The Verge has broken an important story on how far Amazon has gone in its relentless efforts to crush workers. Despite its glitzy Internet image, Amazon’s operations depend heavily on manual labor to assemble, pack, and ship orders. Its warehouses are sweatshops, with workers monitored constantly and pressed to meet physically daunting productivity goals. Indeed, many of its warehouses were literally sweatshops, reaching as much as 100 degrees in the summer until bad press embarrassed the giant retailer into installing air conditioners. In Germany, a documentary exposed that Amazon hired neo-Nazi security guards to intimidate foreign, often illegal, hires it had recruited and was housing in crowded company-organized housing. Amazon also fought and won a Supreme Court case to escape compensating its poorly-paid warehouse workers for time they spend in line at the end of shift, waiting for security checks.
Amazon’s latest “keep workers down” practice is to make temps sign non-competes. Yes, if you are so desperate and foolish as to take a short-term gig with Amazon, you will be barred from working for virtually anyone else for the next eighteen months. Look at how incredibly broad the language is in the non-compete agreement obtained by The Verge (hat tip MF):
During employment and for 18 months after the Separation Date, Employee will not, directly or indirectly, whether on Employee’s own behalf or on behalf of any other entity (for example, as an employee, agent, partner, or consultant), engage in or support the development, manufacture, marketing, or sale of any product or service that competes or is intended to compete with any product or service sold, offered, or otherwise provided by Amazon (or intended to be sold, offered, or otherwise provided by Amazon in the future) that Employee worked on or supported, or about which Employee obtained or received Confidential Information.
Pray tell, what possible employers are not included, given how sweeping these terms are? A cleaning service? Nah, Amazon sells Roombas and vacuum cleaners, so you’d be competing indirectly with them. A receptionist in a dentist’s office? Nope, Amazon sells tooth whitening products. A massage therapist? No, Amazon sells electronic massage devices. Working as a gym? No, Amazon sells home exercise equipment. And note that this includes “intended to be old, offered, or otherwise provided by Amazon in the future.” Amazon temps are precluded from competing with Amazon vaporware too.
Not only is this agreement eye-poppingly broad in terms of product/service range, but Amazon also means for it to be far-reaching from a geographic perspective. From the Verge account:
“Employee recognizes that the restrictions in this section 4 may significantly limit Employee’s future flexibility in many ways,” the agreement asserts, referencing the section containing the noncompete agreement and three other clauses. “Employee further recognizes that the geographic areas for many of Amazon’s products and services — and, by extension, the geographic areas applicable to certain restrictions in this Section 4 — are extremely broad and in many cases worldwide.”
Now I have my doubts as to how much success Amazon would have in enforcing this contract in a lot of non-US jurisdictions. But the Seattle retailer goes to great lengths to turn a short-term warehouse gig into a bar to future employment. Consider Verve’s description of this provision:
The contract — which was obtained through applying and being accepted to a seasonal Amazon warehouse position — even includes a provision that requires employees who sign it to “disclose and provide a true and correct copy of this Agreement to any prospective new employer […] BEFORE accepting employment[…]”
The intent is to create a captive pool of Amazon temps, who will be forced to accept whatever crappy pay and conditions the retailer offers by virtue of being barred from virtually any other job.
Verge said it was not able to determine whether Amazon had attempted to enforce these captive labor agreements, but pointed out that the company had been extremely aggressive in pursuing non-compete case against white-collar employees. And some, perhaps many, of the workers who are aware of these clauses do feel the need to obtain consent, which at a minimum creates an obstacle to getting hired by a new firm:
Lee wants to continue her seasonal work at Amazon, and because of the noncompete that she’s signed, she would be careful if she were to apply for a second job at an Amazon competitor like Sam’s Club, the wholesale subsidiary of Walmart. Lee says, in this hypothetical scenario, she would be clear with the hiring agents at Sam’s Club about the noncompete she’d signed at Amazon and would also contact Amazon to ask for permission for working at Sam’s Club.
In the story, Lee bends over backwards to present Amazon as nicer than WalMart, which is a low bar, and to stress that she’s grateful for the holiday work. But it’s not hard to see the implications. It’s hard enough for low-wage candidates to land an offer. The notion that a prospective employer will go through the hoops of obtaining consent seems unlikely, particularly since many temp or short-term gigs want the candidate to start immediately. It’s easier to rescind the offer and pick the next in the long line of applicants. And even if the prospective employer has the time and inclination to obtain Amazon’s consent, Amazon can refuse to give it, or achieve the same effect by being really slow in providing it.
Verge describes how practices like this feed the growth of McJobs and accelerate the rush to the bottom in work conditions:
In this way, noncompetes can exacerbate structural inequalities in the current job market, inequalities which themselves make noncompetes easier for companies to demand. In America’s post-recession economy, job seekers continue to vastly outnumber openings for good jobs. In this setting, workers don’t have much leverage when haggling with employers over terms and conditions of work. One effect of this has been the expansion of the so-called “gig economy”, where apps like Uber and TaskRabbit draw on a pool of freelancers ready to perform quick jobs that become available with no attendant promise of benefits or job security. Large numbers of unemployed and underemployed have also fueled the boom in temp-agency staffing that has accounted for significant portions of the country’s post-recession job gains.
A lack of negotiating power can lead workers to sign noncompete contracts, [Orly] Lobel [a professor of labor and employment law at University of San Diego] says, and those contracts further erode their negotiating power. Because noncompetes make job loss more perilous by limiting post-employment opportunities, the agreements can tether workers to their current job, making them less likely to address grievances with management or attempt to look for better or more fitting work. says, and those contracts further erode their negotiating power.
Even though a labor lawyer who reviewed the agreement questioned whether it would be enforceable, given how short a temporary role at Amazon would be versus the post-employment restriction, and the lack of employee access to trade secret information, they are likely to have a chilling since a low-pay worker who understood the reach of the agreement could fear incurring the wrath of Amazon.
It’s time to boycott Amazon. Tell your friends to shun them. It’s time to recognize that the supposed neoliberal paradise of cheap and easy shopping comes at the expense of workers, and hence society as a whole. You pay for what you get, and stumping up for better conditions for employees means spending more. Take your business from Amazon and give it to more ethical retailers.