McWarehouses: Will Amazon Pay a Living Wage?

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In sweltering heat and brutal conditions, workers toil in massive facilities from which Amazon’s endless cascade of merchandise swiftly flows, nodally linking the glossy shimmer of glowing gifs to cryptically smirking cardboard parcels that arrive briskly to the steps of one’s front door.

Jeff Bezos has built a virtual retail empire the likes of which the world has never seen, but at a human cost that is coming under increased scrutiny, particularly in the light of widespread walkouts by fast-food workers, whose demands for a $15 hourly wage and the right to unionize may evoke a similar plight to Amazon contractors — where poverty-line wages, 110-degree temperatures, and a lack of benefits are the norm.

Similar to the assembly-line workers who manufacture iPhones at Foxconn facilities in China, Amazon distances itself from its warehouses by shifting their operations to third-party contractors. USNews reports:

While it’s true that Amazon, the online retailing giant, has been a very successful company – and just announced the creation of some 7,000 new jobs – a large part of its success comes from the toil of underpaid, overworked temporary employees who work in distribution centers, often for contractors looking to squeeze every last penny of productivity out of them.

Many of the warehouses exist without central air conditioning, leading to indoor temperatures over 100 degrees during summer months. Rather than implementing the sort of climate control systems that Amazon’s white-collar workers surely enjoy in Seattle, at least one warehouse instead opts to staff ambulances on stand-by, whisking a steady stream of dehydrated, head-stressed workers to area hospitals.

According to the Morning Call, a local newspaper in Pennsylvania, “temperatures soar on hot summer days, production rates are difficult to achieve and the permanent jobs sought by many temporary workers hired by an outside agency are tough to get. Only one of the employees interviewed described it as a good place to work.”

Such draconian conditions, which evoke more closely a nineteenth-century Marxian hell than a modern, digital-economy workplace, seem out of place in a technology industry that in many other sectors offers prized, rather than punitive, employment. The impact on the bottom-line is unclear: competing retail giant Walmart pays warehouse workers an average of $19 an hour. CNN contrasts conditions between the two companies, remarking,

The average warehouse worker at Wal-Mart makes just under $40,000 annually, while at Amazon would take home about $24,300 a year. That’s less than $1,000 above the official federal poverty line for a family of four.

Even in Europe, with a comparatively strong labor movement, conditions for the American retail giant are hardly better. The Guardian notes that Amazon treats its UK warehouse employees with similar levels of harshness to those in America:

The pay rate is £5.50 an hour plus a £1 hourly bonus for night staff who are rostered four shifts a week.

“They offer the minimum needed to hire people around Milton Keynes and don’t seem to care about the turnover,” said Mr Lockhart.

An employee claimed that ethnic miniority staff felt they were frequently overlooked for promotion, an allegation denied particularly forcefully by Amazon which said in recent months two black or Asian employees had been appointed to management posts.

Often we judge the quality of technology startups by the acumen and accomplishments of their founders, who are lauded upon becoming billionaires, a status accolade that affords front-cover magazine spreads and expense-paid trips to Davos.

Given that the tech economy generates such magnanimous wealth for a select few, ought not we expect its workers to be treated at least as well as those who work for Wal-Mart?

#sfbeta calls upon Amazon to guarantee each one of its workers — whether on salary or contract — a minimum living wage of $15 per hour, opportunity for full-time employment, affordable health benefits, safe indoor temperatures, and the right to unionize without threat of retribution.

Amazon is a vast and profitable company, whose rising tide should lift all boats, not precious yachts alone.

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