Amazon Labour Exploitation: By hook or by crook
It’s the Black Friday 9-day sale on Amazon. Huge discounts, free delivery… Going on a shopping spree is tempting. So tempting, in fact, that last year, in the space of 2 days (Thanksgiving and Black Friday), Amazon processed nearly 13 million transactions in the US. The majority of these orders were handled by only 140 (!) fulfilment centres across the country. It’s pretty hard to imagine this volume of orders, each of them hand-picked and packed. Yet, somehow, Amazon manages it, and it pays off. As Vox points out, last year in the US, ‘Amazon accounted for 45 per cent of all Thanksgiving Day online purchases and 60 per cent of purchases on Black Friday, according to Hitwise.’
Amazon’s supremacy within the e-commerce space in undoubtful.
On the 4th of September 2018, Amazon became the second US company in history to be valued at $1tn. However, becoming a heavyweight e-commerce giant comes at a price. As the San Fransisco Chronicle observes, ‘Amazon has a long-standing reputation for stressful working conditions in its pursuit of speed and market dominance‘. So what exactly is the human cost of Amazon’s domination?
Amazon Labour Exploitation: Forced Labour
Amazon has been repeatedly accused of forcing their employees to work overtime during peak times. The issue has been reported in both Amazon’s warehouses in the UK and the US, as well as in their supply chain in China.
China Labour Watch’s investigation into Foxconn (Chinese producer of Kindles and Echo smart speakers) revealed horrifying working conditions. Firstly, an average employee is expected to work 60 hours per week. In a month it adds up to 80 hours of overtime – way over the 36 hours allowed by the Chinese government. Other reports suggest that employees work up to 100 overtime hours per month during peak times. It is important to highlight that the workers are paid £1.69 per hour for both contracted hours and overtime work. It is illegal. The Chinese government requires employers to pay 1.5x standard rate for any overtime work (and so does Amazon, on paper). Overall, an average Foxconn employee in Hengyang makes between £230 and £350 a month, (2000 – 3000 yuan), including overtime pay. In contrast, an average worker in the same town makes about £540 a month (4647 yuan).
These findings are shocking. Especially, keeping in mind that in 2010 alone, 14 employees of Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory (which manufactures Apple products) committed suicide by jumping off the rooftop of the factory to protest against the inhumane working conditions. To resolve the issue of high suicide rates, Foxconn installed nets around the factory; the working conditions did not change. While Amazon are not responsible for what happened in other factories, they have a responsibility to ensure that their supply chain does not exploit the labour force. Unfortunately, due diligence is not in place – according to CQI, between January 2017 and June 2018, Amazon faced 145 supply chain allegations.
Forced labour is just as much of an issue at Amazon’s own warehouses in the US and the UK. In Sacramento, California, workers sued Amazon for being denied overtime pay and rest breaks. A 2016 investigation into a fulfilment centre in Scotland revealed that employees are forced to take extra shifts, working up to 11 hours a day. The basic rights of team members were also heavily scrutinised. For example, ‘Bathroom breaks that were considered to be excessively long were reportedly met with disciplinary action.’ In an article published by Business Insider, we can read about horror stories of Amazon warehouse workers: from urinating in trash cans to avoid taking toilet breaks, to Airport-style security and breaks cut short by waiting in line. Amazon claims they don’t recognise this portrayal of their working conditions.
Amazon Labour Exploitation: Health and Safety
In 2018, Freedom of Information requested information about the health and safety of Amazon’s UK warehouses. It transpired that over a 3 year period, there have been over 600 ambulance calls. Most reported situations included pregnancy-related incidents, breathing problems, cardiac pain, electrocution, and even major trauma. Amazon’s spokesperson commented, “Requests for ambulance services at our fulfilment centres are predominantly associated with personal health events and are not work-related. Nevertheless, ambulance visits at our UK fulfilment centres last year was 0.00001 per worked hour, which is dramatically low.” However, Business Insider noted that there were ‘115 ambulance calls just to Amazon’s Rugeley warehouse’ during the three-year period. In contrast, over the same time period, there have been only eight calls to a similar-sized Tesco warehouse nearby.
In the US, the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health included Amazon on their list of the most dangerous places to work in the country. ‘The Council noted that seven Amazon warehouse workers have died since 2013 and that there’s a “relentless demand” to fulfil orders that lead to harsh working conditions. It’s even exploring ultrasonic wristbands that would track even the slightest deviation from the work schedule.’
But there is more to it than just physically unsafe working conditions. As an ex-warehouse worker of Amazon’s recounts, there is ‘an emotionally toxic culture, where the stress of meeting productivity targets leads managers to treat workers like things, to be pushed harder and faster without regard for the emotional or personal cost.’ An ex-warehouse manager confirms this view: ‘We weren’t trained to be understanding of their [workers’] struggles or communicate with them. It was all about mechanics. (…) Workers constantly feel like their jobs are on the line because they are. We [managers] were supposed to be observing their [packing] rate and not be concerned with how hard it is to pack things. Managers were pressured to identify the weak links and get them out so that we can have a faster rate. It’s a pressure cooker environment, and that’s what you have to be to get to Amazon’s level of efficiency.’
Amazon Labour Exploitation: Final Thoughts
Technology is a relatively new but rapidly growing sector. As a result, the industry giants are able to set their own rules of working. As CQI points out, this is why ‘we should be expecting the tech sector to set new, higher standards for governance rather than lagging way behind.’ Of course, Amazon is not a lone offender in the tech arena. But with their size, capital and power they do have an unfulfilled potential to become the Cadbury of the tech revolution; providing better working conditions and social benefits for their employees. Putting an end to Amazon labour exploitation will undoubtedly set a positive example for other tech giants to follow.
Interested in the eCommerce sector? Check out our blog about shoppable videos and the disruption they bring to the eComm space.