At Amazon, "Cheap" Comes at a Very Hefty Price

It's time to look closer at Jeff Bezos and his online retail colossus

In his classic 1936 comedy, "Modern Times," silent filmmaker Charlie Chaplin depicts the trials and tribulations of a harried factory worker trying to cope with the sprockets, cogs, conveyor belts, and "efficiencies" of the new industrial culture. The poor fellow finds himself caught up (almost literally) in the grinding tyranny of the machine. The movie is hilarious, but it's also a damning portrayal of the dehumanizing consequences of mass industrialization.

The ultimate indignity for Chaplin's everyman character comes when he is put on an assembly line that includes a mechanized contraption that force-feeds workers as they work. Not only does this "innovation" eliminate the need for the factory owner to provide a lunch break, but it also transforms human workers into automatous components of the machine itself.

Of course, worker-feeding machines were a comedic exaggeration by the filmmaker, not anything that actually existed, nothing that would even be considered in our modern times, right? Well ... if you work for, you'd swear that Chaplin's masterpiece depicts Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' idea of a properly run workplace.


Why pick on Amazon? After all, isn't it a model of tech wizardry, having totally reinvented retail marketing for our smart-phone, globally linked age? Doesn't it peddle a cornucopia of goods through a convenient "1-click" ordering system, rapidly delivering them right to your doorstep? And doesn't it offer steep discounts on nearly everything it sells (which is nearly everything)? Yes, yes, and yes.

However, as an old saying puts it: The higher the monkey climbs the more you see of its ugly side. Amazon certainly has climbed high in a hurry. Not yet 20 years old, it is already a household brand name and America's 10th largest retailer. The establishment press marvels that Bezos' obsession with electronic streamlining and systems management that allow Amazon to sell everything from books to bicycles, barbeques to Barbies, at cheap-cheap-cheap prices, undercutting all competitors—even Walmart.

But what is the source of those efficiencies and the low prices so greatly admired by Wall Street and so gratefully accepted by customers? Are they achieved strictly by being a virtual store, saving the costs of building, staffing, and maintaining brick-and-mortar outlets? Or is Amazon achieving market dominance the old-fashioned way—by squeezing the life out of its workers and suppliers, by crushing its competitors with monopolistic muscle, and by manipulating our national and state tax laws?

Voilà! There's the ugly side.

Amazon and Bezos scream for more scrutiny because Amazon, more than any other single entity, has had the infinite hubris to envision a brave new computer-driven order for our society. Bezos isn't merely remaking commerce with his algorithms, metrics, and vast network, he's rebooting America itself, including our concept of a job, the definition of community, and even basic values of fairness and justice. It amounts to a breathtaking aspiration to transform our culture's democratic paradigm into a corporate imperium led by Amazon.

Walmart, the "Beast of Bentonville," is now yesterday's model of how far-reaching and destructive corporate power can be. Amazon is the new model, not just of tomorrow's corporate beast, but the day after tomorrow's. Only it's already here.


Bezos has been crowned with numerous laurels, from "Person of the Year" to world's best living CEO. This May, however, the reigning God of TechWorld was awarded a less-coveted prize by the International Trade Union Confederation: "World's Worst Boss."

Even high-rankers in the corporation's hierarchy describe him as a cold, controlling, often vengeful gnome of a man with little empathy for the people who work for him. But to witness the full Bezonian disregard for workers, one must look beyond the relative comfort of Amazon's expansive headquarters and visit any of its 40-some "fulfillment centers" spread across the country. These are gated, guarded, and secretive warehouses where most of the corporation's 100,000 employees work. The warehouses are dehumanizing hives in which Bezos has produced his own sequel to Modern Times.

Consider the job of "picker." In each warehouse, hundreds of them are simultaneously scrambling throughout a maze of shelves, grabbing products. Pickers must speed-walk on concrete an average of a dozen miles a day, for an Amazon warehouse is shockingly big—more than 16 football fields big, or eight city blocks—and pickers must constantly crisscross the expanse. There are miles of seven-foot-high shelves running along narrow aisles on each floor of three-story buildings, requiring pickers continuously to stoop down, crawl along, and stretch up. They are directed by handheld computers to each target. Then they must scan the pick and put it on the right track of the seven miles of conveyor belts running through the facility. Immediately after, they're dispatched by computer to find the next product.

The computers don't just dictate where to go next, they also relay how many seconds Amazon's time-motion experts have calculated it should take to get there. The scanners also record the time each worker actually takes—information that is fed directly into a central, all-knowing computer. Everything workers do is monitored, timed, scored and reviewed by managers who have a mandate to fire those exceeding their allotted seconds.

This, and many other indignities, brings in $10 to $12 an hour, which is less than $25,000 a year, gross, for full-time work. But few get year-round work. Rather, Amazon's warehouse employees are "contingent" hires, meaning they are temporary, seasonal, part-time laborers entirely subject to the employer's whim. Worker advocates refer to these jobs as "precarious": when sales slack off, you're let go; when sales perk up and managers demand you do a 12-hour shift with no notice (which might let you find a babysitter), you do it or you're fired.

Of course, technically, you don't actually work for Amazon. You're hired by temp agencies and warehouse operators with Orwellian names like "Amalgamated Giant Shipping." This lets Amazon deny responsibility for your treatment—and it means you have no labor rights for you are an "independent contractor." No health care, no vacation time, no scheduled raises, no route to a full-time or permanent job, no regular schedule, no job protection, and—of course—no union. Bezos would rather get Ebola than be infected with a union in his realm, and he has gone all out with intimidation tactics and hired a notorious union- busting firm to crush any whisper of worker organization.

If you asked workers in Amazon's swarming hives why they put up with the corporation's demeaning treatment, most would look at you incredulously and say something like: "Rent, food, clothing—the basics." Bezos & Co. fully understand that millions of today's workers are stuck in a jobless Depression with no way out.

As one of the worker bees in Amazon's Lehigh Valley, PA, center told a reporter for the local paper, "I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one. They can do that because there aren't any jobs in the area." By paying just one notch above McDonald's, Amazon draws tens of thousands of people willing to get in line for exploitation.

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