Amazon, leading the way…back to the 19th Century!

Amazon, leading the way…back to the 19th Century! March 2, 2014

Check out Simon Head’s “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers”  on It’s  chilling and eye-opening.

It’s an expose of truly revolting labor practices at Amazon that deserves to be discussed widely. And not merely because people ought to know what this iconic and powerful corporation subjects its employees to, but also because that brutish treatment is quite likely a taste of things to come elsewhere in the economy. This madness could be coming to an employer near you.

Funny, here we all are, assuming Amazon to be some gleaming, super-automated “Jetsons”-style operation,with the very latest in robotics and high tech warehouses, a model business in the New Economy. I figured it was in the same category as NetFlix or RedBox, applying technology in radically innovative ways that, while inevitably (and sadly) displacing some more traditional “low-skill” workers–a pressing social problem I don’t take lightly at all, for the record–at least had the virtue of leading the way in terms of new modes of doing business and increasing productivity. While Amazon is undoubtedly a huge pioneer in certain technologies–especially in Cloud computing and digital media–in its core business, it appears to be bizarrely behind the times, if not savagely anachronistic.

The way it treats it employees represents a giant leap backwards into Dickens-meets-Orwell sweatshops, where technological advances are exploited not to make work more efficient in a holistic sense, but simply to more effectively dominate an underpaid, poorly treated contingent workforce that is being run ragged and denied any compensation for increases in productivity. So, Amazon is pioneering dystopian new techniques for the domination of employees, tracking their’ every physical move (down to the second, and to the extent they’re tracking how many steps are taken on the way to bathroom) and penalizing them for the smallest pauses and freedoms that many of us (especially in white collar jobs) take for granted. This is extreme stuff that makes even Walmart look good. It seems that Amazon’s success depends less on futuristic technology or  brilliant supply chain management than inhumane workplace practices and employee harassment reminiscent of the 19th century.

I’m a heavy Amazon customer (including Amazon Prime), but I have to say that these reports really give me pause. I don’t know how I as a person of faith, a progressive, or even simply a non-sociopath, can give any more of my money to a business that treats its employees this heinously, and which is setting labor standards generations back as it expands around the world.

Now, I realize there are no easy solutions. Amazon is trying sell everything under the sun, and starve into oblivion –sorry, “compete with”–a vast constellation of businesses supplying a near-infinite variety of products, each involving their own particular supply chain requirements. Robots aren’t cheap, and probably cost-effective in only a fraction of cases. It’s probably not possible to automate fulfillment for such a vast, heterogeneous, geographically spread-out mass of orders in anything near a cost-effective manner, so it makes sense that there’d be a huge component of manual labor, old fashioned warehouse workers. (Perhaps the real scandal here is how long it’s taken for information about these very old-fashioned, labor-intensive processes and and nasty business practices to break out into the MSM. The sustainability and legality of these practices ought be a part of any discussion of the company’s long-term outlook in the tech press, as it’s currently integral to Amazon’s business model.)

But that imperative doesn’t justify turning back the clock so drastically and embracing ruthlessly exploitative practices from benighted bygones eras. If Amazon can’t sell products at its current prices without violating its workers’ basic rights, then it should increase prices to allow for fair work conditions. And if the market won’t bear those increased prices, then perhaps the Amazon experiment has run its course and we know that there is a limit to the ability of  the Internet to reinvent and dis-intermediate commerce. (Who knows, many stodgy “Old Economy” business models that these days seem to be on the ropes might yet be vindicated.)
Brick & mortar stores often complain about customers using them as showrooms for subsequent Amazon purchases. Maybe it’s time to turn the tables a bit and use Amazon’s website for the research and give your money to local stores (or other websites with a less disturbing record) even if it costs a bit more. So long as Amazon engages in these revolting practices, their shopping site deserves to be used as a glorified bookmarking tool.

Interesting (but not surprising) to see how the only effective resistance to this madness is coming out of Germany, with its still-powerful unions. It’s no coincidence that the last 3 decades’ relentless war on organized labor in this country has been accompanied by a drastic drop in real wages, job security and quality of life for most Americans.

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