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Amazon Makes Shopping Easy ... But at What Cost to Workers?

Nov. 30, 2012
A Slate writer sings Amazon’s praises for making shopping so easy, but I can’t help thinking of the plight of the workers behind the purchases.
In “Why Amazon Beats Wal-Mart,” Slate technology writer Farhad Manjoo relates his experience of trying to track down an Xbox 360 at his local Target, Walmart, Best Buy and Gamestop stores on Black Friday. His shopping excursion, as you can probably guess, was frustrating, crowded and, largely, a big waste of time. He describes stores resembling “disaster zones,” empty shelves and display cases, overwhelmed employees, long checkout lines and, most frustrating of all, either broken or inaccurate online inventory locators.

While Manjoo eventually did find his Xbox, he stressed that skipping the shopping trip and buying from Amazon would have been a much less of a headache:

“Almost a week later, I’m still annoyed at how terribly things went at Target, GameStop, and Wal-Mart. Black Friday is the retailers’ showcase, a time when they should do everything they possibly can to ensure they perform flawlessly—to inspire customers’ long-term loyalty by delivering more than they were expecting. What I love about Amazon is that it consistently does so. I’ll often select two-day shipping and get my item in one day. I’ll return something and get the money credited to my account immediately. Once, I called Amazon to complain that I hadn’t received a Kindle I’d ordered. The customer service rep arranged to send me a new one immediately...”

Let me make something perfectly clear: You are not going to find me anywhere near a Walmart on Black Friday. Majoo’s little shopping trip sounds horrific, and I can understand why he’d want to go running back to the comforting arms of Amazon. When he mentioned the speed and efficiency of the company's shipping, however, I immediately thought: But at what cost to the workers?

In September 2011, Allentown, Pa.-based paper The Morning Call ran a story uncovering alleged safety and health hazards at an Amazon warehouse in Lehigh Valley, Pa. Current and former warehouse workers told The Morning Call that they endured intense production rates and overwhelming heat in the summer months. The workers also attested that it was difficult to obtain a permanent position and that the warehouse employed a stream of temporary employees.

Here’s what some of the Amazon workers had to say, as quoted in The Morning Call article:

  • "It just got harder and harder ... It started with 75 pieces an hour. Then 100 pieces an hour. Then 125 pieces an hour. They just got faster and faster and faster."
  • "I was the model employee. But after a while, I could only achieve a certain rate and I couldn't go any faster. It was just brutal."
  • "They asked me why my rates were dropping, and I said my rates are dropping because it's hot and I have asthma.”
  • "The worst part was getting on my hands and knees 250 to 300 times a day.”
  • "I don't want to say anything bad, but they almost set you up to fail ... They always stressed safety and drinking water, but I always thought the [production] rate is not safe."
  • "One day we came into work and they said, 'Your rate is now 500 units per hour. Get to it.' ... No warning or nothing. I'm a young guy. I could keep up with it. But I saw the older people working there, they were getting written up a lot. I didn't think it was fair."

This article addressed the working conditions of just one of Amazon’s many warehouses a year ago. I’m not saying all Amazon warehouse employees face these same challenges, and I’m also not saying we should blindly attack Amazon’s entire approach to worker health and safety. But I can’t help wondering if a greater cost may come of the low prices and speedy delivery behind the operations of companies like Amazon. I can’t help thinking of a warehouse worker struggling to keep up with production rates or watching as his hopes for a permanent position fade away.

This year, whether trekking out to a brick-and-mortar store or making purchases from the comfort of a desk chair, let’s not forget the plight of the workers making our shopping possible. From the harried Walmart employee to the Amazon warehouse worker to the independent shop clerk and beyond, all workers deserve a safe and healthy work environment.

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