If we place the word Amazon into a search engine, rather than finding information on one of the last great wilderness environments on the planet, we are subject to pages of the other Amazon; a multi-billion dollar company which has failed to exculpate itself from claims of worker exploitation, and labor exploitation in the developing world:
“Hundreds of schoolchildren have been drafted in to make Amazon’s Alexa devices in China as part of a controversial and often illegal attempt to meet production targets, documents seen by the Guardian reveal. Interviews with workers and leaked documents from Amazon’s supplier Foxconn show that many of the children have been required to work nights and overtime to produce the smart-speaker devices, in breach of Chinese labor laws” (Chamberlain, 2019).
I cancelled my Amazon account a year ago-not happy with its exploits into the weaponisation of AI, and its poor record of worker support and protection, in addition to its bot like customer service, the lack of speed in handling queries and issuing refunds, its maze like website where all the important information like cancelling an account or seeking help from a human being are in the tiny print you have to search for through page after page of webspeak. I was also annoyed at those small dollar amounts that kept appearing on my credit card-just to have an account open with the online conglomerate. I have no regrets and can happily shop in bookstores and other stores, enjoying the variety of products and warmth of customer service with people I can interact with, and discuss simple things like the weather, and the items I am buying. My conscience is clear, I know longer support a conglomerate built on the backbone, sweat and tears of ordinary people who are and have had to work for Amazon.
Jeff Bezos is always in the news. He recently divorced and reached a multi-billion dollar settlement with his ex-wife, is a multi-billionaire philanthropist (a tax deductible one), says he is committed to climate action, and only recently sold off around $4 billion of Amazon stocks: perhaps for altruistic reason? Who knows, but if there’s a buck to be made here, it is highly unlikely.
Everyone celebrates a self-made man or woman; but when they reach the dizzying heights of success, wealth and power, they seem to forget which ladder they used to get there:
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
“Whereto the climber upward turns his face.
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is” (Shakespeare, 2002)
Amazon’s track record in looking after its employees is poor, and it unfortunately represents the gold standard for American workers struggling for a living in the age of predatory capitalism. A low basic minimum wage, no health cover, limited or no vacation time, no sick leave, and the list goes on. One could be forgiven for thinking the USA hasn’t moved beyond serfdom and serf labor, despite its much touted equality for all constitution (more theory than practice).
So, what happens if you stand up to corporate monoliths like Amazon, and its owner Jeff Bezos? One employee (or ex-employee because he was fired for having professional agency and a voice), Chris Smalls found out when he tried to ensure the health and safety of the colleagues he line managed. I quote his letter in full courtesy of The Guardian columnist Ross Barkan:
“Dear Jeff Bezos, when I applied to work at Amazon, the job description was simple. It said you need to have a high-school diploma or a GED (General Educational Development) and you have to be able to lift 50 pounds. That’s it. Now, because of Covid-19, we’re being told that Amazon workers are “the new Red Cross”. But we don’t want to be heroes. We are regular people. I don’t have a medical degree. I wasn’t trained to be a first responder. We shouldn’t be asked to risk our lives to come into work. But we are. And someone has to be held accountable for that, and that person is you.
I have worked at Amazon for five years. Until I was fired last week from the Staten Island warehouse in New York City, I was a manager assistant who supervised a team of about 60-100 “pickers”, who pick items off the shelves and put them on conveyor belts to get sent out for shipment.
At the beginning of March, before the first confirmed case of coronavirus at the facility, I noticed people were getting sick. People had different symptoms: fatigue, light-headedness, vomiting. I escalated it to HR. I said, hey, something is wrong here. We need to quarantine the building. I wanted us to be proactive not reactive. Management disagreed and assured me they were “following CDC guidelines”.
The lack of protections worried me. Inside the warehouse, there are gloves, but they are not the right kind. They are rubber instead of latex. There are also no masks. Hand sanitizer is scarce. There are limited cleaning supplies. People are walking around with their own personal hand sanitizer but good luck finding one in a local grocery store.
Because of those conditions, I didn’t feel safe, so I took paid time off to stay home and avoid getting sick. Eventually, though, I ran out of paid time off and I had to go back to work. Other colleagues don’t have that option, though. Many of my co-workers and friends at the Amazon facility have underlying health conditions. Some have asthma or lupus or diabetes. Others are older people, or pregnant. They haven’t gone to work in a month, so they haven’t been paid. They’re only doing that to save their lives: if they get the virus they could be dead. One of my friends, who has lupus, is living with his relatives so he doesn’t have to pay rent. Can you imagine if he couldn’t do that? He’d probably be homeless right now.
Another problem is that Amazon has imposed mandatory overtime to keep up with the demand of everyone ordering online. The result is that Amazon employees are going to work sick as dogs just so they can earn $2 per hour on top of their regular pay. Do you know what I call that? Blood money.
Workers who want to make extra money are doing up to 60 hours of work a week and risking their lives. Some are working even if they are sick. When people are coughing and sneezing they say, oh, it’s just allergies. It’s a scary time to be in the warehouse right now.
When I went back to work last Tuesday morning, I spoke to a team member who looked really ill. She told me she feared she had corona and had tried to get tested. I told her to go home and get some rest. Then, two hours later, we had a managers’ meeting. That’s when we were told we had a first confirmed sick employee. The crazy thing was, management told us not to tell the associates. They were being very secretive about it.
I thought the secrecy was wrong, so as soon as I left the meeting I told as many people as I could about the situation. Shortly after that, I started emailing the New York state health department, the governor, the CDC. I called the local police department. I did everything I could to close that warehouse down so that it could be properly sanitized but the government is too overwhelmed to act right now. That’s when I realized I would have to do something myself. I believe they targeted me because the spotlight is on me. The thing is, it won’t work
I decided to start spreading awareness among the workers in the building. I had meetings in the common areas and dozens of workers joined us to talk about their concerns. People were afraid. We went to the general manager’s office to demand that the building be closed down so it could be sanitized. We also said we wanted to be paid during the duration of that time. Another demand of ours was that people who can’t go to work because of underlying health conditions be paid. Why do they have to risk catching the virus to put food on the table? This company makes trillions of dollars. Still, our demands and concerns are falling on deaf ears. It’s crazy. They don’t care if we fall sick. Amazon thinks we are expendable.
Because Amazon was so unresponsive, I and other employees who felt the same way decided to stage a walkout and alert the media to what’s going on. On Tuesday, about 50-60 workers joined us in our walkout. A number of them spoke to the press. It was beautiful, but unfortunately I believe it cost me my job.
On Saturday, a few days before the walkout, Amazon told me they wanted to put me on “medical quarantine” because I had interacted with someone who was sick. It made no sense because they weren’t putting other people on quarantine. I believe they targeted me because the spotlight is on me. The thing is, it won’t work. They’ve just cut the head off of a hydra. I am getting calls from Amazon workers across the country and they all want to stage walk-outs, too. We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us.
If you’re an Amazon customer, here’s how you can practice real social distancing: stop clicking the “Buy now” button. Go to the grocery store instead. You might be saving some lives.
And to Mr. Bezos my message is simple. I don’t give a damn about your power. You think you’re powerful? We’re the ones that have the power. Without us working, what are you going to do? You’ll have no money. We have the power. We make money for you. Never forget that” ( Smalls, C cited in Barkan, R 2020)
Barkan is spot on in his erudite analysis of corporate capitalism in the USA. The treatment of Chris Smalls, and the working conditions of Amazon employees across the world is an example of corporate moral decay in America, and I would add a decay which began decades ago, but now corporate America is rotten to the core.
Its two trillion dollar life line to its struggling population in this global pandemic will see another bail out for the banks, and no real long term economic benefits to the majority of the disenfranchised, the poor, the unemployed, working, and middle classes in the USA.
Smalls offers good advice, don’t hit the buy button on Amazon. I would also posit as he does that we are supporting a corporation which exploits people not only in the USA, but in the developing world too.
Predatory capitalism spins webs of lies and deceits. It has subsumed the lives of every man, woman and child on the planet. It spreads falsehoods in justifying why the world’s 22 richest men are wealthier than all the women in Africa. (Hodal, 2020) , and why the global economy needs the world’s “2,153 billionaires who have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population (Oxfam International, 2020). According to Oxfam:
“Women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work each and every day —a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year, more than three times the size of the global tech industry. Getting the richest one percent to pay just 0.5 percent extra tax on their wealth over the next 10 years would equal the investment needed to create 117 million jobs in sectors such as elderly and childcare, education and health…” (Oxfam International, 2020)
Occasionally, we may be able to extract ourselves from its web. But more often than not we are unable, because through the subtle art of psychological manipulation men, women and children across all societies and cultures have been reprogrammed as consumers. They base their needs on wants and desires, rather than on what is necessary to exist as a free thinking, independent human being.
Barkan, R. (2020, April 1). There is no greater illustration of corporate America’s moral decay than Amazon. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/01/amazon-coronavirus-new-york-chris-smalls-dismissed
Chamberlain, G. (2019, August 8). Schoolchildren in China work overnight to produce Amazon Alexa devices. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/aug/08/schoolchildren-in-china-work-overnight-to-produce-amazon-alexa-devices
Hodal, K. (2020). World’s 22 richest men wealthier than all the women in Africa, study fines. United Kingdom: The Guardian.
Oxfam International. (2020). World’s billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people. United Kingdom: Oxfam International.
Shakespeare, W. (2002). Julius Caesar, Act 2, Sc.1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.