It seems someone has poked the Amazon bear.
The online retail behemoth likes to present itself as a consumer nirvana – all good vibes, with its “fulfilment centres” and promises of giving you whatever you want, whenever you want it.
Lately though, the omnipotent shopping god is getting tetchy.
Amazon is facing a concerted campaign by some of its American workers to change its employment practices. Practices that see its employees working marathon shifts with punishing provisions regarding the speed of work, the volume of orders to complete, lack of breaks and the right to meet basic needs – like going to the toilet.
At Amazon’s massive warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, 6000 workers are currently in the process of voting on whether they will become the first unionised Amazon site in the United States.
If it succeeds, it is likely to spark a raft of similar moves at other Amazon sites around America and threatens to disrupt Amazon’s business model which has been built upon insecure, low-wage workers employed under draconian conditions.
Jennifer Bates works at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse. In March, she told a US Senate Budget Committee that working at Amazon was like “ a nine-hour intense workout . They seem to think you are another machine.”
Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos declined to appear at the hearing, insisting that Amazon workers are happy with their lot. “We encourage people to speak with the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees who love their jobs, earn at least $15 an hour,” Mr Bezos said in a statement.
What he did do, is hire a new PR firm to fire up Amazon’s social media machine to begin an aggressive push-back online campaign targeted at Amazon’s critics.
And the whole thing has more than a hint of Trump-era bluster about it.
It means Amazon is worried, and that is a good thing.
Jessa Crispin is a journalist who has been writing about work practices at Amazon for a number of years. She recently wrote an article about the impact of the Oscar-nominated film “Nomadland”, which stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow who hits the road in the United States as a travelling worker who picks up gig jobs at Amazon’s warehouses along her journey.
The E-Commerce giant gave permission for film maker Chloe Zao to film inside one of its mega-centres, and the portrait it paints of working life at Amazon is one of an odd, sterile serenity.
Crispin was unimpressed.
“Meanwhile, in the real world, Amazon is putting cameras in the trucks of its delivery drivers, monitors on the bodies of its warehouse workers, and security cameras inside and outside its facilities. It creates heat maps to detect if too many employees are gathering in the same place at the same time to discourage both fraternization and discussions of forming a union. And the company touts all of this, as effective methods for boosting productivity and profit margins,” Crispin wrote in the Guardian.
The thin-skinned trolls at Amazon bit right back, in a twitter thread that sounded like Donald Trump had been renting out his pudgy thumbs to his old adversary, Bezos
Amazon is clearly spooked by the concerted effort by workers to organise and assert some agency in their working lives.
Amazon’s efforts to swat away attempts to sound the alarm on its work culture has backfired, only serving to further highlight the issue and making it news across the country and the world.
Senator Bernie Sanders headed to Alabama to encourage workers in Bessemer to vote to unionise.
Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan fired back at Amazon, tweeting “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles” – a reference to Jessa Crispin’s report that warehouse workers are not able to take necessary bathroom breaks during their high-demand shifts and have to resort to using bottles instead.
Bezos, like most bullies, has copped one on the chin, and he hasn’t liked it one little bit.
The truth for the world’s richest retailer is that exploiting workers to build a fortune has its limits. Workers are now asking for a fair share, job security and basic dignity at work.
Given his obscene wealth, it’s the least he can afford to do.