Amazon’s business model is inhumane and unsustainable

With Britain experiencing its worst cost-of-living crisis in decades due to high inflation and soaring energy prices, hundreds of workers at an Amazon AMZN, -1.57% warehouse in Coventry, England, demanded a wage increase this month. If their demands are not met, they plan to strike in November, just before Black Friday and the holiday shopping season.

As with other recent labour actions by rail workers in the United States and British Royal Mail employees, the Amazon workers’ strike has sparked a debate over who is to blame for the looming disruption: the elves in the workshop or Father Christmas?

The real genius of Amazon

Amazon’s success can be attributed to a number of factors, including a sophisticated data-driven approach. But its true brilliance lies in its logistics breakthroughs, such as route optimization, fleet planning, and metadata management, which enable it to reduce “click-to-ship” time and provide customers with unprecedentedly fast and reliable on-time deliveries. Amazon Prime-branded planes and trucks transport packages around the world, running like clockwork despite a pandemic that shut down much of the rest of the economy.

Jeff Wilke is the mastermind behind the operation. He combined Fordism (assembly-line methods) and Taylorism (splitting production into specialised, repeatable activities that can be closely watched and measured) to develop a warehouse model that can process more than a million items per day. Human “pickers” and “stowers” can now process several times as much merchandise per hour than they previously could with the aid of robots and intense observation.

However, the technology has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of human workers. Recent studies have revealed that a significant portion of the convenience that Amazon customers enjoy is at the price of the company’s lowest-paid employees.

Utterly Dickensian

For instance, the New York Times reported last year that the labour conditions at Amazon’s “fulfilment centre” in New York were totally Dickensian. Workers claim they are exposed to demanding physical labour, lengthy shifts (10.5–12 hours), and a high incidence of injuries and accidents after going through security gates modelled like airports (double the rate of non-Amazon warehouses).

A dystopian surveillance system that punishes offences like talking to coworkers or missing productivity goals only serves to compound the humiliation for everyone (which are often as high as processing 30 packages per minute or requiring a minute in total to unshelve, box, and ship an item).

Workers who seek redress through human resources encounter a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that excels at stonewalling, especially when demanding disability leave or compensation, and the fear of being fired—or what the firm refers to as being “released”—looms large.

According to horror accounts, Amazon drivers must urinate or fecate into plastic bags to keep their schedules on time. There have been stories of employees using food stamps or selling their wedding rings to make ends meet. The corporation has provided clumsy corporate replies in the form of “meditation rooms” that resemble enormous coffins in reaction to these accounts.

It seems sense that unionisation activities have increased at Amazon facilities.

Union busting

A union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island earlier this year was successful despite the company’s concerted efforts to prevent organising, following a close defeat for a similar effort in Alabama. The Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (Stop BEZOS) Act, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2018, would tax businesses for all public benefits they receive. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is currently looking into Amazon’s working conditions.

The story that Big Tech creates about itself has been gravely weakened by these skirmishes. Despite being a pioneer in logistics, Amazon is just as dependent on worker exploitation as the “satanic mills” of the First Industrial Revolution.

According to the history of Amazon, Jeff Bezos began by selling books out of his garage and ringing a bell whenever a customer placed an order. However, even in the early stages, a culture of excessive effort (workers were required to put in at least 60 hours per week), rule-bending, risky working conditions (unpackaged knives tumbling off conveyor belts), and Orwellian performance monitoring was developing.

One of the largest firms in the world right now is Amazon. But bigger isn’t always better, as I’ve stated in other places. When it was considerably smaller, some of its tactics could be characterised as inventive and adaptable, but today it routinely turns employees into data points.

Disposable workforce

Employee turnover was seen by Bezos, who left his position as CEO last year, as more of a strength than a weakness of the Amazon business model. He allegedly claimed that to have an entrenched staff was to “march to mediocrity.” As a result, the company estimates a staff turnover rate of around 150% annually, which is double the industry average and translates to an eight-month turnover of its whole workforce.

This paradigm is definitely unsustainable in addition to being unethical and inhumane. According to studies, contented employees produce more. Furthermore, according to a letter sent internally by the company earlier this year, “If we carry on as usual, Amazon will exhaust the pool of employees in the U.S. network by 2024.”

From 2017 to 2021, Bezos held the title of richest person in the world with an estimated net worth of over $140 billion. He has undoubtedly grown as distant from the typical Amazon employee as his wealth would imply. I’m confident Mr. Bezos couldn’t work a whole shift at [the New York City warehouse] as an undercover boss, as one employee described it in 2020.

Undoubtedly, the Coventry employees who are asking for a cost-of-living increase would agree. The human costs of Amazon’s business strategy need to be carefully considered by the company’s executives. They can always try one of the meditation coffins if they need a private space to think about the matter.

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