The future of low-wage workers
October 27, 2015 1:52 PM   Subscribe

The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp: What the future of low-wage work really looks like. "In the years since Amazon became the symbol of the online retail economy, horror stories have periodically emerged about the conditions at its warehouses—workers faced with near-impossible targets, people dropping on the job from heat or extreme fatigue. This isn’t one of those stories." (SLHuffPost)
posted by Melismata (76 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
The future of low-wage work in the US looks a lot like the past of low-wage work in the US and the present of low-wage work in the places to which we outsource it.

For Jeff and the many others we don't hear about:

.
posted by lord_wolf at 2:28 PM on October 27, 2015 [23 favorites]


Jesus that is depressing.
posted by Keith Talent at 2:30 PM on October 27, 2015




.
posted by infini at 2:36 PM on October 27, 2015


This is the dog eating it's own tail. What Amazon (and other retailers) does to their seasonal staff is effectively just short of criminal, not to mention it's a convenient way to skirt expensive add-ons that come with a full time employee (read: actually giving them health care, since their country won't).

The problem is that it has become essentially the only successful business model, allowing them to sell products for a few cents less than a brick and mortar store, thus gaining the customer and market share.

So, if you have a Prime membership or have ever bought anything from Amazon - and let's be fair, sometimes they are the only ones that have what you need - you're part of the problem here. You're supporting these labor practices. And you're doing it so you can pay the lowest price.

The American consumer is an amazing beast in terms of what it can get itself comfortable with supporting if it means financial gain for themselves. We're truly a culture of have - we have way, way more than anyone in the history of the planet ever has, and yet the more we have, the more it never seems enough.

In the time it took me to type this, Amazon got a few thousand more orders and another temp worker with no benefits hit the floor somewhere probably closer to me than I'd like to think about for too long.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:47 PM on October 27, 2015 [19 favorites]


I should probably add, as a supply chain strategist, that there are retailers out there who are leading the way down the difficult and definitely more expensive path of sustainable / ethical / green supply chains that benefit both the employees and the communities that they operate in. Gap Inc. and it's brand stable are an example of this. There's also the b-corps - like Patagonia - that take this even a few steps further.

In most cases, there are alternatives out there for the consumer that's willing to pay more so that the person fulfilling their order can be of sound health and care for their family.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:52 PM on October 27, 2015 [31 favorites]


I will gladly pay a little more to help make sure stories like this don't keep happening.
posted by gehenna_lion at 2:57 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Just heartbreaking. And soul-crushing. And this is someone with a degree. I really hate what America is becoming.
posted by Mchelly at 2:58 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I worked seasonal in a huge distribution center (not amazon) 20 years ago and it was just like this: scanners, constant counts, managers showing up with a clipboard every 30m telling you to go faster, no benefits....

Consumers drive this with the "whatever is least expensive is the best and where I'll shop" mentality.

Gist: USA sweatshops.
posted by CrowGoat at 3:00 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Recently, I've had a contractor sitting next to me at work who manages this process for my company. Basically she's a temp who works with many different Integrities to our Amazon. She's not HR, but negotiates to make sure that Integrity** puts forward suitable candidates, and that Amazon* has reasonable expectations of those candidates.

She manages temps for creative/warehousing/accounting/admin jobs in many different places around the country. So it's a fascinating look behind the curtain.

For the warehousing jobs, it is exactly as disheartening in this post. She's regularly having to pull people out of the system for the tiniest of infractions. The warehouses are in small towns with poor economies. I will say that I showed her pictures of our warehouses, and she said that we are above the curve. I am sure actual Amazon is even more ahead of the curve. This is not a compliment, but an acknowledgement that we notice Amazon at the expense of the rest of the backwards retail industry.

For the accounting and admin jobs, it's the opposite. For the accounting jobs, she is pushing Amazon* to offer more training before letting temps go. Those jobs are located in a small city, and Integrity** struggles to find qualified candidates. For the admin jobs, she's pushing Amazon* to increase the bill rate. The issue is two-fold: Hiring Managers don't understand how large a difference exists between the bill rate and the temp wage. Also, between the strengthening economy and the increase in minimum wage, it's harder to find quality folks.

It's fascinating to see these policy effects literally play out next to me.
posted by politikitty at 3:01 PM on October 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


Meanwhile, Amazon's quest for their warehouse's perfect robot-picker is hampering itself because the company is too bloody cheap to offer enough prize money and travel stipends for student-researchers to participate.
posted by Doktor Zed at 3:02 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Consumers drive this with the "whatever is least expensive is the best and where I'll shop" mentality.

It's a vicious circle; consumers go wherever prices are lowest, which drives down overall wages/benefits/job security/etc., which results in more workers with less money, which results in more consumers going wherever prices are lowest...
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:05 PM on October 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


Disruption!
posted by Thorzdad at 3:07 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


'Good' Jobs Aren't Coming Back
posted by peeedro at 3:11 PM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Thanks to obscure supply chains, most consumers really have little way of knowing what the conditions were like for the people who put their product together and got it to the store. It's pretty much impossible to shop your way to an improved labor situation. You can just stop shopping altogether, but then how do you hold down a job without work clothes or a car to get you there? How do you buy food? Because your day job is not going to give you time to grow your own.

LGM's writers consistently pushes for criminal penalties for US companies and executives that allow abuses in their supply chain; that seems like a much more effective strategy than boycotts.

I mean, I get it, we should care. I do care. But I am trapped in the system too. My individual actions are not large enough to solve this systemic problem, except the actions that involve pushing for better laws.
posted by emjaybee at 3:11 PM on October 27, 2015 [42 favorites]


My first job was at a UPS shipping hub, packing semi trailers as full of boxes as possible. It was a shitty job for next to no pay and nonexistent benefits. Just about the only reason anyone stuck around was the promise that they could move up to better positions, like delivery driver. It was nominally a union job, but you were required to sign a paper waiving the normal Teamster Union benefits. The only aspect of being union that made its way to me was a mandated mid-shift break. So even if you manage to avoid overseas manufacturing if you get anything delivered to you you're probably still promoting these kinds of working conditions.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 3:26 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I will gladly pay a little more to help make sure stories like this don't keep happening.

but only a little more...
posted by ennui.bz at 3:31 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, if you have a Prime membership or have ever bought anything from Amazon - and let's be fair, sometimes they are the only ones that have what you need - you're part of the problem here. You're supporting these labor practices. And you're doing it so you can pay the lowest price.

I do it so I don't have to get off my couch. Has little to do with price. I can stream shows and don't have to go to the store to return a DVD (and the quality is better than a DVD and no late fees). I can also get music, books, and food, and pretty much anything without having to get up and go outside. It's not because it's cheaper. It's because I have better things to do than go to three or four stores and stand in line and have to risk rude people and dumb clerks who argue whether or not they have to accept a $2 bill as "real money."

Hell, I pay $12 to have cookies delivered fresh and warm to my door. I could make them for a buck. Cost isn't the priority.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:34 PM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Software engineers working 12 hours a day, who get paid $150k and can leave easily at any time because of the amazing skills and experience they're getting? Not a problem.

Warehouse workers working 8 hours a day, but completely destroying their bodies, for an impossible-to-live-on wage and without gaining any transferable experience that could help them get a better job? Big problem.

Also, it's getting worse. Amazon is slowly switching its delivery network from Fedex/UPS/USPS, which are generally reasonable places to work, to minor local couriers that pay half as much and are awful.
posted by miyabo at 3:34 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Cost isn't the priority.

Um, so you still support the labor conditions, but just for other reasons?
posted by hwyengr at 3:36 PM on October 27, 2015 [12 favorites]


And I would HAPPILY pay 25% more for some kind of guarantee that the people involved in making and distributing the products I buy are treated well. (I'm talking Starbucks treatment here, not necessarily Costco or REI levels of awesome.) But no one is trying that for online sales.
posted by miyabo at 3:37 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I read this a few days ago, and hate that we work people ay minimium wage for hard physical labor with no benefits. At least amazon is over the table so if something happens you've paid something into social security unlike constructing jobs or other under the table work.

There needs to be an aknowledgement and movement around that people need disability, healthcare and a wage to pay for it when doing difficult jobs. They sacrafice themselves. Period. In America we pay for these people through SSI benefits and medicaid which doesn't do much for people who need long term rehabilitation or simply will never be able to do certain tasks again. And they hurt and are in pain the rest of their lives. And then we accuse them off being drug addicts when they use pain medication. When if employers slowed down, allowed appropriate rest times/accomidations and let employees take care of themselves things would improve.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:41 PM on October 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


This kind of disposability is so hard to explain to older people who haven't had to face it in the job market. Low-skill jobs used to be able to support a family if you worked hard at them. Maybe you could work your way up. Now, everyone, from busboys to managers to entire stores can be cut without warning. Short-term profits rule over everything. Workforce investment isn't even a thing. Bye-bye middle class.
posted by irisclara at 3:42 PM on October 27, 2015 [24 favorites]


I worked in a warehouse 25 years ago and it was so cushy that I once did a shift while actually on acid. Times are so bleak now.
posted by colie at 3:46 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


I do it so I don't have to get off my couch. Has little to do with price.

Governments regulate aspects of society because left to our own devices, humans are petty with powerful lizard brains that make us operate in ways that nominally benefit ourselves in the short term but ruin other people in the long term. This is why we need strong workplace rules. The free market isn't a magical rainbow. It's a bludgeon.
posted by incessant at 3:58 PM on October 27, 2015 [37 favorites]


That Huff Po has a labor reporter is a very, very odd situation. Just a year ago, HuffPo crowdsourced a writer's salary.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:04 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Americans aren't going to realize, until it's too late, that this is very much the future for the majority of them. In the meantime, they'll continue to swallow the vilification of anyone so much as mentioning living wages, workers' rights, or healthcare, and vote consistently against their best interests.

Yeah...I hate being such a pessimist, but I've been watchIng this downhill slide for nearly forty years now, and, honestly, it's only gaining speed. There are days when I feel very guilty for having kids because the future they'll be living in just doesn't look very bright. I do what I can, but I'm really afraid we've reached the point where there's little the common person can do to stop it.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:17 PM on October 27, 2015 [26 favorites]


This kind of disposability is so hard to explain to older people who haven't had to face it in the job market. Low-skill jobs used to be able to support a family if you worked hard at them.

It goes beyond just the oldsters. I have a brother-in-law, now 80, who worked as a laborer in a steel mill and retired in his mid-50s. With a reasonable pension and health care benefits that he kept until he was eligible for Medicare. Not only that, but he was the the sole bread winner in his family with wife and six kids who all have college degrees, so the pay checks were pretty decent. Yes, it was a union job.

The head scratcher is that today pretty much every member of that family and their progeny are republicans and/or tea partiers.
posted by SteveInMaine at 4:24 PM on October 27, 2015 [29 favorites]


I just realized my job is going through this. I'm a social worker, bugets are small blah blah. I go into people's homes in the worst parts of Chicago. And I go alone due to the budget, spending of money on an extra worker is wasteful. I've been in some extremely stressful situations in my job that requires a master's degree. I meet with registered sex offenders in their homes by myself. Mentally ill ones. And then the ones I don't know about.

And the push is from above that safety concerns are silly, are emotional problems or are just not possible to address. Meanwhile I could be shot in the field and no one would know until my wife stared freaking out when I didn't come home.

Yes this stuff can happen to anyone.

I do have insurance though.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:29 PM on October 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


It's because I have better things to do than go to three or four stores and stand in line and have to risk rude people and dumb clerks who argue whether or not they have to accept a $2 bill as "real money."

This probably says more about you and your approach to other human beings than it does about the etiquette or intelligence of the average retail employee.

And I can assure you, anybody who's worked a cash register for more than a month knows exactly what a $2 bill is. The reason they look annoyed is because they're tired of having to deal with overbearing customers who treat $2 bills like they're some kind of frigging IQ test.
posted by Strange Interlude at 4:42 PM on October 27, 2015 [59 favorites]


I'm reading this and reading this and all I keep thinking is: how cute, this guy just discovered temp agencies. Which is basically what I mind about articles like this. If you shop at Amazon, you're part of the problem! Great, because other retail outlets, their holiday staff have just so much more job security and higher pay, right? Because all those clerical temps that work in all kinds of companies, large and small, including places like Fedex where I had my first real job... do they not count? Because believe me, you can totally get dismissed on a dime for nothing from those jobs, too. I probably wouldn't have gone to college if I hadn't lost three supposedly "temp-to-hire" jobs with no warning within a few months, each time where they'd gone to some lengths to conceal from me that I was about to run out of work to do in order to keep me on the job until the last second. That was like 15 years ago!

There is not a way to shop in the US that I'm aware of where you aren't at significant risk of supporting abusive labor practices. What we need is a guaranteed basic income, so that every single "low-skill" job in the US is held by someone who has some kind of power to walk away.
posted by Sequence at 4:47 PM on October 27, 2015 [58 favorites]


I had to move from Alaska to Southern California recently and I went from what seems like the last Union job for a graphic designer to an entirely gig based job market. Forget about benefits or retirement, you don't even know if you are going to have a paycheck next week. As a 40 year old woman with a college degree and over ten years of quality experience, I've been pummeled by the system to the point where I said fuck it all and am back in school for a degree that I hope won't lead to a lifetime of week-long employment. I'm so grateful I have that option.
posted by Foam Pants at 5:13 PM on October 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


I do think its worse than average retail. First, average retail workers aren't walking 12 miles per shift. Second, average retail workers are out in the open for most of their time, so the worst abuses (like dying on the job) are gonna be seen and documented. And third this is happening in smaller towns and exurbs where there might not be any real alternative places to work. But I could be convinced otherwise.
posted by miyabo at 5:20 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


RonButNotStupid: Hell, I pay $12 to have cookies delivered fresh and warm to my door. I could make them for a buck. Cost isn't the priority.

Well aren't you the spendthrift, buying luxury goods instead of basic necessities. I sure hope the rest of us taxpayers more fiscally prudent consumers aren't in some way supporting your extravagantly wasteful and lazy lifestyle.


I think cjorgensen was just pushing back at the idea that people subscribe to Amazon Prime for low prices - it could be that Amazon could charge more for their goods and then do better by their employees. I'm a Prime customer, too, and I would say the prices are definitely higher than shopping at a brick and mortar store. But, I wonder if brick and mortar stores are any better? The kinds of stuff I order from Amazon - bulk toilet paper, paper towels, etc - are the kinds of things that are usually only found in big box stores which probably have equally horrific warehouses. People always cite Costco as being worker-friendly, but even they are having supply chain atrocities.
posted by bluefly at 5:23 PM on October 27, 2015 [12 favorites]


A few random thoughts:

.

This is what can happen when unorganized workers have to suffer these kind of conditions in the workplace.

This is also the neck upon which the woo-crazy foot of Zappo's rests.

In about an hour I'm going to go to the job I have chosen as a semi-retired person. It's a little like this but not as bad. I'm lucky in that I have a choice in the way in which I sell my labor. Most of my co-workers do not--they are in a similar trap as this poor fellow. And it's a union shop.

If I could resurrect Frederick Taylor just long enough to kick him in the balls, I would.

I'm going to pick up my guitar now and play:

John Henry was a steel driving man
Yes he went down
Well he went down

You just take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Oh tell him I'm gone
Won't you tell him I'm gone

John Henry, he left his hammer
Layin' aside the road
Layin' aside the road

John Henry, he left his hammer
All painted in red
All painted in red

You just take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Yes tell him I'm gone
Won't you tell him I'm gone

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me
No it won't kill me

posted by CincyBlues at 5:34 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm getting sick of reading stories like this one. How can I, in good conscience, continue to use Amazon? I know it's convenient. It's got everything I want and then some, and it's prices are decent. Delivered within a couple of days. Damn it feels good to have access to something like that.

But at what cost? Apparently the life of another human being, and I'm sure there's more than him. And that's me helping to support that. I'm feeling pretty sick about this. I know this is the "new normal", but it's a pretty god damned fucked up normal.
posted by gehenna_lion at 5:45 PM on October 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


I can discern three main themes in this article:

1) The US lacks adequate safeguards to protect people from poverty, even if they are working as hard as they can.
2) Worsening this, companies are classifying workers independent contractors when they aren't by any reasonable standard.
3) In light of that, Jeff's death was especially tragic for his family.

But the article repeatedly insinuates that Amazon was culpable for his death, and that seems irresponsible. There is no indication that Amazon did anything negligent. Much is made of Amazon's policy of letting their onsite EMTs respond to emergencies before calling 911, but there is no indication that this policy made things worse here (someone called 911 anyway and they responded).

Jeff was 300lbs and 6'3", or 100lbs overweight for his height. It is sad but unsurprising that he died while exerting himself. What could Amazon have done? Say "No, you can't do this job, because you're too overweight?" Amazon and its ilk can be faulted for the poverty caused by their labor strategies, but not for Jeff's death.
posted by andrewpcone at 5:55 PM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


My family has managed to avoid Amazon almost entirely for two years, and it hasn't been that difficult. Amazon's prices really aren't super competitive any more either...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:56 PM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Elections have consequences, and companies that treat their employees like human beings brag about it. Companies that keep quiet about work conditions treat them like serfs.
posted by Beholder at 6:00 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


1) The US lacks adequate safeguards to protect people from poverty, even if they are working as hard as they can.

This is really the key. The problem isn't that Amazon is bad or greedy (though they are both). It's that we have such a lax regulatory regime that they are permitted to behave this way, and the safety net is so paltry that people are forced into terrible and unsustainable positions.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:02 PM on October 27, 2015 [25 favorites]


I get kind of tired of people acting like shopping at amazon is somehow a horrible act and moral failure.

How the hell do you know anywhere else is "better"? What's to say that target, or best buy, or walmart, or wherever doesn't have similarly shady background processes(and from knowing people who worked at best buy and several other places, it doesn't seem much better). What's to say the factory or shipping pipeline for that $5 phone case you bought at the mall instead of amazon is any better? There's plenty of places i've talked to people who work at that have rules about not carrying phones AND rules about when you can and cant call 911 for example(which is fucked up and should be illegal)

It's a devil-you-know sort of thing. This isn't about paying $5 more and buying it "locally" when it went through UPS or another also broken as fuck system. I'm fairly convinced that there is no ethical way to buy a hell of a lot of things.

Pledging to not shop at amazon feels an awful lot like it's about making yourself feel better, not making a difference. And i say this as someone who lives in seattle, a city being "ruined" by amazon.

It also feels like we're pot shotting this from a position of privilege, when most mefites live in coastal or otherwise large cities where there actually is an option other than amazon or walmart for a lot of things. I have family that lives in say, rural idaho where those are literally your only options for anything you can't buy at a farm supply store or gas station mini mart.

My first job was at a UPS shipping hub, packing semi trailers as full of boxes as possible. It was a shitty job for next to no pay and nonexistent benefits.

Wasn't there an FPP on this? About how they were abusing student labor by paying peoples tuition, but making them work from like midnight to 6am so that they could essentially never sleep, and like 90% of people were failing out of college who were in the program but they were basically paying starvation wages because somehow that was legal because they were paying tuition?

This is the story i think. the fpp is impossible to find because "UPS" also searches as ups, like "ups and downs", so it's a total mess as a search.

I've known people who worked there, and they said it was absolute hell and you were worked to death and expected to load an absolutely ridiculous amount at a ridiculous speed. Everything described sounded way worse than any of these amazon warehouse stories(which are fucking awful, i'm not discounting that at all).

I worked in a warehouse 25 years ago and it was so cushy that I once did a shift while actually on acid. Times are so bleak now.

My dad worked in the sears warehouse in the 70s, and has pretty much described it as a kickass job. They'd send eachother beers in the pneumatic tubes, or prank eachother by sending stupid stuff(I think a dog turd was involved once). It sounded super laid back and slapstick, and they'd fight over who had to work the returns counter because not dealing with customers was way better.

He also worked at a warehouse where they only loaded like 3 hours a day, and spent the rest of the day listening to the radio and smoking weed. How times have changed, holy fuck.
posted by emptythought at 6:04 PM on October 27, 2015 [25 favorites]


My first real job was in the bindery for the auto trader. I think it's still around, but basically it was a magazine format newsprint publication. Even in the Deep South, in the 80s, it was a union gig. It was hard, sweaty, dirty, exhausting work, and an enormous amount of the bindery floor was staffed by women who were paid less than the guys that drove the forklifts, or the guys that ran the presses, but everyone who worked there could support themselves and their kids. (I didn't have kids, but I had a sailboat...kids might have been cheaper and less aggravation. )

Point being, everyone there worked really hard, but we were well compensated for that labor. The owner, unlike corporations today, didn't make 5000% more per hour than the workers. How people shop isn't the problem, the problem lies in the inequity of the worker vs the owner nee shareholder. Modern capitalism is a system of profit über alles.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 6:17 PM on October 27, 2015 [19 favorites]


It amazes me how often these days we're having a discussion over fucked up labor story du jour (whether it's Zappos or Amazon) and routinely, only a handful of people mention the decline of unions as a major factor in how crazy-bad the plight of American workers has become. The sustained 30 year assault on collective bargaining has absolutely coincided with the unbelievable aggregation of wealth at the top.

Figure 9 here is really jaw-dropping.

Hoping Jeff Bezos thaws out his heart ain't gonna happen. We need to candidates from the White House all the way down to state legislature who support the ability of workers to collectively bargain.
posted by mostly vowels at 6:23 PM on October 27, 2015 [47 favorites]




But the article repeatedly insinuates that Amazon was culpable for his death, and that seems irresponsible.

The article stops far short of any such insinuation, actually. At the very most, its juxtaposition of Amazon's practices and the circumstances of Lockhart's death on the job can be seen as raising the question of whether those practices contributed to his death, and I think it's an important question to consider, but it really doesn't lead the reader to any particular conclusion, and certainly does not "repeatedly insinuate" that the two are connected.
posted by tonycpsu at 6:46 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


We need to candidates from the White House all the way down to state legislature who support the ability of workers to collectively bargain.

It's not just candidates, we need plain old people to support organized labor too. But this is a country where a union vote in a auto plant that was supported by the manufacturer failed due to anti-union sentiment and fud, spread in part by some of the workers at the plant.

“I think [workers] became educated about their history,” he says. “I saw mismanagement, I saw malfeasance, I saw cronyism, I saw nepotism. Just looking at their membership numbers, the way they’ve declined since 2002. Job security? Well, you can’t give me that. And when I look at our wages compared with the big three, we’re doing better, so you can’t give me a raise.”

How do unions and people who support organized labor convince people who believe the above? It's the "What the matter with Kansas" problem all over again. People are voting culturally, not economically.
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:12 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Tonycpsu, I would say the article doesn't say the two are connected, but it sure as hell insinuates it. That's basically the whole premise behind writing the article: "Look this guy died in this place, totally by coincidence" doesn't lead one to then go on to "And then that place didn't help his family!" The idea that one would even expect the place to help his family is premised on their having something to do with this death.

I think what troubled me about this article was the expectation that it's Amazon (or any employer) who should be the one to help his family. I would rather see a proper social safety net so that when someone dies walking down the street on the sidewalk through no fault of anyone, their family is as likely to be helped as the family who dies on the job at some big corporation (whether the corporation was at fault or not). I mean if all the big companies like Amazon stepped up and took care of their employees, their families, and the families of deceased employees, that would still leave a lot of people who aren't lucky enough to work or work for those companies screwed. Create a system where your entitlement to help isn't based on your employers' wealth and everyone who needs it can benefit.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:12 PM on October 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


Here's how one can argue they're connected:

1) Amazon hires the contractor who engages in these practices;
2) The practices have lead to people dying, suffering, etc.

We can talk about how our social and economic climate allow for these practices to happen, but where is this climate coming from? Who's creating it? Who even has the power to create it? Who has the power to stop it? Amazon and consumers can more likely than not pony up the extra coin for better labor conditions.But why would they if it doesn't effect their bottom line?

The climate allows this to happen, but Amazon makes the choice in how they conduct their business. And we consumers make the choice to support those practices. Employees can decide to strike, but 1) there's a huge glut of unemployed people who can take their place in an instant, 2) there isn't much social cohesion these days to encourage that kind-of collective action, and 3) there's a lot of effort out there these days to create these social divisions, and it worked, and it hasn't been successfully counteracted yet.
posted by gehenna_lion at 7:17 PM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


In this day and age, I don't know which is less likely: that we'll ever have a strong social safety net, or that companies like Amazon will ever step up. But it's not like both possibilities are mutually exclusive. Arguing against the one because of the possibility of the other lets these companies get away without any moral imperative to change anything.
posted by teponaztli at 7:19 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


How do unions and people who support organized labor convince people who believe the above? It's the "What the matter with Kansas" problem all over again.

For sure. I am in a white collar union and a huge thing I encounter among my profession and lefty (but on the whole not unionized) circles is that the main thing people get out of unions is the salary bump. While that is obviously a huge benefit of being in a union, the ground rules of a CBA and the process for grievances/arbitration are so monumentally important that I consider it the biggest benefit to my position being unionized, despite the fact that I'm not planning on/hope I never have to go through any of those processes.

So maybe part of the shift needs to not just be about pay, but about the benefits of having clearly articulated, non-arbitrary ground rules that both employer -- and employee -- abide by in the employment relationship.
posted by mostly vowels at 7:22 PM on October 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


2) The practices have lead to people dying, suffering, etc.

But the guy likely died of a congenital heart defect that may well have killed him anyway. that's hardly labour practices "leading to" his death.

And yeah, it's not that we can only have one or the other, it's that if there were a safety net the corporate safety net would disappear (private insurance always makes you apply for gov't insurance first then tops you up, if applicable...if gov't insurance paid properly there would be nothing to top up and the private would just not exist).

I guess I just don't see what it's the employer's moral imperitive here. They didn't kill him. There's no reason to believe they caused his death. Why are they responsible for the consequences of his death? Yeah, there's a moral imperitive to make sure people aren't poor, and that moral imperitive falls an amazon as much as anyone else, but I don't see how amazon owes that moral imperitive to this guy's family more than to anyone else who loses a breadwinner through no particular fault of amazon's. So yeah, amazon should obey the moral imperitive to help everyone avoid poverty by contributing to a system that does that, including having fair labour practices, paying taxes, and supporting good policy. But why do they owe this guy's family any more than anyone else's if they weren't responsible for his death?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:25 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


The idea that one would even expect the place to help his family is premised on their having something to do with this death.

No, not at all. Here's the portion of the article that discusses their offer of support:
Integrity says that in the days following Jeff's death, its local office reached out to Di-Key to see how the company could help. “Our plan was to provide additional assistance to Mrs. Lockhart and her children. We had various supportive services to offer the family,” the company said, adding that it has helped pay for the funerals of other employees who have died, and even those of their family members.
Companies generally aren't in the business of admitting culpability, and certainly not in cases such as this one where there's no direct proof of them being responsible, but here's Integrity claiming to have offered support. If any such connection between an offer of support and an admission of blame existed, why would Integrity say they offered support?
posted by tonycpsu at 7:27 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hoping Jeff Bezos thaws out his heart ain't gonna happen. We need to candidates from the White House all the way down to state legislature who support the ability of workers to collectively bargain.

Sanders 2016
posted by Beholder at 7:27 PM on October 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


If any such connection between an offer of support and an admission of blame existed, why would Integrity say they offered support?

I don't think there's a connection between blame and an offer of support. I think there's a connection between blame and an obligation of support. If the article is basically saying "shame on them for not helping" that implies a moral obligation of support, since we don't generally shame people for not doing things they have no moral obligation to do.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:30 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


If the article is basically saying "shame on them for not helping"

Yeah, I really don't read it that way, but even if that is what the article's saying, I don't find your attempt to distinguish between offers of support and obligations of support persuasive. But we can agree to disagree.
posted by tonycpsu at 7:43 PM on October 27, 2015


My pay check has a deduction for basic life insurance of like a dollar a month for a $5k death benefit. The employer copay is zero dollars. Maybe it's because I'm a union member in a university, but at the same time, I don't think it was more expensive when I was non-union.
posted by pwnguin at 7:58 PM on October 27, 2015


I guess I just don't see what it's the employer's moral imperitive here. They didn't kill him. There's no reason to believe they caused his death. Why are they responsible for the consequences of his death? Yeah, there's a moral imperitive to make sure people aren't poor, and that moral imperitive falls an amazon as much as anyone else, but I don't see how amazon owes that moral imperitive to this guy's family more than to anyone else who loses a breadwinner through no particular fault of amazon's.

The moral imperative is to treat people like employees instead of contractors who can be dropped at the tiniest slip in productivity. The moral imperative is to give his family the benefits they would have gotten if he'd managed to become an actual employee. Had he been an employee with benefits he could have been more of a breadwinner to his family than he was (because they would have gotten benefits), and it was entirely because of Amazon's labor practices that he never made it that far.

I didn't think the point of the article was that Amazon killed someone, I thought the point was that they, and tons of other companies, have such horrible labor practices that a facility gets 34 EMT visits in four months. And I'm wondering if it's even worth bringing up that statistic, or if someone will say "actually, that's pretty low by warehouse standards." I mean, fuck, we're killing our working class, and we talk about how poverty is a killer, but when we see it happen up close it's like "well, this guy had a bad heart anyway."
posted by teponaztli at 8:08 PM on October 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


Choosing progressive stores or consumer boycotts are as effective as voluntary taxation. Many will not participate, or will not participate fully.
Unions can be a good voice for tougher standards, but don't have the authority to set standards everywhere, so unionised workplaces would face higher costs than non-union, providing incentive for business to want to rid themselves of unions.
Workplace minimum standards need to be federally legislated, and it is quite reasonable to believe they can be. Employers such as Amazon/Walmart etc. don't suffer from federal imposed standards, only if they are subject to a patchwork of differing regulations in different places. As long as they and their competitors are equally affected there is no change to their competitiveness. They can raise their prices to cover any additional costs, maintaining their profits.
As a society, everyone is better off with better standards and conditions.
I live in a place with reasonably high standards. The default for everyone paying our version of social security includes a death benefit that is a multiple of your annual salary. Because everyone is covered the premiums are low. Our minimum wages are higher and there is a (low) safety net to support people who face unemployment or disablement. America is a wealthy country. There is no reason it can't have the same benefits.
posted by bystander at 8:49 PM on October 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


"What we need is a guaranteed basic income, so that every single "low-skill" job in the US is held by someone who has some kind of power to walk away."

Hear, hear. Too bad the only place that'll happen is in my NaNo novel.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:23 PM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


The idea that one would even expect the place to help his family is premised on their having something to do with this death.

This article wasn't about who was to blame for Jeff's death. It was about the (lack of a) relationship between employees and their employer.

Jeff worked himself to death in an Amazon warehouse and he wasn't even considered an Amazon employee. Apparently, many non-employees are working themselves to death. In a (likely futile) effort to become employees. That's bizarre. Kafkaesque. But I guess it's also pretty common.

I don't think that boycotting Amazon is worthwhile. Amazon wasn't even Jeff's employer. Multiple people in this article said that Integrity drove its employees harder and were less tolerant with them than Amazon was anyway. What would boycotting this one company (out of the many that "employs" pickers in Amazon warehouses) actually do?

If we're talking about the US specifically, though, I think that getting involved in state and local level politics and actively supporting worker-friendly state and municipal labor policies is important. Most people don't seem to pay much attention to who's representing them in the state senate or on the city council/county board, but state legislatures and city councils, etc, actually have a lot of power when it comes to how a particular locale functions economically. Ime, labor policy at the state or even local level has a lot more of a direct impact on employees' lives than federal-level labor laws/policy does. YMMV.
posted by rue72 at 10:03 PM on October 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


I agree with you rue72, except about boycotting Amazon. Amazon uses Integrity's services as a replacement for hiring workers directly, and they benefit from these hard-driving practices. They should be held responsible for how poorly their contractors treat workers.

Besides, even if the argument can be made that boycotting Amazon doesn't affect real change, I don't see what's wrong with refusing to participate in something I find morally objectionable. This seems to be written off as naive or selfish, but can you blame people for feeling uncomfortable? I know it's hard to find companies that don't engage in similar practices, but why would continuing to use Amazon be preferable?
posted by teponaztli at 10:35 PM on October 27, 2015


Eh... blame the legislators who make such actions by Amazon and their ilk legal and the people who vote for them. Democracy in action.
posted by asra at 10:36 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I get kind of tired of people acting like shopping at amazon is somehow a horrible act and moral failure. How the hell do you know anywhere else is "better"?

And I get tired of people stating that's it's pointless to fix anything unless everything is fixed. You don't know that anywhere else is better, but that doesn't mean it's okay to ignore a known example of egregious practices.

I never buy from Amazon. When I post links to products in comments here I always find a different vendor. And I wish MetaFilter would make the ethically defensible, albeit financially painful, decision to drop the Amazon associates links.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:59 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I know it's hard to find companies that don't engage in similar practices, but why would continuing to use Amazon be preferable?

If you don't feel comfortable using Amazon, that's fair.

However, I think that whether you decide to buy products through Amazon specifically is tangential to the point of this article. Imo, this is a "trend piece" about how labor and employment work in the US now, not about how Amazon in particular contracts/hires workers.

Jeff wasn't an Amazon employee. Apparently, becoming an actual employee is a pie-in-the-sky dream that people use to keep themselves going and give themselves hope, as they literally work themselves to death on the warehouse floor. If those workers in the Amazon warehouse aren't Amazon employees, though, then what are they?

The total dissolution of the employer/employee relationship is shocking, imo. Not only did Jeff not get benefits, security, or a chance to advance within the company. He wasn't even granted the "privilege" of being an employee of the company at all.

This isn't just an Amazon problem, though. Like the title of the article says, this is a widespread problem that effects an entire class of workers. "This is what the future of low wage work looks like."

Zeroing in on Amazon as though it's an outlier is missing the forest for the trees, imo.
posted by rue72 at 11:09 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


And I get tired of people stating that's it's pointless to fix anything unless everything is fixed. You don't know that anywhere else is better, but that doesn't mean it's okay to ignore a known example of egregious practices.

The suggestion from people in the industry that Amazon is one of the best in terms of worker welfare at warehouses. Boycotting them could make things worse, not better. Uninformed activism in some cases is not only ineffective, but actively harmful.

It's like when people make calls to boycott palm oil, when (quoting 2012 numbers) globally 14 million hectares of oil palm produced 56 million tonnes of vegetable oil, while the next most productive crop was soybean, which had 110 million hectares planted and produced only 43 million tonnes of vegetable oil. Do people realise that if we stopped all palm oil production, we'd switch from 14 million hectares of oil palm plantations to 143 million hectares of soybean plantation - an over 10x increase in ecosystem destruction.

Yes, the ecosystem destruction of oil palm is bad, but boycotting it on that basis alone is foolish when you're just moving to even worse alternatives.
posted by xdvesper at 11:09 PM on October 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


allkindsoftime: "This is the dog eating it's own tail. What Amazon (and other retailers) does to their seasonal staff is effectively just short of criminal, not to mention it's a convenient way to skirt expensive add-ons that come with a full time employee (read: actually giving them health care, since their country won't).

The problem is that it has become essentially the only successful business model, allowing them to sell products for a few cents less than a brick and mortar store, thus gaining the customer and market share.

So, if you have a Prime membership or have ever bought anything from Amazon - and let's be fair, sometimes they are the only ones that have what you need - you're part of the problem here. You're supporting these labor practices. And you're doing it so you can pay the lowest price.

The American consumer is an amazing beast in terms of what it can get itself comfortable with supporting if it means financial gain for themselves. We're truly a culture of have - we have way, way more than anyone in the history of the planet ever has, and yet the more we have, the more it never seems enough.

In the time it took me to type this, Amazon got a few thousand more orders and another temp worker with no benefits hit the floor somewhere probably closer to me than I'd like to think about for too long.
"

What about if I have been too poor to order anything from them for over 5 years? Do I get less guilt?
posted by Samizdata at 2:04 AM on October 28, 2015


Unions can be a good voice for tougher standards, but don't have the authority to set standards everywhere, so unionised workplaces would face higher costs than non-union, providing incentive for business to want to rid themselves of unions.

Back when unions in the US were stronger, the result was that non-union jobs paid well and offered good benefits. They had to, in order to compete for the good workers. This all changed in the 1980s when Reagan busted the air traffic controller's union. That act tilted the scales against the workers, and businesses have kept up the anti-union rhetoric long enough so that they control the (usually incorrect) narrative.

Workplace minimum standards need to be federally legislated, and it is quite reasonable to believe they can be.

There are a couple of problems with that. First, the legislature is controlled by Republicans, who have no interest in doing anything to help working people, and believe the market should dictate such things. Second, even if legislation were passed, it's ineffective because they don't include the funding to make sure the laws are followed.
posted by SteveInMaine at 5:45 AM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


My husband and I had this idea for a personal experiment in which we would forego using online retailers for a period of, I dunno, six months to a year, and just purchase stuff we needed or wanted via the downtown retail area in our small Canadian city. There would be a Tumblr or blog documenting, I think. I still sort of want to (I use Amazon less and less these days) but am aware that our family budget might take a considerable hit.
posted by Kitteh at 7:53 AM on October 28, 2015


Governments regulate aspects of society because left to our own devices, humans are petty with powerful lizard brains

Do you think that the humans in government are any less beholden to their own lizard brains or the lizard brains of those who keep them in office?
posted by Tanizaki at 8:22 AM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you believe that socialism is impossible without revolution, the point of boycotting Amazon is because such a campaign assists in raising class consciousness.
posted by colie at 8:41 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


The suggestion from people in the industry that Amazon is one of the best in terms of worker welfare at warehouses.

Even if that's true, there are other reasons to stop buying from Amazon, including the destruction of local retail shopping, predatory publishing practices and supply-chain distortions. Bezos won't rest until Amazon has become a real-life RAMJAC.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:34 AM on October 28, 2015


A bunch of people have claimed that Jeff's family would have gotten death benefits if he were an employee (rather than a contractor). This is true in this case—the article says that Amazon provided life insurance to its full time workers. Life insurance is actually pretty rare in low wage work.

Probably there should be a universal mandate for life insurance as well as health insurance, or a government program like unemployment insurance.

Reading all these comments, I don't think a boycott of Amazon "raises class consciousness." I think it makes us talk about which companies are good and which are bad, directing our attention away from the policies that allow bad companies to be bad.
posted by andrewpcone at 6:04 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


The destruction of local retail shopping isn't limited to Amazon, or their slave driving practices. Speciality retailers like hobby / games / miniatures rely on 100 percent markups over wholesale. There are a bevy of online retailers willing to ship you cartons of MtG Boosters at near wholesale prices, and will throw in shipping for orders over 100 bucks. I regularly grab new board games from these places, because Amazon is generally more expensive. Maybe we'll find out they're somehow worse, but I doubt it.

Meanwhile, my local shop prefers to mark their stock above MSRP, which is annoying, but their perogative. Their employees don't appear to be worked very hard, or trained & managed very well, but I'm not convinced they actually pay in money or above the table. I doubt they have any benefits to speak of. And if they die say, trying to find something among the crap stored on top of the false ceiling, I doubt there's any insurance that will have been paid to cover the insurance. Many people in our gaming Meetup actively avoid the place because of ethics. And this is the better of the two stores in town.

So at least in this case, I'm pretty sure any and all online discounting would be a threat to the local retail sector. Which is maybe why Mayfair games is trying to limit retailer discount policies.
posted by pwnguin at 6:20 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think it makes us talk about which companies are good and which are bad, directing our attention away from the policies that allow bad companies to be bad.

Sometimes talking about which companies are good and which ones are bad can create change that no amount of focus on the policies can. The policies we're talking about, including offshoring, sub-contracting, and racing to the bottom with respect to salary and benefits -- these are things that in most cases would take political action at the federal level to change. Do you think Congress as presently-constituted is going to change any of this? Conversely, it doesn't take a lot to get a boycott movement going, and while a boycott of Amazon is probably a very heavy lift, it doesn't take more than a small percentage of folks shifting their buying habits and complaining publicyly on Twitter before the Amazon suits begin to notice.

I always prefer legislative action over market-oriented pressures as a reliable mechanism to make companies act in accordance with our values, but when the political system is gridlocked, you take what you can get.
posted by tonycpsu at 7:56 PM on October 28, 2015


I have to be honest - I try to avoid Amazon for pretty selfish reasons.

Thing is, I've reached a point where I have no idea how to escape the fact that pretty much everything I own and buy has involved someone's total exploitation. With food, I mean, farm labor routinely works in 100+ degree weather for a minimum of pay. Clothes are made in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh by people who are still in puberty. The computer I'm typing this on was produced in a Chinese factory with now-famously bad conditions. Everyone involved in everything I have, from production to distribution, was probably given far less than they were due, if that. I mean, my entire life has effectively been supported by an invisible army of men, women, and children who worked insanely hard to make stuff like shoes for people like me. And the world is such a miserable place that these were the lucky ones who could actually get jobs.

The honest truth is that I don't want to shop at Amazon because I can't handle knowing that this goes on behind the scenes. I can imagine, in an abstract sense, the lives of the people who made the pants I'm wearing, or the couch I'm sitting on. But to actually see the face of someone who died on a warehouse floor, and to have thought that he and his family looked like really nice people - that I can't deal with.

I understand the argument that focusing on Amazon just takes the attention away from the rest of the industry, and I can't argue with it. But it's exhausting trying to fight for things to be better and coming up against billions of dollars. Everyone says "get involved! talk to politicians and rally around the cause!" but it doesn't happen, and nothing changes. I honestly have no idea what to do, and at least refusing to go through Amazon lets me feel like I've crossed one thing off the list. So it's totally selfish because it's really about me, and how guilty I feel. But at least it's something I have the tiniest bit of control over.

I don't want to say nothing can ever change, but it'll take a whole lot to make it happen. Modern capitalism is a miserable system.
posted by teponaztli at 1:47 AM on October 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


If I want to drive less then 20+ minutes, then my choice is Amazon or Walmart, and I consider Amazon currently the lesser of the two evils. Also, because of their vendor marketplace, they've made it much easier to find things like parts to repair things. Example; one of the filter container bits for the big pool filter cracked. The local pool store would have to order the part, they quoted me two weeks and $300. I had it two days later for $75.00 directly from the manufacturer of the original part, ordering through Amazon.

One of the reasons Amazon is so successful is because they're better at the demand chain supply than anyone else. When Amazon is the only way that consumers can order from businesses that don't sell to the consumer, then Amazon will capture those consumers.

Are their labor practices problematic from an idealistic best case, absolutely. But having worked in warehouses, and behind the curtain at places like fed ex or ups, it isn't much different than any other high volume business that moves a ton of freight a minute.

I say again, the issue is not a single business beholden to its shareholders, the issue is Labor in America. We need strong worker protections, and guarantees, and regulations and consequences for ignoring them. We need unions.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 8:23 PM on October 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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