The force that can help Amazon’s workers? Amazon’s shoppers
Here are some of the ways that people who have worked inside Amazon’s warehouses describe the experience: “The job crushed my spirit and crippled my body.” “The lowest point in my life.” An “isolating colony of hell.” “They’re killing people mentally and physically.” “I began to hate my day-to-day life.” “The way Amazon pushes people is not moral.” “I had whole days where I didn’t talk to anyone.” “The systematic devaluing of human bodies.”
Few of these accounts are new. But persistent horror stories have done nothing to diminish Amazon’s geometric growth. In 2017, the company’s head count surpassed 500,000 employees. In 2020, Amazon added that many new workers, very likely a record level of hiring for a company in a single year. Today, nearly 1.3 million people work at Amazon, making it the country’s second-largest private employer, after Walmart. The majority toil in its sprawling fulfillment operations; they are the people who pick, pack, drive and deliver your stuff.
Are these workers happy? Is this good work? Should we rejoice about a company that can hire so many people in the midst of pandemic-induced mass unemployment? And one that, in 2018, instituted a minimum hourly wage of $15, pushing Walmart, Target and other competing retailers to raise their pay, too?
Or should we recoil at the way Amazon has swept the apparent brutality of its operations under a haze of public relations opportunism – the way it paints itself as a high-minded savior of American labor while its workers are so pressed for time that they must urinate and defecate in bags and bottles?
More urgently: Should we stop shopping at Amazon?
As an inveterate Amazon shopper whose spending with the company soared to embarrassing heights during the pandemic, I have thought about the ethics behind those smiling boxes a whole lot recently. And I regret to say that my hottest take is irritatingly tepid: It’s complicated.
To me it is far from obvious that boycotting Amazon is the best way to reform American retail in a way that results in greater safety and prosperity for workers. But that doesn’t mean that consumers have no power. To a degree greater than many of its competitors, Amazon has thrived by accommodating its customers’ desires. Consumers can now try to marshal that power on behalf of Amazon’s workers. There is one thing Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, seems to care about above all else: what his customers want.
I suspect that if he were pushed to take employees’ safety as seriously as he does price or selection, Bezos could do more than just about anyone else to improve the lives of America’s workers by radically improving conditions at Amazon to set a standard for rivals to follow.
I can sense readers ready to mock me as Bezos’ credulous stooge. I understand that impulse; it is becoming impossible not to feel icky about shopping at Amazon.
In the last few months, as the company faced the most serious union drive in its history at a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, its ugly labor record has become inescapable. Amazon’s employees suffer injuries at rates far higher than the national average for the warehouse industry, stats that it has worked hard to hide from the public. Turnover at its facilities is so far off the charts that you have to conclude that treating workers as disposable cogs is a core part of its business model. The company is obsessed with crushing unions; the workers in Alabama voted down the union, but Amazon’s victory came at the cost of laying bare its antagonism toward organized labor.
On the other hand, in American retail, what real choice is there? In his excellent new book, “Fulfillment,” journalist Alec MacGillis examines American inequality and economic desperation through the lens of Amazon’s growth and rapid domination. The company almost seems to personify economic imbalances. Its founder is the richest man alive; its workers are mainly refugees from an industrial economy decimated by globalization; and while its customer base has become quite broad, it is a favored shopping destination for the wealthy.
Yet MacGillis’ account also makes clear that the problem of Amazon is far bigger than Amazon.
Amazon’s retail competitors are not much better guardians of American labor; a lot of them are obviously worse. Remember that Walmart was destroying local economies long before Amazon came along, and according to an analysis of data from 11 states, more of Walmart’s workers in those states rely on public assistance to make ends meet. Dollar General, the discount chain that is one of America’s fastest-growing retailers, might have just as shameful a record on worker safety and comfort. Workers at Whole Foods, Amazon’s grocery subsidiary, seem to have fared pretty much the same during the pandemic as those at Kroger, Walmart and other food giants.
The larger point is that Amazon is less the cause of American inequality than it is a consequence. Amazon is what you get when a country has systematically devalued workers and labor organizations to the benefit of billionaires. Amazon is what you get when a country has decided to import so many of its physical goods from abroad. And Amazon is what you get when states and cities compete with one another to lavish huge tax breaks upon corporations that pledge to create local jobs, without setting any requirements that they be good, safe, high-paying jobs.
Consider, for instance, how America’s longtime negligence on worker safety opened the door to Amazon’s injurious warehouses. Workers say that the most punishing thing about working at Amazon is the repetitiveness and relentlessness of the work.
“The human body was not designed to do the same motion over and over and over again for hours,” Tyler Hamilton, an Amazon warehouse employee in Shakopee, Minnesota, told me. “That’s what robots do.”
Yet there is little in American law that prevents companies from treating workers like robots. Deborah Berkowitz, a former chief of staff of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that sets standards for worker safety, told me that injuries in Amazon’s warehouses are mostly ergonomic – the results of “forceful exertions, repetitive motions, twisting, bending and awkward postures,” according to a 2019 report published by a coalition of labor advocates. But OSHA can’t do much about ergonomics. In 2001, the agency was specifically prevented by Congress and President George W. Bush from setting standards on ergonomics. Bush argued the rule would have been too costly to employers.
That wasn’t the only time worker safety was brushed aside by the federal government. David Michaels, who ran OSHA during the Obama administration, told me that the agency’s “basic model doesn’t work.” OSHA, Michaels said, is disastrously underfunded and understaffed, leaving it unable to inspect and enforce standards across the economy. It is also very slow, putting it far behind workplaces that are changing as quickly as Amazon’s. For example, the agency began working on a rule about crystalline silica – a dust produced in the manufacture of glass and other materials that can cause respiratory illnesses – in 1997. The rule was not finalized until 2016.
Both Michaels and Berkowitz said that unions could do a great deal to address safety. At companies that are unionized, the union can negotiate for practices that are safer than those required by OSHA’s moldering standards. But it would be preferable to have stronger federal rules than counting on long-weakened labor unions to improve standards.
I asked several Amazon employees over the past week whether consumers should stop using the company.
Some thought so. “I wish people can stop buying from them,” said Mohamed Mire, who also works at the Shakopee warehouse.
But Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the union campaign in Alabama, said consumers can have a powerful voice without a boycott.
“What people should do is demand that Amazon change the way it operates and demand from our elected officials that they ensure Amazon does that,” Appelbaum told me. “I think that in America we should have higher standards for the way working people should be treated.”
But how can we get Amazon to fix up its workplace without withholding our dollars? One thing I have noticed in covering Amazon is the company’s willingness to make big changes quickly. For years, Amazon skirted collecting sales tax from its customers, giving it an unfair price advantage over its brick-and-mortar competitors. Then, in 2012, Amazon suddenly stopped fighting sales tax laws because Bezos realized that Amazon’s customers cared a lot more about speed than price. This meant that it was wiser for Amazon to build warehouses across the country, even though it meant collecting sales tax in the states where they were located. That was a trade-off Bezos was willing to make to please his customers and get more business.
The best way to push changes to labor standards at Amazon is for its most loyal customers to demand it. We should demand it from our elected officials and our regulators, but it might be more effective to go to the source of the problem.
It is a point of pride with Bezos that his email address is public: [email protected] When customers email him complaints, Bezos has been known to forward them to his staff with a single ominous character – a question mark, widely understood to mean that they should drop everything and address the problem.
Here’s what I would say: Jeff, you will not believe how much stuff I buy from you. But I am having more and more trouble defending that choice, and I’m starting to look at the alternatives. Your workers are hurting, Jeff. One of your employees told me he had trouble holding the phone because his hands had been rendered numb from the unrelenting repetitiveness of his job. Another told me that your company treats him as if he weren’t human.
Jeff, you are a smart, inventive man, and you have racked up a fortune larger than you know what to do with. Don’t you have enough? You have altered the retail industry more than just about anyone. You can do much better than simply meeting the lowest bar of American workplace standards. You can be transparent about injuries and what you’re doing to address them. You can remake Amazon as a better place to work – a company that empowers employees rather than chews them up in pursuit of tax-free profits.
As a customer, I demand it.
[The New York Times]