Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Amazon's white collar sweatshop



    Treating your employees like crap is not a new concept.
     In fact it's very old. Peer into the past and you see it everywhere. The 12-hour day. The six-day work week. Children in thread factories. Lose your hand in the spinning exposed gears? You're fired and the next guy takes your place.
     Nor do we have to go back in time to find Dickensian conditions. The reason our stuff is made in China is because decent workplaces, which cost money, are scarce there. Workers packed into dormitories, nets under the windows to catch the suicides, factories belching pollution. No pesky EPA there, and the fact that 4,000 Chinese citizens die of air pollution-related illnesses every day, well, there's plenty more.
     How do we compete with that?
     We used to fancy we'd be smarter, more productive, more innovative. That was a decade ago; we seem to have given up that dream.
     Now the plan is to compete by emulating them. We'll work all the time too, embracing an insane Horatio Alger pluck and luck and email ethic. There is always an element of America who wants to imitate our foes. In the 1950s, that meant instilling the same thought-police, loyalty-oath fear tactics that we decried in the Soviet Union. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Now we're going to out-hustle China.
     I'm writing this in the aftermath of reading a lengthy, jaw-dropping exploration of the corporate culture of Amazon that ran in the New York Times  They spoke with more than 100 employees, past and present, of the Seattle-based online retailing giant, and portray a white collar sweatshop where a set percentage of employees are fired each year on general principles. Where failing to answer a midnight email is unacceptable, and employees unfortunate enough to contract cancer or have children can find themselves shunted toward the exits for being insufficiently committed.
     And like Communist China, it works great, on one level. Amazon is worth a quarter trillion dollars. Founder Jeff Bezos is the fifth wealthiest man on earth, with 188,000 employees working like plow horses to make him fourth richest.
     But on another level, the notion that employees should have full, rounded lives, with hobbies and families and relaxation, it's a failure.
     Their entire philosophy seems to be that the customer is king. the assumption being that all customers want is to get their "Minions" DVDs delivered in 20 minutes, by drone if possible. But customers also care, maybe, a little, about where the stuff they buy comes from, and as much a disincentive it is to buy books on Amazon, knowing how it has been chewing up publishing, it's even more off-putting to realize you're supporting a dehumanizing hive.
     But not that off-putting. Amazon will not suffer much from a story in the Times. Horrid conditions in China might make us shake our heads, but we still buy their khakis.
     Why? Maybe somewhere we lost our humanity. Maybe decent work environments were a phase, a mid-20th century American fad, and now we are reverting to form. The philosophical groundwork is certainly being laid. Politicians used to paint themselves as the workers' friend. Now a truly loathsome billionaire like Donald Trump can be the darling of the party of Lincoln, just because he promises to bring his secret rich guy knowledge to the table. Scott Walker is running on his success at crippling public unions in Wisconsin, and Bruce Rauner is aping him. We went from a society that asked itself why teachers don't get paid like athletes do, to a society that wonders why teachers get paid so much, and tries to see that it stops, in the name of economy.
     Reading the Amazon story, I uttered a silent thanks for the career I've had. A good union salary to do work I love for tolerable management. Now people line up to do that work for free under the dubious proposition that making Arianna Huffington rich will rebound well to them in some nebulous fashion.
     Our only hope is that working for free, like abusing workers, is an untenable business model, long run. You can dupe people for a while. But they don't like being unpaid drones. No dogma of well-polished MBA phrases hides that forever, and so coercive ideologies, whether communism or our current technology stoked wealth worship, won't prevail. People are not that stupid. At least I hope they're not that stupid. Donald Trump is still topping the polls

26 comments:

  1. The Ghost of Christmas PastAugust 19, 2015 at 4:08 AM

    As both a customer and an author, I love Amazon. Great prices free quick two day delivery with Amazon Prime and royalty rates for self-published authors, with no censorship or editing, of 35% and 70% (depending on price point and exclusivity). Plius Amazon is standing up to the big dinosaur publishers, which need to die. This Times article was a vicious attack, which Jeff answered. Hooray for Amazon. I try to buy EVERYTHING from them.

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    1. Tool. No actual author would cite "no editing" as something positive. Posting this at 4 a.m. kinda proves the Times point about employees being driven to work round the clock. Bezsos answered by saying, unwittingly, that it was true.

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    2. Unfortunately, Amazon is the only place you can actually buy EVERYTHING. And I, for one, have become addicted. The story about its warehouse and shipping practices put me on the wagon for a while, but I confess I'm now reading Phineas Finn on Kindle, because it was "free" of course.

      john

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    3. It's very hard to avoid their service. Just days after I read that, I wanted to get a certain book to a friend who isn't doing well, and while I could have gone to my local bookstore and contrived to order a copy, the cheapest, fastest way was Amazon and I figured the transaction wouldn't make or break them.

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    4. The Ghost of Christmas PastAugust 21, 2015 at 6:34 AM

      Sorry Neil, but us self published authors do like no editing. And I am not an Amazon employee, just a loyal fan.

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    5. Which is why the vast majority of self-published writing is such shit. I appreciate your loyalty, though your passion for unfiltered prose sort of undercuts that. I have no editor here by necessity, and my work suffers for it.

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  2. Yes, it's getting to be the age of robber barons again like the late 19th century era.

    Walker and Rauner/ Trump, are despicable.

    Maybe some of those city of Chicago unions where 3 guys stand around while one checks a manhole cover might need some curbing but not all. No thanks to Reagan for starting the union busting trend.

    I am guilty of buying at Amazon, though not a ton of things. Barnes and Nobles is too rich for my blood and some things hard to find. Guess that gives me a forked tongue.

    But good article, NS-some need a wake up call. It is puzzling why some will vote for the conservatives if they aren't born again or well off.

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    1. I like to read books the traditional way. Yes, that is a familiar picture on the top of the child worker.

      This calls for a revisiting of the Sinclair book, The Jungle.

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    2. And Amazon makes for great gift certificates. Let's hope filthy rich Bezos, grows a heart sometime. You'd think with all that money they'd care about their workers in this day and age.

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  3. I purchase books generally at either Sandmeyers in Printers Row (where you will probably find Ulrich Sandmeyer behind the counter), or The Muse on Illinois, or other independant bookstore (not easy to find these days) if it is a book I want to keep. If it is one I think I will just read once (much of my nonfiction reading) I get the kindle version. It's easy and cheap. Is Nook a viable alternative? I don't know. Also - whether I want a toy for a grandchild or an inexpensive xtra battery for my android, it is soooo simple to use Amazon - particularly with free "Prime" shipping. What is the alternative??????

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    1. The alternative is spending more money, time, and/or effort. Most of us (myself included) generally choose not to do so.

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  4. There's so much that Amazon enables... they *do* sell damned near everything, and the delivery scheme? I can buy electronic parts in San Diego, while my mom ships baby supplies to my sisters elsewhere in the country. While we wait, either of us can stream that one episode of _The Wire_ where the police hear the plight of sex-trafficked eastern European women, and Amy Ryan's character remarks, "What they need is a union."

    We hear a fair bit about attempts to organize Walmart's employees. I'm surprised we aren't hearing about it for Amazon. Surely not *all* their warehouses are in "right-to-work" states?

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  5. Yes, it's interesting the euphism used for the so called "right to work states." A true misnomer and conservative twist on phrases.

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  6. Seems like everybody here except for the Ghost has a problem with Amazon's employment practices, yet we all use Amazon to a greater or lesser extent. Just like we decry the outsourcing of garment jobs to countries that don't have nearly the labor protections in place that exist here, but where are you going to find a shirt made in the U. S. A.? It reminds me of when BP had that huge oil spill in the gulf. We had been getting BP gas fairly regularly, but decided it was time for a boycott. (Never mind the fact that it was pointed out that such a move would hurt innocent local dealers much more than the corporate chieftains.) Try finding a friendly mom-and-pop oil company to provide your weekly fix. Try finding one of the "quality" companies that doesn't have a skeleton or 3 in its closet somewhere along the line.

    At least, unlike with many dire situations, anybody getting one of these jobs at Amazon probably could work at a host of other places, and CHOOSES to go there. From reading that article, it seems more like a cult or a religion than a business to me, but then there are plenty of Mormons who seem perfectly happy despite following rules that I would certainly find to be deal-breakers.

    One of the comments to that NYT article concluded by saying "Jesus wept. Atlas shrugged." That seems like as succinct a summation as one could hope for.

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    1. Although I've seen the article about Amazon mentioned, I haven't read it yet. Prior to that, I wasn't aware of any criticisms of Amazon's employment practices. My main source of discomfort with it was because of all the booksellers that have gone out of business. However, since I get almost all my books from the library (more out of space considerations than any other reason--we both read a lot, and hubby buys all his books), I don't feel too much compunction about buying my batteries, shampoo, kitchen gadgets, and so on from Amazon rather than another retailer. I guess I feel bad about the waste that goes into packaging, also. I recycle most of it, but still...

      I completely agree about the ability of Amazon's employees to go elsewhere, at least if we're talking about skilled workers.

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    2. Exactly, I reserve amazon also just for used books and cd's.

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    3. The Ghost of Christmas PastAugust 21, 2015 at 6:38 AM

      I don't want to buy "made in USA" products. I want cheap foreign goods. I hate the U.S. and hope its economy crashes to screw the rich. I always look for foreign goods.

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  7. BP is high and that time they put something in the gas that messed up people's cars. There are better places for gas that are cheaper even if not mom/ pop.

    No, we can't always live up to our labor ideals.

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    1. Oh yes, Mormon and Scientology cults indeed.

      Just cause someone is working there doesn't make mistreatment right at Amazon. Who knows, some may not find other jobs so easily or no time to look for one or go on interviews.

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  8. I had heard about the New York Times article while watching CBS yesterday morning and saw that Amazon had gotten Jay Carney, President Obama's ex Press Secretary, to come out with some statements to defend Amazon's policies. So you know the article must have struck a nerve. I thank NS for providing the link to the original story.Amazon sounds like a very tough company to work for, but none of the people interviewed had any negative comments about the compensation and benefits and some of the employees seemed to thrive in that environment. They must be paid well enough to put up with the stress, for at least a while. I hope the negative press the company is getting will cause them to reevaluate their priorities. I buy a lot of stuff through Amazon, primarily because they're easy to deal with. Their customer support is second to none in my experience and I probably will continue to buy from them.

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  9. I guess I'm an oddball here(not new in my life), but I don't have anything to do w Amazon. I try to deal w brick and mortars as much as possible, order a few things online, and I love my Nook. Works for me. Yes I'm sure Amazon would make it easier, but that's a slippery slope I'm not willing to go down if I don't have to.

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  10. I have two friends who work for Amazon, both in skilled positions. One seems to thrive, although I'll add that he does not have children and enjoys business travel. The other, who recently became a parent, speaks of the "golden handcuffs." Amazon may work you to death, but they compensate you well. In a way, it reminds me of the investment banking culture of years past. You get the job, work yourself to death for 5 years, make piles of money, then take the training and go another direction. I'm not sure why it is an issue that Amazon has taken this model and expanded it to other areas of business. For skilled workers, no one is forcing you to take a job with Amazon.

    Warehouse workers with limited options.... that is another conversation. But the NY Times article focused on the experience of the skilled workers. Clearly, Amazon is not a culture for everyone. I'm not sure why this is is news.

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    1. That's an excellent analogy, Anita. You could also compare it to some law firms.

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  11. It is a little bit of a false analogy to compare workers making six figures who are highly sought after if they are fired to a child making six cents who might starve to death if fired.

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  12. Legislation. We cannot depend on people's good graces and if one is not fortunate enough to be represented by organized labor then we need the federal government to step-in and make certain that workers are not being abused. Too simple-minded? Well, that's what the big, bad, villified federal government is for -- to do what people will NOT do left to their own devices and base human nature.

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