Amazon is beating its brick-and-mortar rival, Walmart, for subhuman work conditions. As happened with Walmart, the retail behemoth of virtual space is increasingly developing a monstrous reputation. Walmart had to make major changes as public scorn grew against it. Amazon will, too.
Is it Amazon’s right to be greedy in order to maximize profits for stockholders? Of course it is! It is also everyone else’s right to hate them for it. Increasingly, many do. That’s part of being a world citizen. Plain and simple.
For years, most people (not me, but most) luuhved Walmart for having one of the biggest selections of merchandise at the lowest prices. Anything for a lower price on skivvies, even turning your soulful little town into a soulless strip mall. Over time, stories of Walmart’s treatment of its workers continued to spread, though, until the Walton family became the slum-dog billionaires. Eventually, the company’s reputation preceded it in the marketplace of human resources, making it difficult for the company to build new stores until, finally, it had to substantially up its game in terms of wages and benefits.
The amazing Amazon’s rate of flow
Usually, I take the macroeconomic view from 40,000 feet. This time I’m going to take the micro view of just one greedy but highly successful company that is top in stocks and run by the richest man in the world to show how the richest treat the rest as expendable. If you don’t fight for every cent you get, you get nothing.
We’re going to take a look at corporate greed from a Petri dish where it is plentiful. Our opening shot starts so close in all you see is the character’s hands flurrying about her business:
Dixon had to scan a new item every 11 seconds to hit her quota, she said, and Amazon always knew when she didn’t. Dixon’s scan rate – more than 300 items an hour, thousands of individual products a day – was being tracked constantly, the data flowing to managers in real time, then crunched by a proprietary software system called ADAPT.
(The camera dollies back to reveal a vast Amazon warehouse around her with hundreds of employees all doing the same thing until Dixon is a mere speck at the far end of the warehouse.)
Think of Amazon as being a large data stream filled with piranha where thousands of frenzied workers will devour other workers whose numbers are marginally slower. As a worker, you know the company literally watches over your shoulder every second, and, if your numbers fall a fraction behind the mainstream flow, you’re gone in a gulp.
In two months, Dixon became one of the small fry who got fried. She no longer is able or allowed to perform her job. An Amazon-approved doctor concluded she blew her back out from the non-stop bending, twisting and lifting that one must perform in that manner in order to keep up with the data flow. So, she was culled from the stream.
Marc Wulfraat, president of the supply chain and logistics consulting firm MWPVL International, described Amazon as more aggressive than any other industry player in what the company expects from workers. “And they will not waste time hanging on to people who can’t perform.”
One disabled veteran who worked for Amazon injured his back and ankle on the job, so he was told he’d get lighter duty until he healed. However, the ADAPT system Amazon uses to track every single worker action failed to adapt to his needs and kept demanding a pace he couldn’t maintain of 350 medium-weight items per hour. Because he fell a mere 1.55% behind ADAPT’s set level due to his damaged back, he was fired.
Workers refer somewhat scornfully to this surveilled metric as “the rate,” while they refer to some order-fulfillment centers as “the meat grinder.”
Says one employee,
It’s like a nightmare, all these machines telling you your rate is down…. Oh, we didn’t fire you, the machine fired you because you are lower than the rate.
The moral is, don’t be a sub-rate human.
One manager claims about the rapid firing process, there is no three-strikes-your-out rule. Firing, he says, “is a matter of conversations.” Yeah, those conversations probably run something like, “Get your butt up to quota, or get your butt outa here.”
Even though the company claims to have no quotas in its own defense, it wasn’t hard for The Verge to find 300 former employees in Baltimore who were let go over the course of one year for failure to meet “the rate.” That was 10% of their local workforce. Maybe you have to cull the bottom ten percentile somehow, but this rate is an intensely competitive, self-adjusting climb to maximum performance at minimum pay. A real slavedriver, “the rate” and quality standards (allowable mistakes) keep migrating upward.
In other words, the reward of benchmark success is that the “machine” raises your benchmark rate like the conveyor in the I Love Lucy candy-factory classic — individually and collectively. Employees were once allowed one error per 1,000 items. It’s now migrated up to one per 2,200.
We are like a machine, like robots. The rate keeps increasing and increasing and increasing.
Amazon claims “the rate” doesn’t exist. (And there is no such thing as the mafia either.) However, one of Amazon’s own managers says, the rate is “supposed to set a cadence of expectation.” What a lovely way to say it!
But I have to ask, how do you set a cadence with a non-existent metronome? Aside from that obvious self-contradiction, at a hypnotic “cadence” of one item every ten to twenty seconds, one can easily foresee the number of mistakes or injuries will increase as the day wanes. Your hand-held scanner is also your personal misery whip and tattle tale, tracking your performance and reporting it one beat at a time all day long, flaggin (or flagellating) your down performance. Get below that rhythm, and your scanner will flash you like a psychological taser, letting you know it’s letting the big bosses know.
The plastic pistol near your pocket may even light up with a warning while you’re in the bathroom, excoriating you for taking 2.1 more seconds to urinate than your average working colleague that day by letting you know you are now falling behind the rate. The solution, if you’re an Amazon driver whose out on the road where bathroom stops take even longer, is to use your van as a mobile restroom and pee in a bottle. UK drivers also had to break speed limits in order to carve out sufficient “toilet time” to stay on rate.
Amazon recently lit into a member of congress for spreading the truth about the pee bottles:
After a public outcry from employees who knew better, however, Amazon recanted its false chastisement of the congressman, apologizing to Representative Pocan and admitting they were in error:
We’re unhappy about it, and we owe an apology to Representative Pocan. First, the tweet was incorrect. It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers….”
Employees readily confirm how extreme the situation is:
“’They got right in your face when you’re using the stall,’ said Darryl Richardson, a worker at the warehouse who supports unionization. Another pro-union worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution said of Amazon’s toilet reading: ‘I feel like I’m getting harassed.’”
The Washington Post (Bezos’s own newspaper)
Thus, the rate, which doesn’t exist, leads humans to dehydration because, drinking leads to needing to urinate, and needing to urinate leads to needing a bathroom break, which brings the rate down. So, do the math backward to reverse-engineer what you need to do, as an employee, to keep up with the company bots.
Amazon union busting and bullying
Amazon, which has avoided unions for 25 years, is accused of using worker surveillance on its 1.4-million employees to undermine unionizing efforts. It has advertised to hire professional intelligence analysts and has deployed union-sniffing software to monitor employee social media in order to keep its finger on the unionizing pulse.
Workers have claimed they were fired for discussing workplace conditions or were pulled off shifts to make it harder for them for them to engage in planned on-site activism. Part-time workers in Sacramento who wanted to take unpaid time off for a union meeting scheduled during the day were told Amazon’s time-off rules don’t apply to them since they are a specific subcategory of “class q” and “class m” logistics workers. (Neither apparently do labor laws.) Fine, but that was a distinction those workers had previously never heard of and for which they were given no explanation.
Does the richest man in the world, surrounded by a board of the world’s wealthiest stockholders, really need to have sub-class Q workers to make ends meet? Amazon likes to claim workers don’t unionize because they already get better pay and benefits than what a union could deliver. Why the need for strong-arm tactics if that is true?
One of Amazon’s top lawyers, David Zapolsky, referred to one warehouse worker, who was fired for protesting company COVID policies, as “not smart, or articulate” and suggested in a memo that executives should use that characterization publicly to squelch unionization efforts. Needless to say, no one was impressed with the inarticulate, politically dim lawyer (obviously not the sharpest cheese in the fridge) — least of all the reviled man’s coworkers. It galvanized their protest, and they managed to write much more articulately,
We are in a challenging and exceptional situation — but this type of behavior [by the lawyer] doesn’t align with our [leadership principles] or the image and values we try to embody when working with customers and candidates…. If this isn’t [a] situation where people should have backbone and insist on higher standards for our leadership then what are we even doing here?
Beat the bots before they beat you
The mental stress of being held to the mind-numbing standards of repetition that are comfortable home turf for an Amazon robot, which knows nothing but ones and zeroes all day anyway, can be its own kind of strain. It certainly increases the risk of injury.
An investigation by Reveal News from The Center for Investigative Reporting …
found that Amazon’s obsession with speed has turned its warehouses into injury mills…. The rate of serious injuries for those facilities was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry.
In the case of our opening character who was fired for her injuries, Dixon’s injury was just one of 422 injuries recorded in her warehouse alone that year, which had four times the national average for warehouse injuries due in good part to the mechanically obsessive need for speed.
One former Amazon safety manager says,
If you had an injury…there was no leniency, you were expected to keep that rate…. It was utterly ridiculous.
Amazon’s Kent, WA, warehouse, billed as it’s million-package-a-day “flagship of fulfillment,” has seen more than 10% of its workers seriously injured. The addition of robots, ostensibly to help people, helped pick up the pace but resulted in higher injury rates for the remnant of humans. At some facilities, robots have quadrupled the injury rates of the remaining humans because the humans must scramble to keep up. One employee described the scrabble of flesh and machinery as “a fight that we just can’t win.”
The more humanly fragile you are, the less desirable you are in the cold eyes of the creatures that swim the Amazon hire-archy. The gel-eyed top-feeders at Amazon have even been known to require next-day work from an employee who just suffered a miscarriage or to put a woman being treated for breast cancer on a “performance-improvement plan” or to fire a worker for taking time off due to a death in the family.
One Amazonian warehouse managed to hit an ambitious attainment goal of 23 serious injuries per hundred employees (23%!). (One has to assume this is an actual goal because Amazon has a solid record of seeing the addition of robots raise the injury rates of the humans. Moreover, since Amazon assures the public it never opens a robotic facility until everything is “ready and safe for employees,” that must mean the standard for “safe and ready” is a mere 23% of your employees going out the door with work-stopping injuries — Amazon’s definition of a “serious injury.”)
Between 2015 and 2018, OSHA reported 41 ‘severe’ injuries resulting in hospitalization, including six amputations and 15 fractures, associated with Amazon delivery or fulfillment jobs. This data does not include state OSHA records.
A single day in 2019 saw 24 workers hospitalized at a facility because, if you don’t feed the trailers fast enough, the robots start spilling a log jam of boxes around you. (Again think of that conveyor set to run faster and faster in I Love Lucy until it achieves the point of catastrophic human failure.)
Many employees are also afraid to use Amazon’s in-house clinic for job-related injuries because it is known to be the first step out the door. One former employee with multiple chronic shoulder, neck and wrist injuries from work claimed she was pressed back to working the line several times by the clinic, adding injury to injury. She said Amazon “reminds me of an American-made sweatshop.” When it comes to meeting the metrics, she added, “You get humiliated if you don’t.” She further claimed the only injuries Amazon took seriously were those that spilled blood because it might stain the merchandise.
Amazon replied in its defense that it is not the stain on the merchandise, nor even on the company’s reputation, that it is concerned about, but the spread of infectious disease. Apparently, while customers want their merchandise now, they don’t always want it in red. When you order a new arm chair, don’t be totally surprised if it comes with an arm … or, at least, a finger.
Amazon, of course, also argued that its “serious injury” rate is only so high because it is obsessive about recording all injuries and giving injured employees mandatory time off. (Kind of like Trump’s claim that Covid was only higher in the US due to the nation’s obsession with testing for it.) Employees have complained they are forced to break the company’s own rules on how to pick up a box in order to simultaneously lift and twist fast enough to maintain the mandatory metrics that Amazon obsesses over. Maybe Jeff needs to do a couple of months of line time.
When Amazon announced it was going to start using drones, customers thought they meant delivering packages by air, not that they were describing what they are going to turn their workers into. Instead of leading the world to a brighter and bolder future by making his corporation the force for social change that Jeff Bezos claims as his vision for Amazon, the company looks more like some robot dystopia.
Big Brother Bezos has even wired our homes with the listening ear of Alexa to know our needs and some say advertise to those needs as soon as we express them. One might even wonder if every Alexa has a bluetooth connection into Bezos’ brain.
Unsurprisingly, injuries peak on Prime Day and Cyber Monday. Next time you order Prime delivery, you might want to think of it as pressing your knee into someone’s spinal disk in order to get them to get you your package to you a little faster.
One former senior operations manager, who worked at multiple facilities, says the company “incentivizes you to be a heartless son of a bitch.”
Amazon’s cybertilt toward everything can even be seen in how it identifies its centers. While most companies would say in more human-like parlance, “This happened at our San-Bernardino facility,” Amazon would simply say, like a router, it happened “at ONT2” or “at LGB3.”
But you have to try to put a good human face on all the cybernetics publicly:
Externally, the company has launched a public relations campaign that includes TV commercials and a documentary TV series to drive home a message to customers that keeping the “retail heroes” in its warehouses safe is its top priority….
In public statements and internal meetings, the company seems to be treating the scrutiny of warehouse conditions like a PR problem rather than an opportunity to find and fix potential operational flaws.
Amazon, with its roots as a bookstore, has even been accused of taking such PR measures as delaying the shipments of books that are critical of its corporate operations.