Amazon is easily the most successful company of the Internet age. It boasts online retail operations in five different continents. Wherever it goes, it inevitably dominates. But there’s a huge human cost to this.
Amazon’s success is partly fueled by exploitative practices. For those working in its fulfillment centers, conditions resemble a Dickensian nightmare. A recent piece from Business Insider UK’s Shona Ghosh puts this into perspective, and tells stories of low-wage warehouse workers being forced to urinate into bottles rather than take normal work breaks.
Rushed fulfilment workers, who run around Amazon’s warehouses “picking” products for delivery, have a “toilet bottle” system in place because the toilet is too far away, according to author James Bloodworth, who went undercover at a warehouse in Staffordshire, UK, for a book on low wages in Britain.
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The article also alleges that some workers are punished for falling sick. It cites one pregnant worker who felt ill while working, and was handed “warning points.” Another worker received a warning, despite having a sick note from their doctor:
I turned up for my shift even though I felt like shit, managed 2 hours then I just could not do anymore. Told my supervisor and was signed off sick, I had a gastric bug (sickness and diarrhoea, very bad) saw my doc. Got a sick note with an explanation, but still got a strike.
This isn’t shocking
The thing is, we’ve known about Amazon’s abhorrent working conditions for a long time now. In 2017, a reporter for the British newspaper The Daily Mirror went undercover in an Amazon fulfillment center and found an environment that resembled a high-tech version of a Victorian workhouse.
The reporter, Alan Selby, reportedly saw some staff members “asleep on their feet, exhausted from toiling for up to 55 hours a week.” Toilet breaks were timed, and workers were admonished by supervisors for stopping to catch their breath.
Conditions are so dire, a recent poll of 100 Amazon warehouse workers from labor advocacy group Organise showed that more than half suffer from depression, and eight percent had contemplated suicide.
When will consumers start give a shit?
Ghosh’s story made me think of Nike. In the 1990’s, the public became aware of sweatshop conditions in Nike’s supply chain. In 1992, an article in Harper’s showcased a Nike subcontractor in Indonesia earning just 14 cents an hour — way below the national living wage. Jeff Ballinger, the author of the piece, also reported on abusive treatment from management, inadequate breaks, and punishing production quotas.
What followed was a very effective consumer boycott that hurt the company’s bottom line, and forced it to re-evaluate how it did business.
In order to win back the trust of its customers, Nike embraced transparency, and opened up its supply chain to independent, third-party investigators. Today, on the Fair Labor Association website, you can read 221 inspection reports from its factories around the world, in places like Vietnam, India, and Pakistan.
Boycotts can work. So, when will Amazon have its Nike moment?
I’m not sure. Amazon and the 1990’s incarnation of Nike are both two entirely different beasts. In the case of Nike, consumers had other options. They could easily purchase sportswear and sneakers from other companies, like Reebok and Adidas.
Disentangling yourself from Amazon is a lot harder, as it doesn’t really have a viable rival — let alone an ethical one. There’s no other online retail company with its product selection, logistics infrastructure, or brand recognition. Convenience alone is often enough for customers to hold their noses, and continue patronizing a company.
I mean, look at Uber’s drivers, who have scarcely any workplace protections, and often struggle to make a living wage. We all know that. Has that stopped anyone from riding Uber? Nope.
It’s time for some shame
If Amazon’s workplace conditions are to approach anything even moderately resembling a first-world nation, change will have to come from above. That means governments and supranational authorities like the EU taking action to ensure its workers are treated with dignity and respect.
But despite that, I’m still a believer in people power, and I want to see Amazon to become the pariah that Nike was in the 1990’s.
Amazon has been remarkably good at ensuring its brand remains untainted from the labor scandals that have dogged it. It’s time to change that. It’s time for some shame.
And I want to see some of that mud land on the faces of its leadership.
It genuinely sickens me to see the tech press (and the wider internet) fawn over Jeff Bezos. Yes, he’s managed to build the most successful company on the planet and a vast personal fortune, but at a huge cost to an exploited and mistreated workforce. I mean, if your employees are so over-worked they’ve got to urinate into bottles, then you’re a shitty boss, and a shitty human being. It’s as simple as that.
Jeff Bezos is not a saint. He’s not a genius. He’s not a disruptor or an innovator, or any other bullshit Silicon Valley term used to justify abhorrent behavior.
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