Jeff Bezos’ denials about exploitation at Amazon sound like Libertarian, sociopathic CEO-speak
One of the core tenets of libertarianism is that the market is always self-correcting; that any injustice or moral offense carried out through Darwinian competition will somehow, by virtue of the invisible hand, fix itself. Restaurant uses rats in its meat loaf? People will find out and the business will shut down. Too many rapes at Northwestern University? It will come to light and women will choose to get educated elsewhere.
It is impossible, therefore, for a libertarian to accept that a worker can ever be exploited. Being the fully realized Randian heros that they are, abusive working conditions will simply compel workers to walk across the street, making any workplace abuse short of criminality a virtual impossibility.
So when the New York Times published its measured indictment of Amazon’s dog-eat-dog corporate culture last Sunday, the response from Amazon’s finely honed PR department — and its ideological confederates in Silicon Valley— was equal parts laughter and equal parts dismissal. It wasn’t just unfair, in their minds; it was a contradiction in terms. The tautology of libertarian orthodoxy means that anyone who stayed at Amazon had to, by definition, be happy. So what gives? Jeff Bezos was quick to insist that the Amazon described in the New York Times report was not the Amazon he knew. Which is bizarre since this isn’t the first time Amazon’s dystopian company culture has been exposed.
Let’s take a look at the Amazon that, if he had ever bothered to Google his own company in the past 10 years, Bezos should know by now.
1. April 2001: The Guardian: UK workforce attacks Amazon: Biggest online store accused over wages and conditions.
Way back in 2001, before it was cool to hate Amazon, UK authorities responded to numerous accusations of poor pay, poor conditions and poor management.”
Staff working for the world’s biggest e-commerce trader at its Marston Gate depot near Milton Keynes have made a series of complaints to the Guardian about wages and conditions in the company….
One employee claimed they were required to push a trolley for what felt like up to 20 miles in a night to fill it with books and CDs named on computer-printed lists…An employee claimed that ethnic miniority staff felt they were frequently overlooked for promotions.
2. December 2008: Times of London: Amazon UK accused of sweatshop conditions.
Another investigation into a UK fulfillment center exposed harsh clock-watching, excessive turnover, unhealthy demands and nickel-diming from corporate supervisors.
Employees reportedly get only two short breaks for an eight-hour shift and must request permission to use the toilet. The temporary employees hired to handle the seasonal increase in business earn the equivalent of $10.40 an hour but must pay $13 a day to take a bus to the warehouse if they can’t arrange their own transportation, the newspaper reported.
3. September 2011: The Morning Call: Lehigh Valley workers tell of brutal heat, dizzying pace at online retailer.
The first bad PR that struck Amazon stateside was an investigation by a local Pennsylvania paper inside one of the fulfillment centers that discovered even more horrifying abuse. Temperatures routinely peaked over 100 degrees, getting so bad one local ER doctor took it upon herself to call federal regulators to report “unsafe environment” after treating several workers in a short period of time. The standard complaints were present as well: aggressive monitoring, not being paid for downtime on location, and the most dystopian — a point-based discipline system creating a terror-like regime of compliance:
Both permanent and temporary employees are subject to a point-based disciplinary system. Employees accumulate points for such infractions as missing work, not working fast enough or breaking a safety rule such as keeping two hands on an inventory cart. If they get too many points, they can be fired. In the event of illness, employees have to bring in a doctor’s note and request a medical waiver to have their disciplinary points removed, those interviewed said.
Not working fast enough, or failing to “make rate,” is a common reason employees get disciplinary points, those interviewed said. Workers are expected to maintain a rate, measured in units per hour, which varies depending on the job and the size of inventory being handled.
4. November 2013: BBC: Amazon workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness.’
In 2013, the BBC sent undercover cameras into Amazon’s warehouses and uncovered even more abuse, leading one stroke and heart disease expert to say the conditions were putting Amazon employees at mental and physical risk:
“We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves,” he said. ….Adam Littler went undercover as a “picker” at Amazon’s Swansea warehouse. “We don’t think for ourselves, maybe they don’t trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don’t know.”
Prof Marmot, one of Britain’s leading experts on stress at work, said the working conditions at the warehouse are “all the bad stuff at once….characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”
The only difference in this latest account is it seems the race-to-the-bottom corporate culture has reached to the white-collar employees as well. It’s a phenomenon labor advocates have been warning of for some time: as our economy becomes more and more managerial and service-driven, even competitive workplaces will begin to reflect the Dickensian hellhole we typically associate with lower wage jobs. Indeed, it seems the only reason the Times piece hit such a nerve with the chattering classes is that, for once, they saw themselves as the replaceable cog in the capitalist machine. The class line between “skilled” and “unskilled” labor was Bezos’ greatest defense. But it seems, this line is not as clear and defined as previously thought.
Bezos, and his crack team of PR spinners, including former White House press secretary Jay Carney, have been doing damage control, repeating the same mantra over and over: “This isn’t the Amazon I know,” “this isn’t the Amazon I know.” And for c-level execs like them this is technically true. This isn’t the Amazon they know, but what’s increasingly clear is that it is the Amazon their workers know. As one former employee confessed on Twitter, he didn’t even blame his manager:
[Once] my mgr told me to skip my daughters bday party on a Sunday bcs work “should be your baby.”…My mgr was under so much pressure…someone spotted my mgr crying under desk later that month. Shit rolls downhill.
That’s what the Bezos’s of the world, in their unfettered thirst for profit, don’t see. That’s what their PR flacks don’t see. In a world where “shit rolls downhill,” for those at the top things smell pretty sweet. This isn’t the Amazon Bezos knows because, to a large extent, he doesn’t know the real Amazon.