Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, is the world’s
richest man with an estimated net worth of 139.9 billion USD. He can almost afford to
buy the Amazon rainforest and the Amazon River. Then he would be the leader of three Amazons.
Despite his massive wealth, his warehouse workers in Australia aren’t being treated
very well. American Amazon workers are slowly being replaced
by robots, despite assurances from the company that they’re not being replaced. I can guarantee,
when the technology is ready — the human workers will be replaced. They whinge and
moan and expect to have time off for eating and going to the toilet and other human frailties.
Humans are slow and unreliably. Of course Jeff Bezos is going to replace them at the
earliest possible convenience. You don’t become rich by paying people to go to the
toilet! Anyway, back to the Australian workers. Interviews
were carried out recently by the ABC with some of the current and former staff at the
Amazon Australia fulfilment centre on the outskirts of Melbourne. Despite the name,
workers at the fulfilment centre are extremely unfulfilled. They are much like the drones
of the bee world. Drones have pretty much one role in the bee community — to mate
with the queen. Once they do that, they die, because the reproductive organs are ripped
from the drone’s body after sexual intercourse — much like what happens at Amazon Australia.
Workers are ripped of any sense of self-worth and are essentially dead by the end of their
shift. They become zombies, or automatons — machines expected to behave in a mechanical
and unemotional way. To be fair to Jeff Bezos, despite the workers
physically working at the Amazon fulfilment centre, they’re not actually Amazon employees.
Almost all of them are casual workers engaged through the country’s biggest labour hire
agency, Adecco. So to be fair to Jeff, he’s not actually treating his workers like shit,
but somebody else’s. In their interviews, the Amazon workers, also
known as Amazonians, told the ABC: • the workplace is built around a culture
of fear where their performance is timed to the second;
• they are expected to constantly work at “Amazon pace”, described as somewhere
between walking and jogging; • high-pressure targets make them feel like
they can’t go to the toilet and sometimes push them to cut safety corners;
• they can be sent home early without being paid for the rest of their shift when orders
are completed; and • everyone is employed on a casual basis
and constantly anxious about whether they’ll get another shift. When workers enter the massive facility for
their shift, they are met with a beach scene, along with some banal slogans written on the
wall: “Customer Obsession”, “Think Big”, “Dive Deep”, “Learn and Be Curious”,
“Bias for Action”, and others. You see, Australians love beaches — even if they’re
fake. There’s nothing more inspiring to an Aussie than to be met with fake sand and
an inflatable children’s pool when you arrive at work in the morning. Just to the right of this rousing scene are
two big security turnstiles with metal detectors attached. Australian Amazonians need to make
sure that they have no electronic devices with them, and they’re not allowed to wear
anything sold by Amazon Australia. This, of course, is to prevent theft. Australians are
notoriously good thieves — given that many of us are direct descendants of convicts — so
when given the opportunity, we will almost certainly rob Amazon of all it’s cheap,
imported merchandise. I reckon you could chuck a small smartwatch
over that barricade, bounce it off the beach umbrella, and then land it in the inflatable
pool. When you knock off for the evening, you can just pick up your prize and head home.
It’s the least Amazon can do for all the weeks of suffering they have bestowed upon
you, and I’m pretty sure Jeff Bezos can afford the odd smartwatch now and again. Disclaimer: Do not steal. Stealing is wrong
and illegal. Even though Jeff Bezos is robbing you of your dignity, happiness, and self-esteem,
these things are not tangible, and therefore no laws are being broken by robbing you of
them. At the start of their shift, workers are huddled
together to shout out slogans and to perform the morning stretches. The supervisor chants, “I say Amazon, you
say efficiency”. “Amazon!”
“Efficiency!” One of the employees is selected to lead the
daily team stretches. Amazonians are asked to share one of their Amazon success stories.
These rituals are in place to better prepare workers for the long day ahead. The company’s
motto is then recited, “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.” It is also woven into
a huge rainbow-coloured mural at the front of the warehouse. Amazonian pickers, as they are called, have
the duty of walking around the warehouse floor at Amazonian pace and collecting all the items
that popup on their handheld scanning device. Collectively, they are responsible for storing,
picking, and packing tens of thousands of items each day. Some say their work is robotic,
and others have compared their work to some sort of dystopian video game. These so called Amazon “associates” are
required to collect items as determined by an algorithm, which dictates how many items
should be moved, stored, packed and picked within any given hour. At the start of their shift, associates collect
a hand-held scanner gun and trolley. One Amazonian said: “Your job is carved up into tiny tasks which
means they can replace you easily and training is very efficient”. Once the associate has collected and scanned
a product, a new item automatically appears on their scanner, along with a countdown timer
telling them how long they have left to find and scan the next item. The same Amazonian said: “The item might be six aisles away and you
have 15 seconds. Technology gets it wrong. You’re paranoid, you don’t know if the
manager knows that’s unreasonable. The timer disappears if you don’t make it, just to
put the fear of God into you. You internalise that little clock… You walk at ‘Amazon
pace’, which is just shy of jogging. They expect that of you, that’s made very clear.
Everything we do here is really fast.” The performance of each worker is calculated
using “pick rates”. The Amazonian said that if you’re collecting small items, you’re
expected to collect about 120 products per hour — one product every 30 seconds. Workers
are left feeling physically and mentally exhausted at the end of their shift. Some workers estimate
they walk around 30km a shift. It’s not quite, but it’s almost a marathon every
shift. If you don’t meet your pick rate, a manager
will approach you and ask if everything is okay. One Amazonian said: “A representative came to me and said, ‘your
numbers are low, what happened?’. I said I was lifting large items, 15 or 20 kilograms.
But when they come to us it makes me feel like we’re not working hard enough. It’s
hard, I can’t make the times in the scanner. It’s really fast. I get stressed. They [are]
always looking for your rates. It’s about numbers at Amazon.” Another worker said: “They make it out like it’s all about
safety but at the end of the day everybody will not follow safety procedures because
it will bring their rates down… Everyone knew all they care about was rates.” Many of the workers said that in order to
meet targets, going to the toilet in the middle of a shift isn’t possible. Consequently,
some of them actively avoid drinking water. The warehouse gets hot, so people get dehydrated. Amazon Australia replied by stating: “We encourage associates to carry a water
bottle with them and most do. Water coolers are available throughout the fulfilment centre
(and break room) and are replenished during the day. Associates are allowed to use the
toilet whenever needed. However, they must pay $1.00 each time they go, to pay for cleaning
products and the like. We do not monitor toilet breaks and factor appropriate breaks such
as these into daily planning.” Okay, I made up that part about the $1.00.
It’s actually $2.00. Workers agree that this is Amazon’s official
stance, however, they all know that taking bathroom breaks will result in a poor pick
rate. One worker said: “They expect your rate to stay the same
all day and you’re expected to keep that rate up all day. You can’t go to the toilet.” Another said: “I don’t drink water when I work so I
don’t have to go.” However, picking too fast can result in lost
income. One worker said: “One day we were picking so fast, they made
us give ourselves a round of applause. Then they made us all go home early, and we didn’t
get paid for our whole shift.” Although it’s never explicitly stated, workers
know that poor pick rates result in fewer shifts. One worker said: “I was privy to conversations with management
and a casual PA (processing assistant) and there was a lot of ‘Can we help them?’.
We had people in their 60s. If they can’t help them, the next day they were sacked immediately,
they wouldn’t get a text with their hours. Just, your shift’s been cancelled.” Many of the workers are recent migrants. One
such worker thought that by working for such a big company, it would look really good on
his resume. But in reality, he doesn’t know when he’ll get his next shift. One week
he works five shifts, another week he works none. He said: “I was getting $550 for a week. Then all
of a sudden… no shifts.” Organisational psychologist Heather Ikin calls
Amazon’s practices a form of “abusive supervision” that create a constant sense
of anxiety among staff. Tim Kennedy, National Secretary at the National
Union of Workers, says the level of casualisation in Amazon’s Melbourne warehouse is “unheard
of” in Australia. He said: “In a lot of the facilities where we represent
workers, up to 40% of the workers will be casual or labour hire, but nowhere have we
ever found in Australia that a major company running its logistics supply chain uses 100%
labour hire casuals not employed by them directly. It allows Amazon to have no legal obligation
to workers in regards to unfair dismissal or any sense of job security.” One Amazonian stated: “I feel dehumanised. I feel like they resent
the fact that I’m not a robot and that I’m made of flesh and bone.” Another said: “They would drill ideology into you every
day. They’d try and brainwash you into becoming the star player of Amazon.” And yet another employee said: “When we turn down a shift we are scared,
will we get a shift next week? They think Amazon is the only thing you should be thinking
about, that you shouldn’t have a life. Sometimes I don’t think they think of us as human.” Amazon employees need the money. They’re
at the beck and call of their employer, and if they disagree with anything — despite
how unfair it may seem — they find themselves without a job. As one employee said: “Sometimes I think about what Jeff Bezos
is doing at that second — what gourmet food he’s eating on which of his boats or jets.
And I’m driving away so exhausted, sitting in my beat-up little hot-box in freeway traffic.
I think about what I could’ve done that day if I wasn’t desperate to accept every
shift. Jeff Bezos has got the most money of any person on Earth. He’s not earning that
money. That’s the money we’re making for him.” And that’s the story of Amazon Australia.
A rich guy at the top using some kind of modern-day version of indentured servitude just so that
he can remain top dog. He doesn’t care about his workers. He just cares about his massive
wealth and how to keep it. To be fair, I do like the idea of Amazon.
I, like most people, like being able to buy cheap goods online. However, at what cost?
If it costs the average person their livelihoods and their dignity, then I say, “no thank
you”. Jeff Bezos, like many other rich people, is getting rich at the expense of the actual
people doing all the work.