May 5, 2014

Amazon-screws-everyone-not-least-its-own-workforce link roundup!


Take care when picking which stories about Amazon labor abuse you read, lest the rest come toppling down on you.

Take care when picking which stories about Amazon labor abuse you read, lest the rest come toppling down on you.

Amazon mistreats its employees.

It may not mistreat them worse than some employers. It may not mistreat all of them. Some of the mistreatment might be laid at the feet of broader, systemic faults in the U.S. labor market this century. Its mistreatment may be largely legal. But consider this: Amazon’s mistreatment of its labor is so pervasive, so widespread, that even here, on a blog I’d proudly call one of their most vocal critics, we aren’t able to cover all of the egregious stories coming out about Amazon’s labor practices. That’s right, Amazon’s labor policies are so bad, and news about those practices so widespread, we’re doing a roundup of what you may have missed recently.

1. Dave Jamieson wrote for the Huffington Post last month about Amazon’s use of third party employees in their package delivery and boy howdy does that sound like a miserable job. Jamieson introduces us to Myron Ballard, “an ‘independent contractor,’ not an employee, meaning all of the costs stemming from the deliveries fall on him rather than on LaserShip [the third party shiping company] or Amazon.” Jamieson writes:

For starters, a delivery company using independent contractors avoidspaying payroll or unemployment taxes on its drivers, as well as workers’ compensation insurance — nevermind basic workplace benefits like health coverage and a 401(k). Such companies also aren’t obliged to pay workers overtime under federal law, meaning no time and a half when the delivery day stretches into a 12-hour shift. And since they pay drivers on a per-delivery basis, they don’t owe them anything for non-delivery work, like loading the van at the warehouse before hitting the road, a task that can take up to two hours.

The arrangement also makes it virtually impossible for the drivers to unionize since they’re non-employees.

Amazon is not alone in paying employees-in-everything-but-name at a per-package rate. Fed-Ex does the same.

“It’s the American way,” [former Fed-Ex Executive Ivan] Hofmann said. “When paid by the hour, the motivation is the hour. We paid by the stop and the piece and the weight. The faster you worked, the more money you made. Your income wasn’t fixed.”

Pro-tip: when someone calls something ‘the American way’ you know, without a doubt, that both it and they are monstrous. The system Amazon is using through it’s contractor Lasership is familiar in that it is brutally disdainful of its workforce and leaves them, as with so much labor in America now, precarious in the extreme. It’s a pattern we see with Amazon’s use of Integrity Staffing to fill their warehouses. The practice’s chief benefit to Amazon is to shield them from lawuits (although they are named in this hard-fought lawsuit by staffers asking to be paid for their time spent waiting in line) and from getting hit with unemployment insurance penalties when they lay off half of their workforce each season. Also, of course: the precariously employed find it very hard to organize.

It’s a great piece, and interesting given how lauded Amazon was recently for their move to pay postal carriers to deliver their packages on Sundays. Too often when we picture Amazon employees, it’s either warehouse teams or door-desk jockeys in towers in Seattle.

2. Speaking of the former, the Guardian‘s Jana Kasperkevic wrote this weekend about how for many workers in Amazon’s sweatshops, the precariousness of the employment can deal a crippling blow to people living deep below the poverty line.

The piece focuses on a few individuals hired on by Integrity Staffing on behalf of Amazon for seasonal work who used the job to help move themselves and their families out of the shelters system. One of the tenets of Amazon’s seasonal workforce is that the most dedicated workers will be retained at the end of the season. In practice this is not true for most. Kasperkevic writes:

More than half of the shelter’s tenants are working poor, according to Anderson. Often times they are either in between jobs or working jobs that pay just enough to make ends meet, but not enough to help them break out of the cycle of homelessness.

With lack of subsidized housing affordable at their level of income, they are stuck. They have no one to co-sign an apartment for them and no way to save up for a security deposit, much less the first and last months’ rent that many landlords now require before one moves in.

More generally Kasperkevic is writing about the rise of the precariat class in America. Amazon is not entirely to blame for the desperation of a lifetime spent scrabbling, but with their low pay, punitive practices and emphasis on constant turnover they certainly exacerbate it. Amazon is an employer the way corn syrup is food. Yes, technically it will sustain you, but at what point are we forced to ask if they’re doing more harm than good?

3. Hamilton Nolan‘s excellent series of letters from Amazon employees on Gawker this past week was excellent, and valuable in that he ran letters from every side of the company. Each story feels like a different facet in a polished gleaming gem of disdain. It’s hugely interesting to see Amazon’s patrician, insulting practices in the warehouses mirrored, on the corporate side, in an atmosphere of abuse labeled as competitiveness. In both environments employees are meant to be expendable. The company is a hamburger grinder. It’s enough to give you an anxiety attack, but I urge you to read all of the letters anyway.

As I say, Amazon is likely not the worst offender out there (Hi, Waltons!), but it is among them. It is the grinning face of developed world labor abuse. And it is growing.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.