Last August, the New York Times reported on “purposeful Darwinism” at Amazon, the $250 million company that's made owner Jeff Bezos the world's fifth richest man. He also now owns the Washington Post.
Amazon’s work ethic has created controversy before. In 2011 a local paper in Pennsylvania described sweltering summer conditions in one of its mammoth warehouses, with employees working in 100 degree heat. An ambulance was parked outside to take workers to hospital if they collapsed. Air conditioning was installed after the exposé. The workers were being paid only US$11 to 12 an hour.
At Digg, Dan Fallon observes, “It basically sounds like Amazon is operating like a small startup during a critical early phase — except Amazon has been around for 21 years and has more than 150,000 employees.” One might add that the startups’ pioneers are usually well-rewarded if the company succeeds. Not so much the 150,000 who just get a job there later.
Which is part of the problem. Let’s not confuse the overachieving white-collar employees, who describe themselves as “addicted” Amabots, with those warehouse pickers who hope merely for fair pay for an honest day’s work. No large company is staffed only by workaholic managers pursuing eventual rewards. Should people who take the only available job in a depressed area put their lives on hold in consequence? Put another way, what does that say about the real economy if it is necessary
A recent article in the Huffington Post by labor reporter Dave Jamieson chronicles the death of Jeff Lockhart Jr., who died of an apparent heart attack January 18, 2013, while picking at the warehouse near depressed Richmond, Virginia.
Jeff Lockhart was not “killed on the job.” But his death spotlights a trend for blue collar workers in North America: Getting trapped in a caste system, where radical progressive politics seems like the only solution. Some notes from Jamieson may shed light:
– In addition to 2000 full-time workers, during peak periods of business, Amazon relies on thousands of employees of temp agencies. Like Jeff, they are generally honest workers, easy to find in post-industrial rust belts where the jobs have emigrated to eastern Asia. Many, like Jeff, dream of becoming Amazon staff proper, as a chance at “one of the only remaining paths to a middle-class life.” But very often, they are just let go.
- As Jamieson acknowledges, Amazon is not a sweat shop. What’s changed is that:
When it comes to low-wage positions, companies like Amazon are now able to precisely calibrate the size of its workforce to meet consumer demand, week by week or even day by day. Amazon, for instance, says it has 90,000 full-time U.S. employees at its fulfillment and sorting centers—but it plans to bring on an estimated 100,000 seasonal workers to help handle this year’s peak.
At one time in North America, a blue collar worker could get taken on at “the works” for life; today, he is more like an agricultural worker who may or may not get hired at the harvest. After Jeff’s death, his family’s home was foreclosed and they now rent, living mainly on Social Security.
– Amazon's white collar workers are akin to the shock troops of an ancient empire; they know they are superior to the grunts but that their lives are expendable in the service of the Bigs: Again, from the Times:
In interviews, 40-year-old men were convinced Amazon would replace them with 30-year-olds who could put in more hours, and 30-year-olds were sure that the company preferred to hire 20-somethings who would outwork them. After Max Shipley, a father of two young children, left this spring, he wondered if Amazon would “bring in college kids who have fewer commitments, who are single, who have more time to focus on work.” Mr. Shipley is 25.
This high tech-driven recreation of the caste system is bound to result in profound social changes, changes which cannot be attributed solely to Amazon. Nor will "fixing" or boycotting Amazon solve them.
The company is successful because customers, including the grunts, want the product and the price. Nasdaq.com says that’s not hurting Amazon:
These reports regarding Amazon's workplace, or any other large corporation, will not drastically affect the company's stock and has not since the release of the NYT article. Amazon is still has a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy) and is currently trading up on the day. The article also cannot negate Amazon beating its earnings estimates for the most recent quarter by 226.67%.
It would only become a fully developed caste system if the grunts could not afford to, or were not allowed to, shop at Amazon.
We are not there yet for sure, but these developments are worth keeping an eye on because of their implications for civil liberties and social stability.
As Jamieson notes:
This system isn’t unique to Amazon—it pervades the U.S. retail supply chain. Many companies choose to outsource shipping work to so-called third-party logistics providers, which in turn contract the work to staffing companies. At some of Walmart’s critical logistics hubs, multiple temp agencies may be providing workers under the same roof. The temp model also extends far beyond retail. The housekeeper who cleans your room at a Hyatt hotel may not work for Hyatt, but for a temp firm you’ve never heard of, for less money and fewer benefits than a direct hire.
Generally, temp workers have fewer rights, as well as fewer benefits. For example, Amazon may well take the time to bring an employee in whom it has already invested up to speed; the temp agency just sees the crowd in the recruiting centre’s waiting room, and pulls the plug. Keeping Amazon happy is the profit centre.
The reason I think traditionalists should monitor these developments is that North America, north of the Rio Grande, was an exceptionally stable and peaceful area compared to Europe from about 1865 onward, in large part due to two factors: We lacked a history of hereditary castes that were above the law (aristocrats) or beneath the law (serfs). Our social structures were famously fluid; people who really wanted something could find a way to buy it. So there wasn't a whole lot to revolute about. Much of our politics came down to squabbles over expanding pies.
However, if broad changes like jobs going to China and AI displacing lower middle class workers create castes - groups fixed in their social position -- more people may come to believe they can benefit only from punishing the people they envy, banishing ideas they don't like, seizing property, and maybe creating public disorder. The fact that these strategies almost never benefit them is beside the point if they believe it will -- just this once.
Incidentally, some defend Amazon, including former White House press secretary Jay Carney, now current Amazon PR man. Accusing the New York Times story of having failed journalism 101, he reveals, concerning one witness:
Here’s what the story didn’t tell you about Mr. Olson: his brief tenure at Amazon ended after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records. When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately. Why weren’t readers given that information?
True, they should have been told. But there is no reason to believe that Mr. Olson’s testimony on working conditions is false, when it is supported by so many others’. What Carney reveals in his diatribe, perhaps without intending to, is that Amazon had been trying to manage the story for six months, much as the White House might try to manage Fast and Furious or Benghazi. But he did not succeed.
Maybe next time he will. Especially if Jeff Bezos also owns the New York Times by then.
Curiously, Carney himself may not be above reproach in such matters. See, for example, the odd photoshop job on his glam family life, courtesy a Washington gushmag:
A dozen or more cut-and-paste operations later, 12-year-old Hugo Carney's left pinky finger wound up halfway across the room, left behind when a book jacket was cloned.
And the photoshop's transformation of a half-empty library into a full one is relevant to the story.
I hope to unpack, in future posts, the way high tech is transforming our social structures, with special emphasis on the diminishing value of traditional civil liberties in our pop culture. That is a key outcome of these developments.
(This article originally appeared in slightly different form at Mercatornet.)
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