I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.
Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.
However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined:
As at Walmart, Amazon achieves [fast delivery systems] with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. . . .
Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by [Frederick] Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. . . . London Financial Times economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.
All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences.
From the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the computers on which we surf the online world, it’s hard to be a moral purist in today’s consumer marketplace. I get that. I also understand that a “rogue” office, factory, or warehouse can pop up in even the best of large companies.
Nonetheless, terrible working conditions appear to be baked into Amazon’s current operating mode. Customer convenience and service are important in the retail industries, but they should not come at the expense of employee dignity and well-being.
Many years ago, I cut my working teeth in retail stores. When the store floor was busy with customers, or when a shipment of goods had to be unloaded from delivery trucks, we stepped up and got the work done right. When things weren’t as busy, we dialed it down a bit. Overall, people did their jobs steadily and dependably, and we didn’t need to have our every move timed and monitored by managers. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we were treated decently. Amazon, however, regards its warehouse workers as human robots.
I’m not suggesting that we completely boycott Amazon. But customer options such as Prime fuel their very worst labor practices. Surely these workers deserve better working conditions, even if it means that we wait, say, three days rather than two for a delivery.
I wrote to Amazon explaining my decision and quickly received a reply saying that my concerns would be shared with the appropriate people. I hope this will be the case. For now, Amazon is a 21st century company with 19th century labor practices, and they need to hear from their customers.