can do.

    1. fajensen

      No, the reason “they are there” is that Amazon does not want to pay for robots when “Hartz-4 slaves” are readily available in volume. One will notice that automation does in fact not happen on dirty and dangerous jobs with crap aircon e.t.c. – because the machines need better conditions that humans or they will break. Of course the humans break too, but Society pick up the bill for that!

      If *I* was working there, then after a while, I might seriously consider torching the place. While in prison I will get a roof over me head, heating, free food, and possibly even vocational training – things I can never afford on sub-minimum wage. A trip to “school” will not damage my career prospects in the new e-con-me, one might even get some useful contacts.

  19. patrick

    Nothing in this article sounds horrible, in fact I can think off 10 jobs of the top of my head that are harder than working at an amazon warehouse, and I’ve done harder jobs too. Brick layers, UPS warehouse workers, Coal Miners, Crab Fishermen, roofers, tuck pointers …..all harder jobs than working at an amazon warehouse.

    The problem we have here is unionization. We need to push for unions and strong labor laws. We will never get rid of wall mart or amazon, we need to change them with the power of unions.

    Not shopping at amazon will not accomplish the goal of a living wage, unions will.

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