By Victor Schultz
If you’re lucky, you have the luxury of an air-conditioned office. Many of us do not enjoy that luxury, and instead spend most of our summer desk hours doing our best imitation of a sponge being slowly wrung out. This isn’t an ideal working environment, but it is a far better situation than what most warehouse employees for Amazon have to endure daily.
Amazon is modern day triumph in consumer convenience. Any number of products are available for purchase and you can compare prices of similar items with ease. We know it. We love it. And often as expats, we rely on it to bring us all those things we can’t easily find while living abroad. But the distribution centers of this global giant are coming under increased scrutiny as their employees start to speak up.
A report by James Bloodworth, published in his book “Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain,” details the high-stress environment of Amazon distributions centers across the UK. Employees suffer from physical and mental fatigue. The male employees pee into bottles and the females have high rates of urinary tract issues from holding it for too long. The bathrooms are often far from their work areas in the cavernous warehouses, and break rooms can be as far away as a 5-10 minute walk. And if you receive a 15 minute break, it’s quite likely you’ll spend a good 2/3rds of it just walking to and from the break area.
Bloodworth’s book was published in March of this year. Since then, other employees haven spoken out against the harsh policies and lack of remuneration for increased demands of service. Target numbers for orders fulfilled have steadily increased, with little to no change in pay, despite the increased workloads. Many employees feel disenfranchised, as they do not share in the success of the business that relies on them for the majority of the work.
And Amazon has been wildly successful. In the last financial term, it pulled in more than $51.04 billion. That’s an incomprehensible number that represents a multitude of services, investments, and jobs. But not much of those stellar profits are sent back down the chain to be shared. The net worth of the CEO, Jeff Bezos, has rocketed to over $150 billion. His annual salary is nearly 5 times the annual income of low-level employees. But he also controls a massive number of the company stocks, which means the majority of his worth is actually coming from his stocks and not his salary.
(Rough comparison but the numbers are large enough to account for a substantial amount of error.)
Number of Amazon employees, globally: 541,900
Average median salary: $28,446
Rough total of employee earnings per year: $15.5 billion
His employees, nearly a half-million of them, would have to work for a decade to earn combined what he is worth this year. And barring a crash in Amazon stock before he sells, his worth will continue to increase in that time.
Of course, several employees have also done this math, or something close to it. And they are understandably a bit upset about how things worked out, especially when their concerns about their work environment were being ignored.
So in July, a large number of employees in several countries went on strike to try and force Amazon to reenter the employee negotiations it had left earlier. There’s still no settlement, but things are still “in process” according to the company.
What does this mean to you? Well, for starters, it should get you thinking about how we value labor and production. I’ve never met Jeff Bezos. The man might very well be some kind of wizard and machine of a CEO. But I doubt very much even a cyber-mage can do enough work in a day to earn $86 million. It’s important to reward labor and investment, but labor has limits. Furthermore, investors should see their investments returned, but to what extent should they be prioritized over the workers?
Hopefully, this information will help in thinking about what holds up our society and our lifestyles. What (or who) do we need to protect or care for to maintain our rate of advancement? It’s often the jobs with the lowest social capital that are essential for things to continue chugging along smoothly. So please show genuine gratitude and respect to your delivery person. And maybe, if you see news going around asking for a day or week boycott of Amazon’s services to show that the consumers care how the workers are treated, avoid ordering anything for that short amount of time. It won’t have a huge impact for you, but could do a lot to improve the life of someone else.