Recently the New York Times ran a highly publicized piece on the work environment supposedly created and fostered at Amazon.com. The focus of the article was mostly on Amazon’s campus in Seattle and the plight of the fairly compensated lower and middle tier staff. The article then prompted an equally publicized rebuttal from current Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu and a memo from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to his staff.
First, the article: The New York Times, in its unending quest to track the ups and downs of the highly educated, privileged elite of society, makes some excellent points about the human cost of cheaper goods. The anecdotes, particularly those regarding the treatment of women within the ranks, are disturbing. The scope of the article, however, is mostly limited to those who have a good job and will inevitably continue to have a good job whether or not it is with Amazon. A broader point, perhaps only hinted at in the Times article, is that a company that wants to change the world but refuses to treat its employees humanely, will in fact change the world – for the worse. This concept is better articulated in a New Republic story that suggests an inverse relationship between what is good for the individual consumer and what is good for a society of consumers (i.e. human beings).
For all the reporting done on the day to day experience of the engineers, architects, and “bar raisers” at Amazon, very little time is devoted to the individuals who actually move package X from location A to location B. For a company whose primary purpose, despite the grandiose ambitions of its thought leaders, remains moving packages from location A to location B, this would seem to be an important area to cover. But the Times’ coverage of the Amazon warehouse workers is largely limited to a paragraph, a single sentence actually, reproduced in its entirety below:
“In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. (Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away laborers as they fell. After an investigation by the local newspaper, the company installed air-conditioning.)”
Amazon’s treatment of warehouse employees has of course been covered before. A case even made its way to the Supreme Court, where a unanimous court held that workers did not need to be paid for the time they spent in mandatory security screenings because these mandatory screenings were not “integral and indispensable” to their jobs. Again, that’s a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court finding that workers who have no option but to stay at work are nonetheless not entitled to be paid for their time at work. The suit was brought by a temp agency that contracted with Amazon to staff their warehouses, which highlights another important aspect of Amazon’s employment practice: using seasonal and temporary workers to perform the most arduous tasks.
The prospect of burdening the well-to-do workers in Seattle with fierce competition and long hours to the point where they are burned out was so shocking as to force an immediate response from the CEO of Amazon and several of its employees. Yet the policy of Amazon with respect to their warehouse employees is to in fact underpay, overwork, and seasonally disperse of the workforce. For all the umbrage and outrage expressed by Mr. Ciubotariu, not a word was devoted to the warehouse employees. And it is his experience (18 long months), as an “Engineer Leader” managing both managers and engineers, which allows him to have such great perspective on the inner-workings of the Amazon machine. He explains that he eschews the office in favor of a desk on the floor so he can relate to what it’s like for “individual contributors as well as managers.” A man of the people to be sure, the question remains, how many managers spend time at the warehouse so they can relate to ‘what it’s like’ for the people who actually make Amazon a functioning business? And when Jeff Bezos offered his email address to any employee that had a complaint, did he include the warehouse employees on his distribution list?
Mr. Ciubotariu wants to make perfectly clear that he has never been called an “Amabot” nor has he heard anyone utter this highly offensive term. He fails however, to clarify the human effect of treating warehouse employees like interchangeable robots – monitoring and measuring the efficiency of every step they take. And this is the crux of the problem: Amazon, like many other modern tech companies has convinced its staff and itself that it is “reinventing the world.” Aside from the fact that this is a meaningless platitude used to convince the public at large to view a giant corporation as something other than a giant corporation, if Amazon is in fact changing the world, what are they changing the world into? At the end of the day, the consumer class (the one that Amazon is so hell-bent on pleasing) is not the upper middle class denizens residing in fancy new condos in and around Seattle. It is in fact the warehouse employees of the world – those toiling long hours, for little pay, under harsh conditions, with no job security. If an infinitely resourced company like Amazon does not consider providing equitable employment to these individuals a top priority, then there is little hope for the rest of us. They might lead us to a new world, but it’s not likely to be a better one, and at any rate, in that world, Amazon won’t have anyone left to buy their stuff.