Company founder Jeff Bezos did not become the world’s richest man by letting employees enjoy free-range lifestyles.
Published in the November-December 2018 issue of the New Internationalist.
In January, the Guardian reported that Amazon has patented designs for a new wristband. The device would not only follow the movements of company workers, but could “precisely track where warehouse employees are placing their hands and use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction” when needed.
Another Amazon patent, as frighteningly described in one recent headline, would “put workers in a cage, on top of a robot.” This would allow the caged worker to move through a warehouse on the same mechanized system used to cart around merchandise.
The cage, Amazon’s spokespeople promise, is not actually in use in the company’s fulfillment centers. But such insistence is only faintly reassuring. Company founder Jeff Bezos did not become the world’s richest man by letting employees enjoy free-range lifestyles.
Bezos now has a net worth in excess of $150 billion. That means you could take the combined wealth of Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Richard Branson, and the Sultan of Brunei and still be about a dozen Oprahs short of matching him. In August, Amazon was the second-ever corporation to receive a trillion-dollar market valuation—following closely on the heels of Apple.
Like Apple before it, Amazon has outsourced production of devices like the Kindle to Foxconn factories in China, facilities notorious for long hours, low wages, and the presence of anti-suicide netting, designed to catch workers who throw themselves from atop company buildings. Within the United States, Amazon’s warehouses have drawn criticism for sweltering temperatures, mind-numbing shifts, and constant surveillance. An estimated one-third of the company’s employees in Arizona are paid poorly enough to qualify for public supports such as food assistance.
In early September, socialist Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would levy tax penalties on large corporations to cover the cost of any anti-poverty public services that their workers must use to keep themselves afloat. Sanders called the legislation the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (or Stop BEZOS) Act.
Facing Sanders’s denunciations, Amazon tried to gather stories from happy workers volunteering to gush gratitude. As it turns out, these “ambassadors” received gift cards and extra time off in exchange for tweeting their contentment.
Unfortunately, most politicians have been wary of challenging the corporation’s clout. Amazon made $5.6 billion in profit in the U.S. last year, yet paid $0 in federal corporate income taxes. Locally, countless mayors are doing everything short of making Bezos’s breakfast and giving him foot massages in order to have their cities considered for the site of Amazon’s second headquarters.
The problem of Amazon’s market dominance—and corrupting political influence—is not merely a U.S. concern. By 2015, Amazon was shipping more than 1 billion units annually to customers across Europe, where it now has more than 50,000 permanent employees. In India, Amazon is battling for dominance with Flipkart, which was acquired by WalMart. Likewise, Amazon is the second-largest online retailer in Japan, fighting tooth-and-nail with homegrown Rakuten.
Three years ago, I wrote a column entitled “Act Against Amazon.” Back then, people were discussing “breaking up” with the retailer. Today, the notion of personal boycotts seems almost quaint, and the need for more concerted, public action is clear.
Sanders has offered a good model, as have the Japanese antitrust regulators who have repeatedly cracked down on Amazon for unfairly pressuring suppliers. Even better is the example of the warehouse workers in Germany, Poland, and Spain, who went on strike during this summer’s “Prime Day.”
We can hope that such action is just a beginning. Because stopping Bezos from growing his mountain of ill-gotten gains will necessitate an international directory of anti-monopoly laws named in his honor. And it will require many more of Amazon’s workers to break out of their cages.