Amazon – it’s the company that we all know and love for its lightning fast shipping, often getting your orders to you as quickly as next day. Not only does Amazon offer its customers a more convenient way to shop, but it also offers many items at cheaper prices than you would find at most major retailers. While it is easy to imagine that this industry trend setter has perfected some algorithm enabling it to deliver cheaper, and quicker than most retailers, it has recently come to light that Amazon’s services come at a different kind of cost; long hours, little to no bathroom breaks, and hefty physical demands.
Many of the poor working conditions complained of by Amazon employees result from these hefty performance demands placed on the workers. Amazon utilizes a “rate” system, meaning that workers must fulfill a specified quota in a specified amount of time. For example, an individual who is employed as a “picker” with Amazon will often only have a few seconds to reach a shelf, regardless of its location, pick the item, scan it, and place it on a line to be packaged and sent to the consumer. In addition, workers are provided, on their scanning device, information announcing whether they are on par for meeting their rate or if they are behind. This sound quite efficient, but as many employees complain, a simple trip to the bathroom is enough to lower an employee’s rate to irredeemably behind schedule, placing them at risk of receiving a warning, being written up by a supervisor, or even terminated. The utilization of the bathroom is so detrimental to an employee’s career, that many suffer from dehydration out of fear that if they drink, they will have to use the bathroom and their jobs will be in jeopardy. The task of staying on time is complicated further when one factors in the distance an employee must cover between picks, sometimes being required to walk football fields away to obtain their next pick. On average, an Amazon picker will walk 10 to 12 miles a day, a feat for even the spryest of employees. So why does Amazon utilize a rate system? To achieve its daily goal of having an order processed every 10-20 seconds. Many employees at Amazon, however, claim that this goal and the rate system utilized are unsustainable.
This week, at several of Amazon’s warehouses across the globe, and in the midst of Amazon’s Prime day, several workers chose to voice their concerns about treatment. Despite the complaints and strikes, Amazon has maintained its position that the protestors’ claims are in many respects baseless. Amazon prides itself on “industry-leading pay”, plentiful benefits, a 401k, and safe work environment for its employees. Amazon serves, moreover, as one of the United States’ largest employers, employing just under 600,000 individuals in 2018 and has served as an industry trend setter. Amazon claims to have revolutionized worker productivity, and has created an impressive business model with an economic benefit to consumers that extends far past just the consumers’ wallet. Amazon has had the effect of reducing inflation rights, reducing unemployment, an encouraging the growth of small businesses.
The debate between business success and worker rights is hardly new, and we must wonder at the best solution. Perhaps the answer is more lenient shipping times, extending deliveries past the one- or two-day shipping promise to allow employees more time to complete tasks while also maintaining the low costs consumers enjoy. Or perhaps it is time that Amazon abandon its stance against the organization of a labor union, in order to give workers the opportunity to negotiate the work conditions they believe they deserve and allow some leniency on its rate system.
One thing is clear, however: the old world tensions between worker and company are alive and well. To learn more about Amazon and its working conditions, and for a decent laugh, see John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver piece on warehouses.