July 2, 2013

Amazon warehouses: literally worse than coal mines


Amazon: among the only companies that could make us nostalgic for this

We’ve written often about the egregious labor abuses of Jeff “Say Uncle” Bezos and his tube sock shipping monopoly Amazon. I think we do a good job, generally, painting an accurate portrait of the crimes (in many cases literal crimes) of the counter-literary juggernaut. I also enjoy drawing a silly mustache or cartoonish horns on said portrait from time to time—our general tactic is to swing between inciting outrage and laughter. But lately Amazon has grown so cartoonishly villainous that it’s begun to steal the wind from both tacks.

Case in point: Amazon has built a shipping warehouse in the former coal mining town of Rugeley in the English midlands. The Amazon shipping warehouse is literally the new coal mine in town. Well, the comparison is not exact. The work at Amazon is arguably harder, the pay is worse, the jobs are precarious, and the whole thing comes wrapped in a condescending veneer of self-fulfillment.

John Brownlee writes on the Fast Company design blog about a beautiful photo essay by Ben Roberts covering the town and the warehouse, saying:

The issue at Rugeley is not that workers are ungrateful for the jobs Amazon has given them, or even that they find these jobs unpleasant. Most of Rugeley’s workers come from mining families, a stock not exactly known for its weak-livered dandyism. It doesn’t matter that these jobs are hard. It’s that they have no future.

The jobs in the Rugeley fulfillment center are almost always temporary positions handed out by agencies on zero-hour contracts. Nothing is guaranteed, and a fulfillment associate’s job can completely disappear between one day and the next. As such, the local economy is not recovering as locals hoped. Amazon is not investing in the town’s people; instead, it’s mechanizing them.

While the photos in the essay are certainly gorgeous, and unnerving without being exploitative of the workers—they convey the landscape of the Amazon picking floor  in all its bright sterile vastness—it’s Robert’s insight into the problem with such warehouses that might be most valuable. As he is quoted by Brownlee:

“When you buy something from an independent retailer, you might pay more than Amazon, but that extra bit is an investment,” Roberts explains. “When you pay it, you’re investing in the quality of not only your own life but the life of the community around you.”

The same panicked grasping by local governments at jobs, no matter how temporary or poorly paid, that led to the placement of the warehouse in Rugeley is how Amazon managed to place packing plants in other locations as well. Amazon (a company that receives more money from the UK government than it pays in taxes, remember) currently has other UK “fulfillment centers” in Hemel Hempsted, Hertfordshire; Swansea, Wales; Doncaster, South Yorkshire and Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, former mining towns all. At what point will those communities be forced to ask what, in fact, Amazon is giving back to them, if anything?

Among the most infuriating of Roberts’ photographs are those of motivational posters dotted around the Rugeley warehouse. In each poster, a full-sized photo of one of the warehouse’s employees, and dotted around them are slogans—presumeably chosen by the employees themselves—so full of hope in the corporate overlord that it almost makes one sick with dread, slogans like  “We love coming to work and miss it when we’re not here!” Coal mining in towns like Rugeley was terrible work, but it had the decency to be honestly such.



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