Does anyone out there buy shoes at Zappos.com? Shop at Whole Foods? Or maybe play video games on Twitch? Rent audio books from Audible? Watch Manchester by the Sea, the Big Sick, or Man in the High Castle? How about who has a Kindle? Or watches Netflix? Or even pays taxes?
If you do any (or all) of those things–or if you shop on Amazon.com–your money is, in part, going to Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon Inc. Since its inception as an online bookseller in 1995, Amazon has grown to become the largest online retailer in the United States, if not the Western hemisphere. One out of every two dollars Americans spend online is spent through Amazon (LaVecchia and Mitchell). Amazon also provides a platform for other retailers while manufacturing its own goods, produces and distributes movies, sells groceries, engages in e-sports, provides home-cleaning services, rents audio books, and provides data storage and processing. This last branch of Amazon, called Amazon Web Services, boasts customers including Netflix, Dropbox, Tumblr, and all 17 US intelligence agencies (think CIA, NSA) (Konkel).
The point of this post is not to discuss every single part of the expansive company that is Amazon (although I find the thought of Amazon connected to intelligence data less than comforting), but rather to convey the scope of Amazon’s influence in commerce and daily life today. Given the expanse of businesses Amazon is involved in, it is important to understand what Amazon really is and how it operates. Unfortunately, the picture is bleak.
Amazon has built its business through a ruthless determination to minimize its own expenses while eliminating or absorbing all competitors by any means necessary. It has no qualms about harsh business practices nor harsh employee treatment.
Amazon has been able to beat its rivals’ prices in part because of its poor treatment of workers. For example, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance notes in an analysis of Amazon business practices that in the job description, warehouse workers are told to expect work 10-12 hours in temperatures ranging between (and occasionally exceeding) 60-90 degrees. At a Pennsylvania warehouse during summertime, Amazon left ambulances next to the warehouse to take overheated employees to the hospital. At another warehouse, a safety official ordered roving managers to distribute gatorade to workers, as he felt asking management for accommodations or extra breaks was “off the table–not an option” (Bernton and Kelleher).
Beyond temperature, workers are besieged by (intentionally) unrealistic expectations. One worker recalls having to locate 1,200 objects in 10 hours (or one item every 30 seconds) in a warehouse the size of 17 football fields. If a worker manages to meet his or her quota for the day, it is raised so everyone is under constant stress and threat of failure (LaVecchia and Mitchell). At one warehouse in Scotland, employees were seen camping out outside the building to avoid being late for work and commuting costs, a visceral example of the pressure they are under to perform (Osborne).
On the face of things, one of the areas in which Amazon warehouses appear to excel is workplace injuries. Amazon consistently reports fewer injuries than other similar warehouses. However, workers reveal stories of being told to blame workplace injuries on pre-existing conditions or treat them in ways that do not require federal reports. One such method is having on-site medical staff treat wounds with bandages instead of sending workers to hospitals for stitches. Additionally, doctors discuss how Amazon takes issue when they give injections or otherwise treat injured workers in ways that require Amazon to report the injuries (Bernton and Kelleher). A manager who wrote to an Amazon vice president about health concerns and “unreasonable expectations of workers” was in the following week “accused of a minor rules infraction and given the choice of leaving the company or getting fired” (Bernton and Kelleher). The message was clear: Amazon wants its workers to keep quiet and do what they are told. Questions are not part of the job description.
While full-time workers at Amazon are afforded a matching 401(k) and health insurance, Amazon keeps its full-time employment to a minimum. During slow months, around half of Amazon’s warehouse employees are “part time” workers hired by a staffing firm separate from Amazon, allowing the company to skirt benefits and full-time employment, even though these so-called “permatemps” work all year. At the holiday seasons, part-time workers vastly outnumber full-time ones. Amazon has also adopted a firm anti-union stance, once firing 400 workers who had been targeted by the Communications Workers of America and writing the layoffs off as “company restructuring” (Bernton and Kelleher). Even full-time workers at Amazon warehouses don’t do well, making an average of 15 percent less than workers in comparable positions. The 401(k)s are only matched after years of working for the company (median tenure is one year), and the health insurance comes with premiums and deductibles that may be well above what an employee can afford (LaVecchia and Mitchell).
White collar workers at Amazon also face a high-pressure, unforgiving workplace. One employee left Amazon after she miscarried twins and was told by her boss to depart for a business trip the day after her surgery. Another employee recalls losing her job after “cutting back on nights and weekends” to “care for her father, who was suffering from cancer” (Kantor and Streitfeld). Still others were pushed out after missing work for cancer treatments. Employees are often expected to pay their own travel expenses and, according to one former employee, presumed to devote around 80 hours a week to the job (Kantor and Streitfeld).
Despite Amazon’s harsh business practices, the company insists it is bringing wealth and jobs to the places it goes (take, for example, the current fight for what city can win the next Amazon headquarters). Even this insistence, however, is not true. According to the ILSR study, Amazon had created around 146,000 jobs nationally by 2015 whereas it has displaced enough retail stores to account for around 295,000 jobs, a net loss of 149,000 American jobs.
Amazon has built its business abusing its workers, squeezing productivity out of them at great physical and emotional cost (in exchange for little monetary compensation). These practices (both the legal and illegal ones) are not the practices Americans should demand from their companies. If Amazon wants to succeed, it must succeed not only for Jeff Bezos, but also for Connie Milby, a 51-year-old warehouse employee (as of 2012); Pam Wethington, a former employee who fractured bones in her feet from walking on concrete all day (Bernton and Kelleher); and Michelle Williamson, who, after helping to build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, was told that raising her family would likely “prevent her from success” at the company (Kantor and Streitfeld). The people must demand this feat of Bezos and Amazon, because until that happens the richest man in world will see no reason to change his company.
At this point, it is important to clarify that most of the evidence presented is not particularly useful in court–either it is not in violation of laws or would be difficult to prove. The argument in this series is not so much that Amazon is breaking the law, but rather that its business practices are both unethical and unsustainable (and, at least in some cases, should be illegal). While this first part of the series focuses on the effects Amazon has on its employees, the remaining ones will address Amazon’s relationship first with other businesses and then with governments, providing clearer proof that the Amazon that America and the Western World know and love cannot possibly be the one that will exist forever.
This issue is one where I particularly invite your comments, although I will not leave explicit questions. Amazon is adored for its convenience and its prices, but an examination of that convenience and those prices will hopefully shed a more revealing light on the shadowy entity that is Amazon Inc.
Stay tuned next week to learn about Amazon’s relationships with other businesses. Until then, I’m going to try a little game to prepare for next week’s post. Comment below to fill in the blank:
From 2000 to 2015 the number of independent, local retail stores decreased by ________. When asked, owners most often cited _________ as the primary reason for closing their stores.
The person with the closest guess gets a shout-out in the next post… Good luck
Bernton, Hal and Susan Kelleher. “Amazon warehouse jobs push workers to physical limit.” The Seattle Times, 17 Aug. 2015, https://www.seattletimes.com/business/amazon-warehouse-jobs-push-workers-to-physical-limit/.
Kantor, Jodi and David Streitfeld. “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html.
Konkel, Frank. “The Details About the CIA’s Deal With Amazon.” The Atlantic, 17 July 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/the-details-about-the-cias-deal-with-amazon/374632/.
LaVecchia, Olivia and Stacy Mitchell. Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities. Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Nov. 2016, https://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ILSR_AmazonReport_final.pdf.
Osborne, Hilary. “Amazon accused of ‘intolerable conditions’ at Scottish warehouse.” The Guardian, 12 Dec. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/11/amazon-accused-of-intolerable-conditions-at-scottish-warehouse.