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Supply Chain News: Is Amazon Treatment of Fulfillment Center Workers Unfair?

 

No Clear Answers after Author Makes Allegations, as Seattle Times Reporter Also Takes a Look

July 10, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

With Amazon.com's incredible growth, both in terms of revenue and fulfillment center space globally, it has naturally generated a lot of attention relative to working conditions in those massive FCs.

 

In 2007, for example, a reported from Mother Jones magazine got herself a job at what appears to be an Amazon FC, and wrote critically about the experience, in a piece titled "I was a Warehouse Wage Slave."  (See Undercover DC Worker Says Job Amounts to Being a "Warehouse Wage Slave").

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An Amazon executive also on the tour told Shapiro the security measures are "industry standard." That, of course, is not accurate.


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The reporter, Mac McClelland, wrote that "It's like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they're going to tell you, 'You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough,' to make you work harder."

Then in 2009, Amazon found some more bad publicity after reports that it was getting so hot in one of its FCs near Allentown, PA that a number of workers had to go to area hospitals for treatment. Amazon was said to have urgently acquired air conditioning units. (See Amazon.com in Hot Corner after Reports of Sweltering DCs, "Urgently" Buys $2.4 Million in Air Conditioners.)

In the past few years, there has been a series of reports mostly coming out of UK newspapers talking about tough conditions at Amazon FCs there, such that workers were afraid to even take restroom breaks that might be criticized by supervisors. (See Amazon warehouse workers skip bathroom breaks to keep their jobs, says report.)

A book titled "Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low Wage Britain" was especially hard on Amazon.

"Amazon was the worst employer, easily," author James Bloodworth recently told reporter Nina Shapiro of the Seattle Times in Amazon's home town, relative to the other low wages jobs he took at a call center, as an Uber driver, as a construction worker, and as a home aide caring for the elderly.

Amazon denied the allegations in the book relative to work conditions, adding that "We are committed to treating every one of our associates (the term Amazon uses for its warehouse workers) with dignity and respect. We don't recognize these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings."

One issue with the Amazon-related news is that it generally comes from reporters that don't have a broader view of how distribution centers have worked for years.

So, for example, at the FC where Bloodworth worked in the UK, he critically says Amazon monitored worker productivity through a handheld device — tracking "our every move as if we were convicts out on house arrest," he wrote in the book, adding that the device delivered messages to workers and recorded how quickly they were picking or packing goods. "Your rates are down this hour, please speed up," a message might say, Bloodworth wrote.

But of course wireless radio frequency terminals (the "handheld devices" Bloodworth references), productivity tracking, labor standards and more have been around for decades, and hardly invented by Amazon. Painting Amazon as sort of leading the charge there is simply not accurate.

Ditto with Bloodworth writing that when he took a day off sick, he received a "point." Earn six and you're fired, he said.

That "point" approach for absences is also common practice in DCs outside of Amazon.

Perhaps more problematic is Bloodworth's claims that "The productivity target was astonishingly high" at Amazon, and was always going up. To try to meet it, he said it was necessary to run around the FC if you were an order picker. Yet, he said, you were not supposed to run, and could get a point for doing so.


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"You couldn't not break the rules," if you wanted to hit your target, he said, especially if you were angling for a permanent position. He said most of the workers he met were, like him, temporary.

If accurate, most labor management experts would agree the standards at Amazon are in fact too aggressive – but this is very anecdotal evidence.

To get a better sense of what is happening, Shapiro went on a PR-guided tour of the DC, and received some counterpoints from the company. She also ask some questions to Amazon via email.

Bloodworth only worked 10 full shifts, Amazon says, so his experience is limited. It also said it employs mostly permanent workers, not temporary (outside of the Christmas season), and has bathrooms "just a short walk" from where staffers work, while Bloodworth said they were often a long walk away.

"We do not monitor toilet breaks," the spokesperson also said in a series of lengthy written responses – though Amazon workers in the Kent, Washington FC Shapiro spoke to seemed to counter that statement, and noted the longer a bathroom break is, the harder it is to reach the productivity targets.

According to the same spokesperson, Amazon gives warehouse workers 20 hours unpaid time off every three months (adding to 10 hours when they start), 48 hours of paid personal time per year, and one week of paid vacation in the first year – that is far more generous than many companies offer warehouse workers.

With regards to the productivity the targets that Bloodworth said are extreme, the spokesperson wrote to Shapiro that "As with nearly all companies, we expect a certain level of performance from our associates and we continue to set productivity targets objectively, based on previous performance levels achieved by our workforce. We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve."

Bloodworth said he was chastised, not coached, when he was operating below standard.

Shapiro's FC tour did validate one of the criticisms from Bloodworth – that Amazon uses extreme security methods.

Shapiro says she saw airport-style metal detectors, with a sign telling workers they can't bring in phones, keys or belts.

An Amazon executive also on the tour told Shapiro the security measures are "industry standard." That, of course, is not accurate.

"We've been told to watch how much time you're in the bathroom," one woman in the Kent FC told Shapiro, echoing another worker who also said six minutes was the limit that triggered supervisors.

"I think what she was talking about," the Amazon PR manager told Shapiro, is that if people are in the bathroom "for an unusual amount of time," someone might ask: "Are you OK? Everything all right?"

Sure, that's it.

Another FC worker, however, told Shapiro she had no problem hitting productivity rates. Another man, who worked as a "problem solver" fixing orders that had gone wrong, didn't have any rates to meet and had quickly been promoted.

"It's the best job I've ever had," the 29-year-old said.

Sheheryar Kaoosji, co-executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, a non-profit in Southern California that advocates for better working conditions, gives Amazon credit for offering better pay and benefits than some warehouse employers. Providing any health care at all, he told Shapiro, is rare, and Amazon does it.

Amazon also allows FC workers to participate in its corporate stock options program, and has a tuition assistance benefit for FC workers.

So what is the reality? SCDigest's view is that there is some truth on both sides. The simple reality is that the life of a low-wage DC worker is not very pleasant at most companies, though Amazon is probably about average in treatment of workers and offers some benefits most companies don't.


What's your take on all this? Are conditions at Amazon FCs too tough - or mainstream? Let us your thoughts at the Feedback section below or the link above to send an email.

 

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