The 2015 financial results just announced by Amazon.com leave no doubt: the “everything store” is well on its way to dethroning Wal-Mart as the king of retail. Unfortunately, it also seems intent on taking over the role of the worst employer.
Amazon’s revenues leaped 20 percent last year to $107 billion as it dominated online commerce, especially during the holiday season. Profitability remained weak, but that’s a result of heavy spending to build a network of distribution centers enabling superfast delivery. It’s not because Amazon is generous to its 150,000 employees.
On the contrary, lousy working conditions have been a fact of life at Amazon since its earliest years. In 1999 the Washington Post published a story about the pressure put on customer service representatives to work at breakneck speed. “If it’s hard for you to go fast,” one Amazon manager told the newspaper, “it can be hard for you here.”
Amazon — which adopted the employee motto “Work hard, have fun and make history” — successfully opposed union organizing drives at its distribution centers using traditional retrograde employer tactics such as captive meetings and the closing of facilities where pro-union sentiment ran too high.
In the absence of unions, Amazon was able to go on using temp agencies to hire workers, who could thus be easily terminated if they did not meet the company’s unreasonable productivity demands. Amazon even skimped on things such as providing a tolerable temperature level in its vast warehouses. In 2011 the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call published a lengthy exposé on working conditions at Amazon’s sprawling Lehigh Valley distribution center, where temperatures rose so high during the summer that the overtaxed workers suffered from dehydration and other forms of heat stress. People collapsed so frequently that Amazon arranged for ambulances to be standing by outside the facility. It was only after the story gained national coverage that Amazon broke down and installed air conditioning.
The intense pace of work has also contributed to accidents. In June 2014 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited third-party logistics company Genco and three staffing services for serious violations in connection with a December 2013 incident in which a temp worker was crushed to death at an Amazon distribution center in Avenel, New Jersey. OSHA proposed fines of $6,000 against each of the companies. The agency said it was also investigating a fatality at another Amazon distribution center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Amazon itself was fined $7,000 at its warehouse in Campbellsville, Kentucky.
Amazon has also been the subject of complaints regarding violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, including the failure to compensate workers for time spent waiting in long lines at the end of shifts to be searched to make sure they aren’t stealing merchandise. In October 2015 drivers for the Amazon Prime Now delivery service in California filed a class action lawsuit charging that they were being misclassified as independent contractors and thus denied protection under state laws governing minimum wages, overtime pay and business expense reimbursement.
Reports about harsh working conditions have also surfaced in connection with Amazon’s facilities in Europe. In 2013 a German television program documented the brutal treatment of temp workers brought in from Poland, Spain and other countries to help with the Christmas rush at Amazon’s German distribution centers. The abuses were said to be carried out by black-uniformed guards employed by a security company hired by Amazon, which responded to the scandal by ending its relationship with the firm. Amazon was also confronted by its regular German distribution center employees, who began staging strikes to support demands for higher pay. Amazon, unlike most domestic and foreign employers, refused to cooperate with the country’s powerful labor unions.
Labor protests have also taken place in response to conditions at Amazon distribution centers in the United Kingdom. In 2013 the BBC sent an undercover reporter to work at one of those centers and aired a program describing the hectic work pace and quoting an academic expert as saying that it created “increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”
Rather than improving working conditions, Amazon has focused on replacing workers with automation, a move assisted by the 2012 purchase of the robotics company Kiva Systems. A February 2015 article in the Seattle Times reported that a new Amazon warehouse in Washington was “teeming with hundreds of Kiva robots. Those are the squat, coffee table-sized gadgets that buzz around, lifting and moving shelves of products, delivering them to workers who pluck items to be shipped off to customers.” It seems that the robots are not making things easier for workers; instead, they are probably helping to intensify the pace at which the reduced workforce is expected to toil.
Labor controversies are not limited to distribution centers. Charges of abysmal working conditions have also been raised in connection with Mechanical Turk, a service created by Amazon to parcel out repetitive online tasks to thousands of individuals who are paid on a piecework basis. It’s been estimated that these “crowdworkers” earn an average of about $2 an hour.
In August 2015 the New York Times published an investigation of Amazon’s white-collar workforce, describing a situation in which employees were compelled to work long hours and were encouraged to criticize one another mercilessly. The rigid system was said to be governed by a series of principles promulgated by company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that everyone was expected to follow. Those who failed to adjust to the system were dismissed.
When Amazon released its diversity data for the first time in 2014, the percentage of the U.S. workforce that was black or Hispanic was nearly 25 percent, far higher than at other tech companies. Yet subsequent data indicated that many of those minorities were employed at its warehouses and in other relatively low-skill jobs. Just 10 percent of Amazon’s executive and technical employees are black or Hispanic.
Speed-up, wage theft, union-busting, safety and health abuses: Amazon stocks the full inventory of exploitative labor practices.
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