Don't miss a thing: Get full posts emailed daily or summaries emailed semimonthly.

UPDATE: I Want Amazon To Treat Their Workers Better

by Alex Iwashyna

in Cultural Norms (that are abnormal), Progressive Politics

amazon

UPDATE: A reliable source privately contacted me that Amazon is moving towards cleaning up its act. Great news! However, this person encouraged us to keep the pressure on through sharing stories and information on Amazon employee practices to push the company towards implementing these changes as it will may be an uphill battle.

Original post: When I first found Amazon, I was enthralled. Instead of scouring the web for each product I needed, they were all coming to me. Or so it seemed. Sure some weren’t there or were priced higher than on the actual websites or had exorbitant shipping (then I wasn’t an Amazon Prime member), but the concept was empowering to me as a pure consumer.

Many years later, when I read Amazon was opening local warehouses all over the country and there were debates about same-day shipping, I was again captivated. I had little kids and little time and the idea of going from shop-to-shop to find what I wanted when I wanted it was overwhelming. Same-day shipping sounded wonderful, although ominous to local businesses, but I had just had a bad experience with one in town, and I thought of the jobs it could create. I was also intrigued on a more basic level because I like change and future and technology. I like Amazon. I like the convenience, the price, the deals on Amazon local. I like being an Amazon Prime member for my family and being an Amazon affiliate on my blogs.

But now that the warehouses exist and are only growing, I can’t ignore the news about their warehouse conditions. I may have found ways to enjoy the perks and set aside the downfalls of this behemoth by saying businesses put businesses out of business all the time. (I just can’t say five times fast.) But when one of the wealthiest men in America can’t create safe working conditions and job security for his own employees, I’m not okay. I don’t believe in unfettered capitalism. I don’t believe in an America that looks like this.

An emergency room doctor had to call federal investors to report Amazon.com’s Lehigh Valley warehouse for unsafe conditions last summer because employees were coming in with heat-related injuries due to the temperatures of the warehouse reaching 100 degrees — no air-conditioning — and the doctor wasn’t the first to report them:

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

I can’t imagine working somewhere where the company decides to save money by having ambulances and new workers on-call rather than a safe working environment. While Amazon finally retro-fitted the warehouses for AC the following year and toted themselves as “really leading the way.” Just not to the ER anymore.

Amazon’s system is one of many warehouses. The wave of the future according to our president who chose last month to give his speech on middle-class jobs at an Amazon distribution center in Tennessee. How could this be where we are heading? I know we are competing with China, but I think wanting to be like Apple and FoxConn is a bit too far.

Another journalist, Mac McClelland, went undercover at a similar warehouse (she can’t disclose the company so she called it “Amalgamated”):

Within the last month, three different people have needed stitches in the head after being clocked by these big metal bars, so it’s dangerous. Especially the lift in the Dallas sector, whose bar has been installed wrong, so it is extra prone to falling, they tell us. Be careful. Seriously, though. We really need to meet our goals here…

…Thank God that I (unlike Brian*, probably) didn’t need to pay for opting into Amalgamated’s “limited” health insurance program. Because in my 10.5-hour day I’ll make about $60 after taxes.

*Brian was a worker who was fired his first week for taking a day off when his wife had a child. He came back through the hiring practice a few weeks later and was used as an example of why workers can’t miss a single day or be a minute late their first week of work.

Most of these warehouses employ large numbers of temporary workers through staffing agencies where raises, work schedules, and decent healthcare aren’t rights and these temporary workers are used throughout the year with upticks at holiday times because they can. “Temporary” can go on for years and the individual can be called in or out whenever.

New jobs in America are great news, but any job is not better than no job. People should not have to work at places believing their jobs are constantly at risk by being temporary workers . People should not be given unreachable goals so firing them is acceptable because the warehouse is in an area that automatically creates an advantage. People should not feel unsafe. And this certainly doesn’t sound like a middle-class solution to me nor does it seem like a plan for any class of workers.

This isn’t even good business. Unhappy employees, high turnover rate, lost time training people, bad public relations. While I would not want to see this as a one-day PR stunt, I would like to know if CEO Jeff Bezos has actually tried to run from 5-12 miles a day on the concrete floors in the time allotted to reach the high shipment goals given day-after-day.

Yet this industry is growing by leaps and bounds. While Amazon might work on a tight profit margin (1% is the figure I’ve seen thrown around), would people pay a bit more to know that others were treat better? Do I need my stickers or paper towels or winter hat in two days?

Of course, I’m in a financial position where I can choose whether to shop online or in stores. I can pay a bit more. I can boycott and end my affiliation if Amazon doesn’t make changes. But the people working in these warehouse whose job prospect are bad enough to take these jobs in the first place? They also may need the Amazon deals. They may need the $11 an hour versus the minimum wage paid by some (not all) of the local businesses. It’s not going to be everyone’s story, but it’s going to be enough stories that I can’t say it’s the merely the customers’ faults either.

I wonder how Jeff Bezos can have so much money that buying the Washington Post is only 1% of wealth. Perhaps the problem of Amazon is internal. After all, why are some businesses able to do right by their employees even without specific government regulations or stories in the news forcing them to do so? Of course, not enough companies act well enough to make unfettered capitalism reasonable, but when business people complain about regulations, they should glare at the companies that mistreat employees among other destructive decisions before pointing fingers at the government. Clearly, temporary workers and high unemployment areas should not be a loophole as this industry grows. Meanwhile, I’ll be wondering what to do about my Amazon affiliations both personally and professionally.

Disclaimer: As stated, I am an Amazon affiliated. Obviously, there are none in this piece. I just used an image they provide to affiliates but not the link.

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Stacy August 9, 2013 1

As someone who used to work at Amazon, I can tell you that the concerns are not limited to just the warehouse workers. I was hired for a “HR” position, that was certainly not HR at all. I was working a 8 am – 4:30 pm schedule with weekends off and had planned a trip to Florida over a weekend where I was not supposed to be working and then use 2 days of PTO for a Friday & Monday. It was approved and I had purchased my plane tickets and reserved the rental car – the whole deal. The Monday before I was set to leave, they told me they were changing my schedule to Tuesday – Sunday 9 am – 7:30 pm and I was expected to be at work that weekend.
Not only that, we were given ridiculous amounts of work to accomplish every day without nearly enough time to get it done. And we were required to stand for the entire shift – not what I was expecting with an “office” job. Once they finally set up a desk for us (instead of pushing our laptops around on a cart) and gave us standing stools (which caused my legs to go numb because they were too tall for my shortness) they told us we weren’t supposed to use the desk and to take our carts back out to the warehouse floor.
Prior to working there I had a Prime Membership and spent hundreds of dollars a year buying books & such. That was 3 years ago and I haven’t purchased a single thing. I miss the convenience, but I refuse to support a business that is not invested in it’s employees.

Reply

Alex Iwashyna August 11, 2013 2

Thank you for sharing your experiences with Amazon although it is disheartening to hear that it’s more pervasive than I thought. I know their profit margin is slim, but I don’t understand how they could care so little for their employees. I wonder at what point it flips for them — I had read here and there that some employees have no idea what’s going on there.

Reply

angela August 9, 2013 3

It makes me sad to read this, because I like them, too. Maybe I am naive, but I think making a safe environment both physically and mentally for workers has the potential to actually help company productivity and overall profit. Sigh.

Reply

Alex Iwashyna August 11, 2013 4

I agree. I’ve seen what high mental stress can do to people over time — it makes them lose their ability to love and care for others and/or themselves. That’s really not good but add physically stress, and I don’t think business will be booming in or out of the warehouses.

Reply

Lauren August 9, 2013 5

Last year I bought the bulk of my Christmas presents from Amazon. This year most of them came from Etsy. Sure, I have to pay individual shipping but at least I know I’m helping someone out and getting a quality product.
I love Amazon but am appalled my fast shipping and low prices are at the expense of someone just trying to make ends meet.
Lauren recently posted..How Running Changed My Life: Jason Guillorn

Reply

Alex Iwashyna August 11, 2013 6

Please send me your favorite etsy stores. I think I’ll need them.

Reply

Angela Alvarez Velez August 10, 2013 7

I found Amazon to be, frankly, liberating. I live in Colombia and Amazon is one of the few sites that ships books here. Books in English are ridiculously expensive in this country and very hard to find so I have bought dozens of books for my son and myself. When I read this I thought “but surely it’s ok if I order…I mean, I can’t get these anywhere else…and the books…and the baby…and…and…” and then I realized that as soon as you start making excuses you get on the wrong side of the fight. There are probably many Smiths and Jones working in Amazon but I’m betting there are plenty Garcías and Lopez’s, so it really is everyone’s business. So it is with a heavy finger that I, too, refuse to hit “place your order” on the juicy wishlist I had ready for my birthday in October. I will miss them more than they miss me but I live with me every day and I need to be able to look in the mirror (mostly to make funny faces but occasionally for hygiene). Thank you for writing this. Sorry for the long comment.
Angela Alvarez Velez recently posted..What my opinion of your book says about me (funny and completely hypothetical)

Reply

Alex Iwashyna August 11, 2013 8

I’m not quick to boycott a company. I try to educate myself and speak out and inform others. I see if they are making changes even slowly. I also acknowledge that some people are in unique situations to shop at places that I can boycott. I don’t shop at Walmart because of their employee business practices but I don’t begrudge others who do because of their budgets or lives or locations dictate it. I still have an iPhone and a MacBook because I did believe Apple was looking into FoxConn (now I wonder if it’s like every American company that says they have regulators “looking into it,” who give the factories heads up and have no follow up but people can check it off the box of “feel better.” SIGH.) But it’s sometimes overwhelming how many companies there are doing the wrong thing somewhere. I have no idea what you should do — I don’t know what I’m going to do with Amazon. This is becoming another post I think…

Reply

Stacy August 20, 2013 9

Previous post:

Next post: