Working for Amazon: Better Than Sex, Worse Than Hell (Part 1)

The following narratives were assembled from oral and written contributions from Employees J, K, and L, three individuals with recent Amazon warehouse work experience.  All three provided general information, while J related the personal experiences in today’s episode and K those in tomorrow’s.  All three employees reviewed the final draft for accuracy and fidelity to their experiences.

If you live somewhere in flyover country like I do, you might have seen billboard ads for jobs at an Amazon warehouse. That’s where I work, and my shift has just begun.  I carry around a small device called a scanner.  It asks me:

How do you feel about working at Amazon?

(1) Great!

(2) Great!  I’m proud to work at Amazon!

I select the correct answer and begin my ten hour shift.

I work as a picker.  The scanner tells me to fetch a book on a particular shelf.  I hurry to the shelf, rummage through a box containing children’s toys, clothes, sex toys, and other assorted objects, and find the book.  I throw it into a tote on my cart and then the scanner tells me to get a new item.  When the tote is full, I put it on a conveyor belt.

It’s a bit like being a peon in Warcraft.  While trying to keep up with the target rate of 100-120 items an hour, I walk about 12 miles per shift.  As I hurry past the shelves, I’m always under surveillance.  Throughout the warehouse, there are videocameras every ten feet – literally.  Thousands and thousands of them.

You aren’t allowed to listen to music or audiobooks while working.  The stated reason is that it would represent a safety hazard, but you are allowed to wear earplugs to protect your eardrums from the incessant noise, so I’m not sure what’s up with that.  Sitting anywhere at any time is also considered a safety violation.  That, we are told, is why there are no chairs in the warehouse.  If five minutes ever passes without you accomplishing a task, the scanner informs management.  This, combined with the independent nature of each individual’s tasks, makes conversation a short random gift from the gods.

I’m not sure if I will have to come in for mandatory overtime this week.  They expect us to be available for at least one extra shift each week and sometimes give us only a day’s notice.  Thankfully I don’t have kids, so I don’t need to worry about scrambling to find child care when the automated phone call arrives.

There’s the quiz question again:

How do you feel about working at Amazon?

(1) Great!

(2) Great!  I’m proud to work at Amazon!

I’m about to select (2) as always, but I recently figured out that there’s a way to scroll down the screen (it involves an orange button and the number 8, in case you were curious).  This reveals two more answers:

(3) I wish I was working a job using different skills.

(4) Prefer not to answer.

“Huh, that’s funny,” I think to myself.  “I wonder how many other people never realized that there were extra answers.”  At any rate, the correct answer hasn’t changed, and so I select it.

A special time of year

Peak season arrives, and we are now required to work sixty hour weeks (six ten-hour shifts).  When I get off work, I hurry to do laundry and other necessary errands, and the rest of my time off is spent watching TV and Netflix.  I know I should do more, but my brain just wants to unwind.

My scanner has another question for me:

How do you feel about this statement?

“Amazon gives me all the training I need to do my job successfully.”

(A) strongly agree

(B) agree

(C) neither agree nor disagree

I’m about to respond, but mindful of my previous experience, I realize that there might be additional hidden answers.  I scroll down and, what do you know, there are two more options:

(D) disagree

(E) strongly disagree

As usual, the correct answer was in the first set.  I select it and continue with my shift.

Those of us who have stuck around for a while sometimes get rewarded by being assigned to “indirect work.”  This involves ten hour shifts of replenishing stacks of totes, taking them off conveyor belts, or emptying out large bins filled with used cardboard.  It’s just as monotonous as picking, but maybe managers think it breaks up the monotony of the week.  Sometimes I’ve talked to workers who are unhappy about missing out on these special assignments.  However, I’ve heard that they plan in the future to decide who gets indirect work based on a computer algorithm, and then there won’t be any basis for complaints about unfairness.

To interrupt the routine, I go to the only place in the warehouse without cameras in plain view: the bathroom.  Inside, a new factoid is posted above the urinal.  It reads:

When asked whether they had all the tools necessary to do their job correctly, 82% agreed or strongly agreed!  If you ever feel you do not have adequate training, please contact HR.

I’m stunned.  18% of the people did not give a positive response to an obviously loaded question that might threaten their company prospects??  You respond to the question after logging in, so it’s not like they don’t know who you are.

My ears start ringing

Despite wearing earplugs to muffle the noise of conveyor belts and other machinery, my ears have started ringing.  I go to an urgent care clinic and meet a professional doctor.  She talks to me compassionately for more than half an hour, gives me a small amount of Prednisone, and recommends wearing headphones over my earplugs at work.  In her official report, she says she suspects the symptoms are work-related.

The next day at work, I am grilled about my symptoms and sent to an occupational health clinic.  The Amazon-paid doctor I meet chats with me for ten minutes, glances at the other doctor’s report, and then tells me my symptoms are certainly not work-related.  “I’ve been in those warehouses before, and they’re not that loud,” he explains.  I told him the other doctor disagreed.  “They’re going to take my word over hers,” he answers.  “If the noise bothers you, maybe you could try wearing earplugs?”  I grit my teeth.

He’s right – the Amazon worker’s compensation people deny my request to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist.  I try to call them back and speak with the doctor, and receive a message telling me that he isn’t in and they can’t take messages.

It’s starting to seem really clear that I should have majored in econ and not English.

Some time later, after about half a year on the job, I decide to quit.  Of the twenty-some workers that signed up with me, only one is still there.

If you are still puzzled over the meaning of the title, read tomorrow’s installment, in which all will be made clear.

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  1. Tinky

    The report would have been more interesting and, perhaps, revealing, had the employee chosen the “incorrect” responses when quizzed by his Overlords.

    1. Crazy Horse

      Stop your whining, J. After all we live in a democracy where everybody has a free choice of occupation.

      If you are a young woman you can sell your body at a much higher rate than your soul commands at the Amazon marketplace, and with a thousand percent gain in freedom. Your work hours will be drastically reduced, and the sex can even occasionally be enjoyable. With all the free time you can build a hard body and train it in combat skills, then beat the s–t out of any client who plays rough.

      For straight men there is always the honorable profession of robbing the homes of Wall Street traders or politicians. Most of your fellow thieves will not be rocket scientists, providing opportunity for innovation and skill that can lead to a successful career. And if you get caught, prison is still a step up from working for the Snake.

      If you have a black skin, consider this: When your ancestors were slaves in the cotton fields they had enough freedom to develop their own form of music that eventually came to be preferred by the sons and daughters of the Masters. The plantation masters owned the body, but they never tried to create soulless automatons like today’s ultimate Malignant Overlord, Bezos.

    2. different clue

      The employee would have been fired near-immediately. In a world where No Money = You Die, it is good to have a job.

      Buyers of things will have to make hundreds of millions of individual buying decisions to help these Amazon workers in a broad coverage area and a diffuse way. What millions of buyers of hundreds of millions of things would have to do would be to cease buying anything from Amazon unless it were NOT AVAILABE anywhere else. For all “otherwise available” things, if millions of people predictably reliably buy their hundreds of millions of things at better-to-work-at stores, then those stores will know they can risk hiring more people to handle the more bussiness. They could even hire some of those people away from Amazon.

      1. Grebo

        I often do my research on Amazon but my purchasing on ebay, or further afield. But I have to wonder: how do I know the company I am buying from is not worse than Amazon?

        1. Chip

          You don’t. You go to a brick and mortar store and see how it looks, and how the employees seem to be treated and buy your item there.

        2. different clue

          It is hard to imagine any company being worse than Amazon. Still, someone should do the research and assemble the numbers comparing various mail-order companies along various metrics.

          One metric would be “amount of salaries/wages/benefits paid to employees per million dollars of bussiness done”. Those mail-order companies paying out the very lowers amount of worker-related costs per million dollars of money taken in could be considered the most dangerous in terms of spreading disemployment throughout the retail space.

          Another similar metric might be “number of people employed (at whatever cost) per million dollars of receipts taken in”. The more people employed, the more jobs created, obviously enough.

          Once again, I don’t know . . . but I suspect Amazon would be the worst and lowest in both those metrics. I don’t think you could go lower than Amazon and Ali Baba ( the Amazon of China from what I gather). Buying from anyone else, mail or landstore, would be less jobicidal. Maybe Walmart would approach Amazon for deliberate jobicidality.

  2. Ignacio

    This is orwellian. I have checked and something similar happens in Spain. Although most workers say that there is good atmosphere among employees some denounce that conditions are stressful and some report job instability. I wonder if conditions vary depending on laboral regulations in different countries.

    1. Ignacio

      Here is a comment from a former worker in an Amazon center in Madrid:

      He estado trabajando en el centro logistico de San Fernando de Henares y un experiencia unica en el mal sentido. No quieren personas sino maquinas, tienes que llegar a unos niveles de producción inexcusablemente ademas de tener una patata de sistemas de evaluación que no contemplan problemas durante la jornada los cuales hacen reducirte la misma. No existen descansos, es una jornada fisica y muy dura en la que te puede costar cualquier problema fisico. El unico descanso que hay es de tan solo 15 minutos el cual no se cumple el establecido por ley y tienes que poner 15 minutos mas de tu tiempo para tener un descanso mayor (30 minutos). Bueno, todo esto ya está comunicado a las autoridades competentes que supongo tomará medidas en el asunto. Animo y valor para los que continuen y que no les cueste algun problema de salud porque en definitiva es lo que importa

      (Oct 14th 2016)

      Translation: I’ve worked in SFH logistics center and it has been a unique experience for the worst. They want machines, not persons. You have to inexcusably achieve certain productivity level and the review/evaluation system is (literally) “a potato” (useless) since (technical) problems arising during the workday are not accounted and deducted on your total hours. There are not breaks. The workday is physical and tough and it can result in health problems. There is only one 15 min break (less than labor laws stablish) and if you expand it to 30 min is at your expense. Well, I have denounced all this to the competent authorities and I suppose something will be done. Well, I encourage all those who continue to work there hoping they don’t have health problems. Health is what matters the most!

  3. craazyman

    How do you feel about shopping at Amazon?

    a) I feel like I’m a god walking among the ants of humanity
    b) Better than I’d feel if I was working there, that’s for sure
    c) Like Scarlett O’Hara looking down at the cotton fields from the porch at Tara
    d) I don’t feel anymore, I just consume
    e) all of the above

    Do you believe Amazon should install suicide nets at their warehouses like Foxconn did in China?

    a) No. People can’t jump when they’re at ground level
    b) Not if it hurts earnings per share. I own the stock.
    c) Yes, but only if they do it in a humane way
    d) Install them as a smart phone app and let workers download them if they need them
    e) No. It would be a safety hazard.

    If Jesus returned from the sky and landed at an Amazon warehouse, He would:

    a) Raise one arm like on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and send it down to you know where
    b) Look for Pontius Pilate, believing he was in Roman-occupied Judea
    c) Think it was inefficient, since they can’t multiply loaves and fishes and can only move them around
    d) Weep
    e) Think nobody’s learned anything in 2000 years

  4. james wordsworth

    That’s how efficiency works. Instead of retail workers standing around waiting for customers most of the day, Amazon workers get to walk 12 miles a day. So Amazon can give better prices (lower labor costs) and the worker gets to exercise on the job and will be healthier as a result. Win win.

    Now of course this is only temporary and all good things will come to an end. Just saw a new robot that can mix together 20 M&Ms of three different colors from three different jars, spill them on a table and then correctly sort them by color in under 2 seconds! Now that is real efficiency.

    The real problem is the efficiency drive. We are doing a great job of doing what is really unimportant, and forgetting what life is really about … and it ain’t efficiency.

    Proud to say I have never bought anything on Amazon.

    1. JEHR

      Hard not to buy via Amazon. I used to buy shoes at (owned by a Canadian) and today I see it is under the auspices of Amazon. Man, that sucks!

  5. ambrit

    Has Amazon made a net profit yet? Considering the automated Panopticon nature of that workplace, it might be the perfect place to “transition” to prison labour.
    Ten hours a day, six days a week on your feet suggests that we will see a wave of osteopathic injuries and degenerative effects soon.
    I have encountered the “Company Doctor” routine before. If possible, always get an independent second opinion in writing. If nothing else, one can enjoy making the company pay exorbitant legal fees defending themselves against, if you’re lucky, pro bono or cheaper ‘activist’ legal help for yourself.
    Re. Tinky’s suggestion; the “maximum deviance” answering tactic should be undertaken only if you have already decided that enough is enough and are ready to move on.
    On that subject; I am disturbed to hear that “employee push polling” has become a regular part of labour management relations. It is plainly a form of compliance enforcement for management. If I were cynical about this I would consider the Amazon “business culture” to have many of the aspects of a cult. Here, the motivation of religious belief is replaced with economic necessity. In both cases, a quasi-divine “priesthood” directs the ‘faithful’ and reaps a disproportionate share of the rewards. Where oh where is Amazons Heresiarch?

    1. footnote4

      Bezos was ahead of the game realizing you don’t need profits for power, and power is what you really want.

      All arbitrage all the time.

    2. oho

      Amazon makes money now.

      Just as Harvard is a hedge fund that employs professors, Amazon is a cloud tech company that happens to sell Huggies and run a copy of iTunes and eBay (amazon marketplace).

      But since Bezos owns a big chunk of Amazon, he doesn’t have to worry about any activists demanding that the very profitable AWS arm be spun off as a stand-alone company.

      1. different clue

        But then Bezos “shouldn’t mind” if all of Amazon’s tangible material-thing customers go back to buying from real stores.

      2. Ian

        Fuck, they have Ebay? That’s where I get a fair chunk of stuff on the odd occasion I do buy.

    3. wilroncanada

      Cultlike cheerleading for the company is also part of the WalMart culture. I once broke up a cheerleading meeting in the middle of the store close to where I live. I once arrived just after opening, to pick up something for a shut-in neighbour (I never buy from WalMart), and made my way to the notions department, where some fabric needed to be cut. There were supposed to be two staff on duty, but neither were there, because, according to the only staff person I could find three departments away, because they were in a meeting. Then I heard the cheering. I went to the noise, to find some manager giving a pep talk complete with instructions about when and how loud to cheer each statement ( about the invincibility of WalMart). I walked into the middle and said in my loudest voice–normally soft-spoken but with some acting and preaching experience–“Why don’t you look after your customers instead of standing around here congratulating yourselves! There are three customers in notions alone needing service from somebody.”
      The meeting broke up.

    4. craazyboy

      I was thinking Bezos could merge Amazon with one of our private prison corporations. You’d have workers, and a place for workers to sleep – obviously on re-purposed warehouse shelving and then the MBAs can shut down those money wasting prisons, then fire themselves for a bonus boosting profit surge. The warehouse management can be given gunz and the additional task of maintaining warehouse safety. If you keep their pay the same you can get a big boost in management productivity! Then transfer over the prison psychiatrists to take over the company doctor role.This would save Professional Left jobs! Always a worthy goal. The log-in program could be enhanced (I’d suggest using low cost Indian programmer labor) to include head shrinker questions to aid the shrinks in evaluated the worker inmate mental health, re-habilitration progress and estimate of timeframe to becoming eligible for parole board review. That should retain workers and reduce inmate turnover down to whatever Amazon would like it to be. Probably lower around the holiday season and higher in January. But they could create a new economist job to monitor the economy and consult with management to arrive at the best consensus timing for worker parole. These meetings should be held at a nice restaurant and plenty of red wine served to make management and the economist comfortable and create the optimal environment for creative and innovative thinking on the subject of parole timing. My recommendation for economist would be Larry Summers. This position should most certainly NOT be filled from with-in.

  6. KurtisMayfield

    I love it when I get surveys at work sent via email that say they are completely anonymous.. sure they are.

    Will these stories change one neoliberal’s shopping habits.. no. Remember the employee is at fault that he is there. The writing even supports this point of view with the mention of the employee’s degree.

    1. Kokuanani

      I refuse to buy from Amazon, but I’m amazed at how many of my friends don’t share this aversion. To me Amazon is much more threatening than WalMart.

      Need more stories like this one, and yes, published in the WaPo. [Ha!]

      1. diptherio

        Send this to any non-profit and indy media outlet that participates in any of Amazon’s fundraising programs. It’s a sore spot for a number of lefties, but the sad fact is that many orgs and programs/websites have gotten addicted to kickbacks from Amazon to pay their bills. In the past I’ve called out this hypocritical behavior in ways that didn’t seem too effective, so put some thought into your approach, but I do think we need to let the “leaders” on the left know that Amazon is not an acceptable partner.

        1. Marina Bart

          That’s a key part of how the left is controlled. Gatekeepers are bribed obliquely, and this is a major way now. Bezos is a smart (immoral, but smart) businessman, so I presume this was an intentional tactic to protect him from criticism from the “Netroots.”

          A aggressive shaming campaign against Amazon would be a public good, IMO. Speaking of public relations…

          1. Guest

            Bezos is the worst of both worlds, extremely bright with no moral compass, empathy, etc.

    2. diptherio

      It’s kinda sweet: s/he thinks getting an econ degree would have kept them out of crap jobs…unfortunately, that ain’t the case.

      1. Arizona Slim

        I’m here to tell you that an econ degree is not a talisman that will protect you from crap jobs. My econ degree sure didn’t keep me from washing dishes, stocking shelves, and punching cash register keys.

        1. diptherio

          Same here. An econ degree (and probably plenty of others as well) makes you under-qualified for a good job (you need a PhD, or at least a Masters, for that) and over-qualified for the crap jobs you’ll still have to work after graduating. NO ONE is impressed by an econ degree on your resume, despite what your econ advisor might tell you.

          1. RMO

            At least an Economics degree (from the vast majority of institutions) would mean that you would know that what you think of as a job in hell is actually the absolute best of all possible worlds because markets.

            I briefly considered going for an Economics degree (the University I went to didn’t toe the neoliberal line in the field, I found the subject fascinating and was good at the classes I took) but the lack of a viable career path made me decide to do something else. That didn’t pay off either mind you…

      2. fajensen

        My advice would be to get a degree in “Doing Something”. There are far, far, FAR, too many unhappy, failed academics circling around the drain while wasting their lives con-slutting. I see them every day right here at work mostly writing useless procedures and mal*-designed software enforcing the stupid procedures.

        Having done this myself, I know that It takes well above average intelligence and toughness to succeed in being an academic, the dullards become adjuncts or consultants. If they are lucky, unlucky ends up at Amazon. Too poor to make a move, needing to make a move to not be poor.

        People who can *do* things *now* like: Logistics, Automation, HVAC, Cooling, Electrical, Welding – of the certified kind – are really hard to find these days. My oldest does logistics, the headhunters are always sending him invitations. Sons friend does Cooling, he now runs the place he started at. Electricians, impossible to find.

        These “non-academic” jobs are quite rewarding, maybe more rewarding than most “intellectual work” because one see stuff happening, there is an immediate effect and rapid feedback so one learns faster.

        *) Not “mis” which implies a mistake. We use “mal” as malignant.

      3. spk

        and really, really sad s/he doesn’t realize that everything learned/indoctrinated during university econ study is going to tell her that everything is fine. nothing to see here. just the “free market” doing what it does. the program is basically two years (in US half of college is gen ed) of surveys/test where the right answer is capitalism is the only economic system that exists, has ever existed, and it’s great!

  7. allan

    Like Uber for free-riders. The long-term auditory damage, even if treatable,
    will be paid for by someone other than Amazon.
    But I’m sure that noted progressive Jay Carney has a perfectly sensible explanation.

    1. Darius

      Reminds me that Obama once did an event at an Amazon distribution center to show how he’s looking forward not backward.

        1. Marina Bart

          You are not alone in despising Obama.

          I appreciate the above references to the corrupt malevolence of Carney AND Obama.

          If Barack and Michelle are smart, they won’t get too wrapped up in keeping the left out of power and will instead write those books nice and fast. I’m sure they’ve got the vanishingly rare kind of book deal where they’ll keep the advance no matter what. But their long-term fundraising and power acquisition plans hinge on keeping the con going vis-a-vis the Obama brand. If most of those books are remaindered, the brand will take a serious hit. If all you have is image, you need to protect it.

            1. different clue

              Perhaps Obama’s owner-sponsors have instructed the Obamas that if Obamacare is repealed, and Big Insura does not keep getting the captive mandated revenue streams it feels it was promised, that it won’t pay the Obamas the big money they were expecting for getting Obamacare passed to begin with.

              So perhaps he is still “earning his money” with this so-called “insurgentude”.

          1. different clue

            I believe the Obamas will be well rewarded for the wealth they transferred to the OverClass ( or protected for the OverClass) during their time in office. If they are not so rewarded, that failure-to-reward will make any future non-rich President wonder why he/she should work so hard to make the rich richer without guarantee of reward.

            So I think the Obamas will be given much more money despite their poor image.

            Hopefully they will never be invited to any of the fun parties where the cool people go . . . the way the Clintons were and always will be. ( Because Bill was a fun guy . . . not like Barry).

  8. Dave

    As I read the post I thought about the folklore story of John Henry The Steel Driving Man…. spoiler alert….. he died

  9. Carolinian

    Not to worry–Bezos claims those pickers will soon be replaced by robots which is what he wanted in the first place. It’s probably safe to say that our new cyber elite are not exactly people persons.

      1. Lyle

        Indeed the description of pickers jobs is old. Amazon bought a company that builds robots that bring shelves full of goods to the picker. I.E. the picker does not wander from shelf to shelf, but rather the shelves are brought to the picker. Amazon bought Kiva systems which developed this tech. You can find videos on youtube that show how they work. I do suspect that work is ongoing to replace the pickers with robots also. Note that the picker wandering is typical on other mail order sites, this is why it takes days to ship from them versus hours from Amazon.

        1. Laughingsong

          This type of automated warehouse technology has been around for donkey’s years. Back in ’88-’89 I worked at a division on Xerox that made Diablo dot matrix printers. The assembly line workers sat at their stations and when they needed parts they typed into their terminals and robotic arms with barcode readers would find the appropriate bin and then put it on the appropriate conveyor to the station. They would pick out their parts, type in what they took from the bin, then put it on the conveyor to be returned.

          So why wasn’t that put in place at Amazon Centers? Could it be that labor these days is cheaper than automation? That would explain why Bezos felt he had to buy a robotics company…. Maybe…. Dunno.

        2. that guy

          I’ve worked at a coupla warehouses/distro centers in the last few years, and this sounds about right. At Shopko, we were brought pallets of stuff, sorted them into bins getting shipped out to various places, barely had to move. Not with robots mind you, the pallets were dropped off for us by other workers. Other warehouses I’ve worked at in poorer states like Hawaii work more like what’s described in the article: wandering around building pallets of goods, either on foot or, as was the case at C&S, zipping around like coked-up hummingbirds on electric pallet jacks.

    1. Vatch

      It’s probably safe to say that our new cyber elite are not exactly people persons.

      I believe you are indulging in understatement (and I’m sure you know that). Anecdotes about Bezos and other members of the cyber elite are truly disturbing.

      Steve Jobs was as famous for his volatility with Apple subordinates as he was for the clarity of his insights about customers. He fired employees in the elevator and screamed at underperforming executives. Bill Gates used to throw epic tantrums at Microsoft; Steve Ballmer, his successor, had a propensity for throwing chairs. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, was so harsh and intimidating that a subordinate once fainted during a performance review.

      Bezos fits comfortably into this mold. His drive and boldness trumps other leadership ideals, such as consensus building and promoting civility. While he can be charming and capable of great humor in public, in private he explodes into what some of his underlings call nutters. A colleague failing to meet Bezos’s exacting standards will set off a nutter. If an employee does not have the right answers or tries to bluff, or takes credit for someone else’s work, or exhibits a whiff of internal politics, uncertainty, or frailty in the heat of battle—a blood vessel in Bezos’s forehead bulges and his filter falls away. He’s capable of hyperbole and harshness in these moments and over the years has delivered some devastating rebukes. Among his greatest hits, collected and relayed by Amazon veterans:

      “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”

      “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”

      “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”

      “Are you trying to take credit for something you had nothing to do with?”

      “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”

      “We need to apply some human intelligence to this problem.”

      [After reviewing the annual plan from the supply chain team] “I guess supply chain isn’t doing anything interesting next year.”

      [After reading a start-of-meeting memo] “This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document? I don’t want to waste my time with the B team document.”

      [After an engineer’s presentation] “Why are you wasting my life?”

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Vatch.

        This disgraceful behaviour can also be observed in the UK. In the UK, it’s often delivered in American English, a practice that took root from the 1980s, especially after films like Wall St, Terminator etc.

        It’s not just business, but politicians, too. Gordon Brown was warned about his conduct after throwing his mobile / cellular phone at his PA.

        About 5 years ago, a bank CEO and journeyman from McKinsey, was asked in public by Adair Turner the definition of capital and how his (former) bank calculated its capital. The CEO could not answer and returned to his office in a foul mood and, allegedly, shouted at his PA.

        A couple of years later, when presenting over lunch to a law firm in the City , I recalled the story and allegation. The lawyers sympathised with the CEO. It made wonder about the blinkers of many people who work in the City and the loss of humanity.

        1. bob

          What are high powered layers without high powered execs? Yin and Yang.

          “We can’t answer that question! No one can! It’s all BS”

          “Hold on! Get control of yourself. We can’t charge 3000 an hour for that. We’ll invent some sciency sounding words, add a gibberish based numbering scheme, then have it typed out, on a 34 foot length of paper. It’ll impress everyone.”

          “they”ll want PDF’s, can we do that?”

          “Of course not. That’s the point of the scroll. That’s why you hire a lawyer. We’re professionals. That’ll be 2.3 million, which should be easy to re-coup by charging 8k for each proprietary copy of the BS.”

      2. Colonel Smithers

        Is Bezos on Twitter, Faceborg etc, so that one could troll him with his own words?

        I wonder what the hacks at the WaPo make of it? He was on UK TV around the turn of the year and almost in tears at the prospect of being black, gay, liberal and a hack in Trump’s America. My parents and I joked that he should emigrate to the country which owns his idol Hillary, Saudi Arabia. KSA is very progressive on such matters!

        1. Colonel Smithers

          I forgot to add, especially the sensitive soul in constant need of a reassuring hug, Jonathan Capehart.

      3. River

        “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”

        Is that a promise?? Quick find this idea and set up a bot net, using his own bots for irony, and mass email it!!!

        After reading the above Taylorism seems alive and well.

      4. Arizona Slim

        I’ve heard the IT industry referred to as a jobs program for the autism spectrum. There’s some truth to that.

      5. Michael Fiorillo

        These are all indicative, and endemic to the type, but for me the one who turns the creepiness dial to eleven is Peter Thiel, the “libertarian” whose Big Data firm Palantir is totally dependent on the Surveillance State, and who fantasizes about getting blood transfusions from young men to prolong his life, all while developing floating islands for the mega rich, so they can (in their self-delusion) escape when they’ve destroyed life for the rest of us.

        The Jim Fisks, JP Morgans and other robber barons were grotesque, but this current crop doesn’t even seem like the same species as the rest of us, and it’s obvious they don’t consider themselves such.

      6. Dead Dog

        Disgraceful behavior.

        These aren’t jobs. They are soul destroying.

        Amazon is an evil monopoly but I don’t see anyone standing up to them. They will automate all the jobs away.

        Corporations – not in the employment or people business. Uberpeople

        1. different clue

          Customers are still free to buy from NOmazon if NOmazon still carries the item. It may be that millions of people are too suspicious and defeated to do so themselves in the hopes that all the other millions will do the same. So no one does any of it.

          It would require a cultural change/ psychological shift on the part of millions. Millions of people would have to decide that helping eachother survive is a more viable survival strategy than paying the lowest price. People would have to value getting revenge over saving money.

          1. wilroncanada

            I’m in the process this weekend of buying two books for my daughter’s birthday later this month. I will buy them from the local indy bookstore, one of the few not driven out of business by Amazon and its clones. I know I will pay a higher price, and I am a senior on a fixed income, but I want that local store to stay in business, paying salaries to people I know.

            1. different clue

              Enough millions of people doing the same thing enough millions of times could at least preserve a zone-of-legitimate-retail-bussiness and its attendant okay jobs against Amazon aggression.

      7. Kukulkan

        Regarding Bezos quotes:

        Here in Australia we have a special name for that sort of thing. We call it “repartee” and it’s considered a sign of wit. The idea is to come up with an equally pithy and clever response.

        Some examples:
        A: “See how simple it is when you’re clever!”
        B “See how clever it seems when you’re simple.”

        A: “You belong in a zoo.”
        B: “If I were I’d be feeding you.”

        A: “Well, yes, back when I was young, we also like these sort of clever remarks.”
        B: “Gee, I wish I’d known you back when you were clever.”

        And, one of my favorites. A local politician was pushing prohibition and delivering a speech, holding a bottle of spirits aloft in one hand, other hand in his pocket:
        Politician: “What I have in my hand has been the ruin of many a young woman!”
        Voice in Crowd: “Which hand?”

        Seriously, Bezos doesn’t come across as more than mediocre. I doubt he’d be able to hold his own in a local pub, let alone in an environment such as parliament. I find it weird that in a country that gave the world people like Julius “Groucho” Marx and Don Rickles, this sort of thing is considered harsh. Does everyone in the US need trigger warnings and safe spaces now?

        1. different clue

          Groucho Marx and Don Rickles did not have any economic power over the paying audiences who paid to see their act.

          Bezos uses these statements to show his godlike powers of life-and-death over the people he makes them to . . . thanks to the power he has over them in this No Money = You Die society in which he is gatekeeper to so many jobs in.
          The targets of his statements in this Power Cage Match are not safely able to make quick witty repartees back . . . if they want to keep the job they will starve to death and die without.

      8. fajensen

        Sounds about average to me.

        I worked a long time with software and power electronics. Sometimes, often, it is needed to stop the bullshit and get some productive thing done or a decision made, even when we don’t have all of the details yet and probably we make a mistake. The bigger mistake is often procrastination.

        #1 Is the only thing which is, in my opinion personal, and I don’t like personal attacks even when desperately warranted (#2), because, 1) In the end it will be my fault anyway for relying on a known idiot or (more likely) for not explaining the job properly to the poor sucker doing it. 2) It enables bullying, which creates a toxic environment.

        PS, when asked:

        “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”

        The answer is “Do I have to pick only one?”, get that vein bursting.

      9. spk

        “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”

        Let’s find out what idea this one relates to, and put in on a BB outside Bezo’s “Washington Democratic Leadership Council Post”

    2. oho

      As a standard neoliberal media line was: the future of blue collar is jobs at Costco. but much of the distribution process is automated (or can be)—-think automated forklifts.

      Robot cow milkers already exist and in widespread use.

      I imagine for some oddly shaped items, humans would be cheaper than equivalent robots.

      But the future is already here with lots of future political impact. LePen 2022?

      1. LifelongLib

        Re the robot cow milkers, I know someone who grew up on a dairy farm, and she and her family were pretty much chained to it 24/7. The cows had to be milked twice a day no matter what, no days off. In situations like that automation might actually be liberating.

        1. bob

          Until the power goes out.

          During the ice storm of 98, someone did the math on getting people to milk cows. There were more cows in the county than people. Not enough capacity.

          At that point, luckily early on, they stared to run giant gen sets on military trucks between the farms.

          The dollar amounts to cow relief were a lot higher than for people relief.

          1. fajensen

            Here, Sweden, the farms have generators. Because the power does go out here. Resilience is a key ingredient to a happy and productive life (which is perhaps why the Church of Neoliberalism is also about the degradation of all systems that provide resilience or should be resilient).

            The cows prefer the robot milkers, because liberated from the milking schedule all the cows are allowed to roam around in the fields forming little cow-packs (they have a lead cow and all). When they feel the need, they will themselves go to the stable and line up for milking, which the robot does. They learn this in about a week.

            The milk goes into tanks from where it is picked up by a milk-truck which runs on it’s schedule.

            I think the robot milkers is an example of productive robotization, even the cows get more freedom to do what they like or need from it.

            1. different clue

              Are these robomilkers really robotic? When the cows line up correctly in the right places, the robomilkers attach themselves to the cows and start milking?

  10. hemeantwell

    As punitive enlightenment, this post should be tattooed on the forearms of libertarians. Their blindered incapacity to give any importance to what goes on in whatever version of satanic mill that capitalism comes up is like something out of an Oliver Sacks tour through bizarre neurological ailments. The Libertarian who took the Amazon Worker for a Bin.

    1. oho

      As bad as Ayn Rand is, American libertarians in their present form are harmless.

      Ground zero for the slash and burn of the middle class is Team DNC/DLC—with a healthy splash of GOP accelerant.

    2. fajensen

      But, if you wanted to affect Change, you should give the entire professoriat of Harward Business School the choice between “Organ Donor” or “Pick and Place Drone” for 1 year. Throw in the DNC too and my family would buy all of my stuff at Amazon for one year.

  11. Leapfrog

    Thank you for your story. It sounds very much like slave labor. Is this what we have to look forward to (being an Amazon drone) if the economy crumbles further? Of course, if that happens there will be fewer end consumers. I’m also a Prime member and hold an Amazon credit card. After reading your story and the stories about how Amazon shopping is not any better for the environment than brick-and-mortar stores, I’m not sure any more that I need to be either (Prime member or card holder).

  12. Former Robot

    Tough having an advanced degree, I worked as a UPS package car driver for just over 25 years (I got out as soon as I could to collect a pension, although it was a lower one). I was a single parent, and it was good pay thanks to the union and was a good job for raising my children. The union though did little about workplace abuse, since it was a major source of income for it. Over the 26 years as on the job technology increased, the quality of the job inversely decreased. Be patient with your UPS drivers (and Fed Ex and USPS workers too). Their humanity is crushed by technology and an ever-increasing invasion of one’s personal privacy, and this occurs in health matters too. I was hard to feel human more and more as time went on. What was once a good job evolved into one that makes a worker feel like a robot that has to endure ever increasing workloads and continual harassment by management, who seem to be chosen dependent upon how much of a of a psychopath they are. They are highly trained in techniques that hammer away at individuality and divide the workplace. These delivery companies are Amazon on wheels, ironically in that they are a major part of the Amazon system since they deliver the goods. They are also trying to kill the Post Office, which is another bone of contention form me and my buddy Ben Franklin.

  13. Pavel

    I’ve only used Amazon twice in my life and after reading this horror story I vow to leave it at that number.

  14. jerry

    yikes this is scary..

    I worked a warehouse job once several years back, and it remains to this day the most terrifyingly depressing work experience I’ve ever had, right above my processing job at the BNY mellon cubicle farm.

    If people will not revolt when put under such circumstances, the possibility for large-scale revolution seems quite low. People are just dumb scared sheep, by and large.

    1. RUKidding

      IMO, US citizens are the least likely to revolt ever under any circumstances. Too many have bought the Glibertarian b.s. about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and being a rugged individualist. Some of the most effective propaganda extruded out by our 1% Overlords. Very effective.

      1. Temporarily Sane

        Yep, and even a good number of people who are “outraged” at working conditions only “care” until they catch a break and get an opportunity to get a coveted “real job”. If it’s only other people getting the shaft they find it pretty easy to not let it bother them too much. Me me me me.

        Side note: I found it interesting that the guy always chose the “correct answer” and seemed genuinely surprised that 18% of his fellow human robots answered honestly.

    2. Colonel Smithers

      When I was at BNY Mellon’s Canary Wharf HQ from December 2006 – May 2008, the Compliance department would have a gin and tonic, or several, with doughnuts most afternoons, watched the clock and took cynical swipes at the management.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        I was hired by Mellon from HSBC and arrived the day after the merger with / take over by BNY was announced.

    3. Laughingsong

      “Dumb, scared sheep”

      Insult to injury. Piling on a bit. A persons gotta eat.
      I suspect rather than revolt, Americans may follow the way of some West Indies indigenous populations in the face of slavery, and start committing suicide en masse.

      Oh, wait . . . :-(

    4. Ben

      The punishment for even a minor infraction is a criminal record. Let’s say you get a suspended sentence, no actual jail time. That’s not the punishment. You are now excluded from all middle class jobs for a long time.

      They have all their ducks in a row.

    5. lyle

      The measure of revolt is job turnover. If amazons conditions are so bad do they have high turnover, or have the adopted Henry Ford i’s idea and pay more to make the conditions acceptable? ($5 a day idea back then). In particular watch the next year or so when the labor market gets tight.

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        As discussed further in part 2, yes, they have high turnover, and this is a feature, not a bug. It takes only about a week for a new worker to get up to speed.

  15. schultzzz

    I think this article is the Godmother of this genre:


    To me the horror of the jobs is almost matched by
    a) my own complicity, and
    b) the fact that, for the salary of a single Blitzer or Geraldo, any news organ could produce hundreds of first-person exposes like this.

    These articles should be as common as psychological profiles of trump, and vice versa.

  16. c

    Does this make Bezos the modern day version of a plantation owner? Surely WaPo is performing its duty as a member of the Fourth Estate…?

    1. River

      I think a plantation owner is far too gentle a description. He reminds me more of a Roman mine owner circa 10 A.D.

  17. barefoot charley

    First-rate read, thanks Outis! Oh, you say this isn’t dystopic science fiction?!

  18. FriarTuck

    This is like reading something straight out of a Neil Stephenson novel.

    Except its based in real life.

    What is going on?

  19. Corey

    Isn’t this the sort of thing that drove Post Office employees to Go Postal in past times? Tedious, repetitious tasks, a relentless drive towards greater efficiency, sinister or indifferent management. Perhaps soon we will see a new trend of workers Going Amazon.

    1. visitor

      From what I read, Amazon carries out a tight security control before letting employees enter or leave the premises. Even their personal belongings are inspected.

      The checking time is not counted as work-time.

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        It didn’t make it into the series, but one of the workers did say something to me about how (paraphrasing) the warehouse resembles a fortress, with strict control over what goes in and out.

  20. Fred

    This article from 2014 in Harpers follows elderly workers (can’t say retireees because they can’t afford to retire) who travel from Amazon warehouse center to warehouse center, living in camper parks and public campgrounds, trading tips on pills and ointments to stay healthy enough for the physical labor till they’re found dead in their camper. Maybe robots have replaced them by now. Yes, the USA is exceptional.

  21. John

    The worker should be thankful to overlord Bozos for the opportunity to still move at work. The next promotion will be sedated hanging in series with others in a nutrient jell bath as a human battery to run the robots that have replaced them. I think the Matrix films laid this all out quite clearly.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Or, as per my comment above, we will become the nutrient jell baths for Peter Thiel’s grab for “immortality.”

      Soylent Green is people!

      1. RMO

        That both makes a lot more sense on a physics level and is vastly more horrifying than the Matrix… I say you should go with it and write a novel or screenplay. Then we get to watch as the techuberlords take it the wrong way and see the Petr Thiel character as the hero. They generally seem to be the type of person who would think A Modest Proposal was meant to be taken literally and regard it as a splendid idea.

  22. Chauncey Gardiner

    I read their book reviews but don’t buy from Amazon because of their historical treatment of employees as discussed both here and elsewhere, and the economic effect they have had on small independent bookstores, music stores, etc. Their Alexa service also represents a willful potential invasion of privacy to me, although I have friends and family who subscribe to that service.

    The long-term support Bezos has received from Wall Street and the government at all levels in terms of tax and other forbearances and contracts has been remarkable.

    However, I’m looking forward to Part 2 of this series which presumably will cover the other aspect of Outis’ title.

  23. russell1200

    The work sucks. Work has, more often than not, sucked.

    The difference I see is that it is a literate person with an undergraduate degree doing this work rather than a high school degreed blue collar type. You get educated so that you can avoid this type of stuff.

    Which pretty much is where our economy is at: it sucks.

    1. Arizona Slim

      That is precisely why I got educated. But, as mentioned above, I found that the ole econ degree wasn’t any good in the real world of crapified work.

  24. Sally

    My expeirence of Amazon in the UK is they are far from the cheapest on many products these days. The big jump they had on their competitors has worn off. I go on their site now to read the reviews of various products I want to buy, and then quite often I go elsewhere to buy it. Amazingly I have even found local bricks and mortar stores selling the items cheaper.

    This maybe becuase their economic model is not quite as great as they would have us believe. I have seen anaylis of their company accounts that claim Amazon is noting but a giant Ponzi scheme. It’s worth noting how much money Bezoes has taken out of the company every year for himself. Be an awful shame if the the shareholders get left holding the baby.

    Most retail stores operate loss leaders on some products to attract the customers in. Supermarkets will sell bread, and milk at cost to lure in the customer who then pays throught the nose on the special home made cookies. Amazons model has been to sell everything as cheaply as it can. Not so easy to make a profit doing this which is why they may not be the cheapest these days, and their delivery cost are enormus. There has been talk about them building their own haulage divisions to take their deliverys in house and bi passing the big carriers who do this stuff as their main business. It’s why Amazon Prime is always being pushed. They always like to boast how many new Amazon prime customers they have got, but often that includes most of those on the free trial. How many contine after the free trial is up?

    Amazon has ventured out into its cloud computing business, and won a $600 million contract with Obama for computing services to the CIA. Which puts Bezoes right in the centre of the deep state. It’s interesting how many silicon valley start ups use Amazons cloud computing. And ask yourself how many start ups go bust in the first 2 years? Some have suggested that maybe Bezoes himself has backed some of these companies, and that part of the deal is they must use his cloud computing. How sustainable is this model when you consider how much the cost of providing cloud computing is coming down in price?

  25. oho

    Seems that my stint as an Uber driver was positively golden compared to being in an Amazon warehouse.

    I got to choose my own bathroom breaks and I’d rather die instantly in a head-on crash due to a drunk driver than lose my hearing. Not being sarcastic.

    PS, don’t forget that it’s a good chance your regional Amazon warehouse got a big state/local tax incentive to set up shop.

    1. Adar

      And , not to beat a dead horse, there is the classic report of the Amazon warehouse in Allentown, PA, that heats up like a furnace in the summer. It would be too expensive to air condition it (managers’ offices are), so they keep an ambulance service on call to take away workers with heat stroke.

  26. MineshaftGap

    Nobody is innocent. Half the shit we buy is from sweatshop labor conditions. The only difference is the sweatshop is now happening to people who can write in English.

    1. different clue

      There are degrees of no-innocence. The less-by-percentage-of-things-bought that someone buys from Amazon, the more innocent that someone is of buying things at Amazon.

      “Multitudes – multitudes . . . in the Valley of Decision”

  27. Chaucy Gardiner

    I worked till a month ago for Amazon. Not as picker but as driver, so “officially” I did not work for Amazon but for subcontractors. It is difficult to imagine as well as to find such bunch of idiots in one place but maybe it is worse in Wall Mart or Uber etc.

    Amazon goes by the stops, you never know how many packages or stops you are going to get. From 100 and up to 150. But one stop might have 2,3,4 packages. Now one stop is not one street address. They put sometimes 3 addresses as one stop thus you sometimes have 100 stops but 150 packages. And you have to deliver that in ten hours, anything that you stay over that they wont pay. When I asked about that my “employer-subcontractor” told me that “how Amazon structured route”. In addition she was derisive and with huge amount of cynicism.

    While Jef Bezos have brought house in DC for $23 million (one mil. over asking price) he refused to pay a drivers overtime.

  28. Davin Drake

    The Amazon warehouse positions will be filled by robots in the near future. Wonder if the ‘bots will be given daily questionnaires?

    1. Ian

      In the Animatrix (short stints about the Matrix) the did a history of the robot revolution leading up to the Matrix. Well worth a watch as many of the shorts were quite stunning visually and even well thought out.

  29. Temporarily Sane

    The new feudalism will look like this writ large and wide across the land. But that’s okay because it uses algorithms and “evidence based” “science” to make the workplace perfect like no human ever can. Besides, they even ask how you are liking your job and really want to help you “succeed”! Bet they don’t do that in China or Bangladesh.

  30. Gman

    For some this might well help shed some light on why their kid got a gift wrapped Rampant Rabbit instead of the Furby they asked Santa for last Christmas.

  31. chuck roast

    My wife and I went to see this movie yesterday – Paterson. About a bus driver and his wife in the ex-industrial powerhouse and now forelorn Paterson, NJ. A lovely and endearing tale about the richly quiet life of two anonymous folks.
    The first frame announced that Amazon was one of the producers of the film. A downer in an otherwise entirely satisfactory un-American film.
    To paraphrase Abby…Steal This Film.

  32. Kalen

    Bravo. Another extremely needed look into reality of American working people. A gem, hard to find these days even on Marxist websites.

    In fact what is described are methods of positive psychology applied by command and control management of any institutions of an autocratic regime. Amazon operations are exactly just that, militarized operations of control, of workers in order to exploit them, exhaust them until mental or physical collapse while oligarch in charge thrives.

    Such “surveys” of employees are more akin to Hitler’s demanding of daily submission via responding to overused gesture of ‘Zieg Heil” rather that a polite asking for daily feedback which anyone knows is nothing but a solicitation of a lie.

    In fact turn over is so high in Amazon that Bezos made it a science by preemptive hiring to not available positions yet predicting people quitting, using his cloud based AI software so no negotiations and no unions are allowed.

    In fact he even took on existing in Amazon-Germany unions, even in Germany where unions are required by law.

    Why is that, why attacks against working people?

    The homelessness and joblessness are integral part of any capitalistic system, it is not a failure but a profit making feature desirable by oligarchic class since it is used to threaten and intimidate the rest of the workforce.

  33. lyman alpha blob

    Thing is when Amazon started out, the word around Seattle was that it was a great place to work. My memory may be somewhat faulty, but 20+ years ago I seem to remember that even warehouse workers were paid decently and granted stock options which were all the rage (granted that it may have been an excuse to pay less in wages/benefits ). The minor legend about Bezos was that he wasn’t an ostentatious CEO but used a recycled wooden door propped up on pile of cinder blocks as a desk. Having grown up in the Gekko-greed-is-good decade and despite my usual cynicism, all this left an impression on me at least that he was trying to run a more egalitarian company than the norm at the time. That, and they only sold books – it didn’t look like he was out to be master of the universe. Couldn’t have been more wrong about that one…

    Just another bait and switch although it took several years before they got really evil. Uber is using the same business model but have implemented it a lot quicker – they only took a year or two before starting to put the screws to their employees.

  34. McWatt

    Walmart killed small town America, Amazon is killing urban retail. Vote with your wallet, it’s the only thing they understand.

    “They can do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” Heller

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