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If Amazon is the future of work, then be afraid

Amazon has rapidly grown from an online book store to a purveyor of nearly every sort of product made, as well as a technology behemoth offering cloud services and Kindles. Behind the web façade is a sprawling network of distribution centers where temp workers scramble like rats in a maze, pulling boxes off shelves, directed by handheld devices that not only show where the goods are stored but the most efficient path to walk. These devices also monitor each worker’s performance, coaxing them to move faster, move faster, move faster. The lessons from the Rugeley distribution center in the UK are illustrative:

Sarah O’Connor, Amazon Unpacked

Workers in Amazon’s warehouses – or “associates in Amazon’s fulfilment centres” as the company would put it – are divided into four main groups. There are the people on the “receive lines” and the “pack lines”: they either unpack, check and scan every product arriving from around the world, or they pack up customers’ orders at the other end of the process. Another group stows away suppliers’ products somewhere in the warehouse. They put things wherever there’s a free space – in Rugeley, there are inflatable palm trees next to milk frothers and protein powder next to kettles. Only Amazon’s vast computer brain knows where everything is, because the workers use their handheld computers to scan both the item they are stowing away and a barcode on the spot on the shelf where they put it.

The last group, the “pickers”, push trolleys around and pick out customers’ orders from the aisles. Amazon’s software calculates the most efficient walking route to collect all the items to fill a trolley, and then simply directs the worker from one shelf space to the next via instructions on the screen of the handheld satnav device. Even with these efficient routes, there’s a lot of walking. One of the new Rugeley “pickers” lost almost half a stone in his first three shifts. “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” said the Amazon manager. “It’s human automation, if you like.” Amazon recently bought a robot company, but says it still expects to keep plenty of humans around because they are so much better at coping with the vast array of differently shaped products the company sells.

This sort of computer-directed task work is so unlike people’s experience in other settings, the backlash has been dramatic:

If anyone should still be a cheerleader for Amazon, which has created hundreds of jobs in the past 18 months in a community that sorely needs them, it is Glenn Watson, manager of economic development at the district council. But he is dismayed. “They’re not seen as a good employer. It’s not helpful to our economy; it’s not helpful to the individuals,” he says. Britain’s economic transformation is playing out in miniature in this smoky little town. It hasn’t been a smooth ride.

[…]

What did the people of Rugeley make of all this? For many, it has been a culture shock. “The feedback we’re getting is it’s like being in a slave camp,” said Brian Garner, the dapper chairman of the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre and Social Club, still a popular drinking spot.

Amazon relies on Randstad, the global workforce management company, to provide the workers for the center, and the theory was that over time Amazon would hire on workers for permanent employment.  However, it seems that Amazon has adopted a permanent temp model, and in fact is constantly ‘releasing’ temp workers if they fall behind in their efforts, take sick leave, or otherwise run afoul of the algorithmic profile driving productivity.

The former shop-floor manager and another worker described a strict “three strikes and release” discipline system – “release” being a euphemism for getting sacked. In the early days, people were “released” frequently and with little warning or explanation, workers said. A very large number were laid off after the first busy Christmas period, some of whom had assumed their jobs would be permanent. Chris Martin says his job lasted less than a week after he took a day off for blisters and returned to find the night shift he was on had been abruptly cancelled.

It is this job insecurity that has most disappointed Glenn Watson at the district council. “Our definition of a good employer is someone who takes on people and provides them with sustainable employment week in week out, not somebody who takes on workers one week and gets rid of them the next,” he said. The council had understood Amazon would use the first 12 months to gradually build up its own workforce, transferring agency staff on to its payroll, but by last autumn Watson thought there were still only about 200 Amazon employees, with the rest of the workers supplied by Randstad and two smaller agencies. One young man strolling out of the warehouse last September said he was still an agency worker, even though he had been there since the site opened.

Watson said Amazon was supposed to send the council employment data every six months, but it had not done so. “We had no idea Amazon were going to be as indifferent to these issues as they have been, it’s come as a shock to us how intransigent they are,” he said.

Amazon is only one of the most visible companies relying on a permanent temp workforce, controlled by constant worry about getting enough work. Amazon’s full-time staff are ‘leaning into the future’, to quote Jeff Bezos, but they seem to be part of the global corporate wedge that divides the workforce into haves and have-nots. At Rugeley, the full-time positions have not come. Instead, the workers pass through metal detectors to make sure that don’t steal, sending the distinct message that Amazon believes they would if they could.

Many will read about the temps working at Amazon distribution centers, all over the world, and think that they should be happy to have work at all, since there is so little in a world smashed by recession. But we have to ask ourselves if we should allow work to be pulled to such a low level, to make this the new normal, the lowest common denominator. For people’s livelihood and well-being to be determined by computer algorithms that take no consideration of a sprained ankle or a late night caring for a sick child before ‘releasing’ an otherwise diligent worker, with no more consideration than replacing a lightbulb.

There have to be limits to productivity and efficiency that treat people humanely, and companies’ excesses must be bounded by our society’s larger needs, like human well-being and those parts of our culture that we have not allowed naked market forces to control.

There is much to admire in Amazon’s rise, but in some dark corners of that sprawling empire the top line numbers and razor-thin earnings are being boosted by a dystopian model of neofeudalism that is jarringly out of step with the company’s shiny, ‘leaning into the future’ brand.