Stop Using Amazon (Part I of IV)

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).

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A diagram of the companies that comprise Amazon

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).

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                                                         An Amazon warehouse                                                          Photo Credit: Scott Lewis

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

 

Works Cited

 

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.

 

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5 thoughts on “Stop Using Amazon (Part I of IV)

  1. Jaxi July 10, 2018 / 4:54 pm

    I know this series was written with me, the most extreme Amazon addicted purchaser out there in mind. Just kidding. I shall concede that you have shed light on some work practicies that do not align with my ethics, but I am not ready to tame my Amazon addiction. Since this is part I of IV, we’ll see how things go.

  2. Nick Jacobson June 29, 2018 / 7:19 pm

    I do not dispute Bezos saved the Washington Post, and I’m glad he did. However, I don’t think that excuses his company’s actions.

    Additionally, Amazon does not exclusively use USPS for shipping, but rather contracts with a variety of entities, most likely those who give it the best deal. I will discuss this in a later post, but as a preview, you might find looking into the “waterbed effect” interesting. Generally speaking, the waterbed effect is when one company with a lot of power (like Amazon) pressures another company (like UPS or USPS) to give it a good price on a good (like shipping). The result is that the large company gets a really cheap price while all the other companies USPS and UPS service are charged higher prices to make up for the profit lost to Amazon (in this scenario). Thus, while Amazon may be providing business for USPS, it could be raising prices for other companies (which Amazon then uses to its advantage). Again, I will explain in more detail next week, so stay tuned!

    Finally, I agree internet is definitely displacing local stores. Once more, I will explain more next week, but for now I’ll just say Amazon has been particularly willing to use its enormous size to crush its competitors, even those online, so even entrepreneurs who seek to start businesses online can end up crushed by Amazon. The strategies Amazon uses used to be violations of antitrust law, but since around the Reagan Administration have been permitted (again… next week).

    I definitely agree with you that buying the Washington Post was good, and Amazon is not wholly to blame for the decline in local stores, I just think there is more to the picture. I appreciate your thoughts. Please stay on top of me, and keep me honest through the next few posts. There are always multiple sides to the story!

  3. Nick Jacobson June 29, 2018 / 6:47 pm

    Yeah this research was some of the hardest I’ve done. I was a near-constant user of Amazon, but since I researched it last summer, I’ve bought almost nothing from it. I encourage you to read the coming segments as well, although I can’t promise they will be any more comforting than this one.

  4. Robert Beard June 29, 2018 / 4:07 pm

    Nick,

    You forgot to add that Bezos saved the Washington Post and Amazon arguably is saving the US Postal Service by choosing it and not the private overnight services as their delivery service.

    Also, you can’t blame just Amazon for displacing employees from local stores; it is the entire web commerce doing that.

    –Bob

  5. Patricia June 29, 2018 / 1:58 pm

    Wow! I’m an Amazon customer….your article made me sit up and take notice.

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