Employers From Hell
A Mile In An Amazon Worker’s Plastic Boots
Let me walk you through a scenario. You’re suffering through the ups and downs of a fragile economy.
Having received your professional degree, you worked at a desk or in a manual job as skilled labor for over two or three decades earning a stable wage, before you were made redundant – which is a polite way of saying that your previous life, as you knew it, went to hell in a handbasket.
But you’re a pragmatist and understand well that, in this professional climate, one takes what one gets.
And so, when you see an employment agency hiring manual labor personnel as an affiliate for Amazon (Start as a temp, and make your way up! Exciting career opportunities!), you leap at the chance and get in line.
Being overqualified for the job at hand, which essentially requires that you shouldn’t be a drug-snorting junkie and be able to read and write complete sentences, you breeze through the interview process and line up with others like you to start your new profession as an Amazon picker – ecstatic about your new opportunity, and excited to try out the employee break room’s Foosball tables you’ve heard so much about.
It’s essential that, by this point in the article, you’ve successfully managed to submerge yourself in this hypothetical – because the following is a description of your everyday life from here on out, as you toil under your new employers from hell.
You wake up at 5 AM, frenzied and sore from the previous day’s shift, rush through your morning routine and hurry to work, terrified of punching in even a minute late – which would get you half a demerit, and 3 demerits land you out on the street without a job.
Once you start your (roughly) ten to eleven hour shift, you’re handed a scanner and informed of the hourly quota which you must meet, as you grab two large plastic bins and arrange them on a shopping cart.
From this point on, your scanner is your lifeline. It informs you of the next item which you need to pick from the million square feet large warehouse (or “Fulfillment centres” in Amazon Corporatese), as well as where you may find it – all of it determined by ‘scientifically’ drawn paths to maximize efficiency within this chaotic storage – while your employers from hell look down from catwalks, like Orwellian overlords.
You may find that Xbox you’re looking for with a DVD of My Little Pony, some adult toys, and a pair of sneakers on the same shelf, after which you’re expected to walk another mile and a half for the next item to pick.
In addition, depending on your particular warehouse, you may have to wear GPS tags as well which track your movement across the floor and inform your superiors if you’re not headed along the path assigned to you by the scanner, or if you’re progressing too slowly.
While on the floor, walking atleast 12 to 15 miles in an average shift, you’ll have two fifteen-minute toilet breaks which begin regardless of where you may be at the moment in this titanic structure, and a half-hour long lunch break which shrinks down to five minutes by the time you’re through with the security checks to and from the cafeteria (if your “fulfillment centre” is lucky enough to have one).
Since quotas for each shift are decided by the order flow and the productivity levels previously achieved by the workforce – and the order of business for these employers from hell is to push the envelope wherever possible – you and hundreds of your colleagues may be expected to pick 120 items per hour (two per minute) at one point, and 150 items per hour the next day.
While you digest that succulent scoop, let me also mention that your hours could mandatorily be increased from five 10-hour-shift days to six 12-hour-shift work weeks.
You and hundreds of your colleagues may be expected to pick 120 items per hour at one point, and 150 items per hour the next day
If you fail to meet the hourly quota, you’ll first be approached by your employers from hell and asked whether there’s any specific reason behind your failing to meet the mark – and will eventually be taken to a separate room, thanked for your valuable services, and shown the door with a small goodie bag in your hand.
If you take three sick leaves in three consecutive months, you’ll face the same situation. Or, maybe the affiliate headhunting services that hired you decide to arbitrarily deactivate your working badge since Amazon has a surplus of employees which it doesn’t need (usually the case).
Regardless of what you were told during your interview, an insignificant percentage of the temps will ever make it to permanent positions – but you will all sign non-compete contracts that prevent you from gaining employment for eighteen months after termination of services, at any firm which competes with any product provided by Amazon globally.
Since your ex-employers from hell literally sell everything, this essentially stops you from working in any consumer-goods-oriented business (production, development, marketing, sales, etc.) anywhere across the globe, if you’re given the boot or you quit.
Overqualified though you may be, you won’t be the only one in such a situation among your colleagues – many of whom may range from ex-builders and programmers to ex-teachers and analysts, and every other conceivable profession in between.
Oh, and did I mention, you would be doing all of this – day in and day out – for or little over minimum wage?
Contesting this is pointless since you aren’t directly hired by these employers from hell anyway – a state of affairs which protects the company itself from bad PR, and deflects it onto seedy affiliates.
In fact, official accounts for permanent Amazon employees reflect a much better picture, primarily because most of the workers you just read about aren’t considered Amazon employees to begin with.
The Cult of the Customer
So, what pushes Amazon to promote this dystopian work environment? What’s the primary focus behind this leviathanic multi-national corporation’s business model which has led it to be ranked as one of the companies with the least employee loyalty in the world?
The answer lies in its mission statement – to become Earth’s most customer-centric company. And it succeeds in its chosen agenda.
The truth of the matter is that, even if you know how the company treats its warehouse employees, it won’t change the fact that Amazon provides the most convenient, and often cheapest, purchasing experience on the planet – and so it won’t be long before you’re adding another item into your virtual shopping cart (to be unloaded, sorted, picked, packed, and shipped by one of the employees we just discussed).
To turn itself into the cheapest shopping portal available, Amazon has been host to several employment scandals, has exploited various tax loopholes, and even regularly played “catch-me-if-you-can” with revenue authorities in several nations, often in countries which are desperate to provide jobs for their citizens in an economic environment which is corrosive to growth and expansion – even going so far as to take government subsidies without increasing a cent in employee earnings.
Every penny that it saved by not paying its employees a humane wage, or by evading taxes with all the slippery suave of an eel, has gone into reducing the prices you see on your computer screen – minimizing retail values to a point where it has regularly been blamed for putting smaller businesses and shops out of business.
Its “customer-centrist” rhetoric has been so pervasive that, in several cases of wage renegotiations with employees, Amazon accused workers of looking after their own interests rather than that of the customer.
Subjective Realities: One Man’s Sweatshop Is Another Man’s Playground
Now, while the accounts discussed above have been drawn from tons of published real-life experiences, not every Amazon employee looks at them as an employer from hell.
Although the conditions in many aspects of their business are atrocious, Amazon has also been credited by several temporary employees as having much better warehouse practices than other Fortune 500 companies such as Walmart and Google.
They claim that, although such jobs are difficult to keep up with sometimes, Amazon provides a cut-throat competitive atmosphere that challenges you at every turn and genuinely rewards you for consistently high work output.
After all of the accounts of atrocities in Fulfillment centres which have been published since 2011, this statement may have some merit – Amazon is a business after all, and not a charitable organization (though it has devolved workers’ rights to a state reminiscent of the beginning of England’s Industrial Revolution).
Although no one argues with the need to balance work expectations with fair compensation, an aspect of Amazon which is rightly under critical scrutiny nowadays, it does provide advancement opportunities for people who thrive under intense pressure and who consistently aim at setting new benchmarks rather than to those who are struggling to meet them.
The current Amazon-bashing which is observed on professional media platforms, combined with the lack of appropriate response to the same by these employers from hell, lead us to make two conclusions.
First, Jeff Bezos rightly understands that his business model can withstand any losing PR battle because customers will never stop buying from the cheapest outlet available (regardless of its sweatshop-like environment).
Secondly, until the customers of this “customer-centric” organization do not truly appreciate the depth of the problem at hand, and take a stand which directly impacts their revenue, governments alone will never be able to entirely change the employment practices in Amazon through litigation.
Whenever governments have attempted to do the same on a large scale, Amazon simply moved its operations to friendlier waters.
In the end, the take-away from the experience should be this – an employment experience with Amazon will be a trial by fire, difficult and full of obstacles, but will provide you with a work experience that will take you to dizzying heights when you move on from this firm.
Just as the employees siding with Amazon state, if you’re competitive and ambitious, and thrive in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, these employers from hell may become the springboard from which to launch your career into the bigger leagues.