The Amazon effect: sweat, surveillance and exploitation

Our US correspondent Mark Engler shines a light on Amazon's dirty work.

Jeff Bezos must be stopped, writes Mark Engler. Nobody is calling to task Amazon's dirty work. About 165 billion packages are shipped in the US each year.
Bezos beware: The problem of Amazon’s market dominance and corrupting political influence is a global issue. Photo: Reuters

In January, The Guardian reported that Amazon had patented designs for a new wristband. The device would not only follow the movements of company workers, but could track where they place their hands and ‘use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction’.

Another Amazon patent would ‘put workers in a cage, on top of a robot’, allowing 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 fulfilment centres, but such insistence is only faintly reassuring.

Company founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, currently has a net worth in excess of $150 billion, which 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.

Outsourcing for cheap labour

Like Apple, Amazon has outsourced the production of devices such as the Kindle to Foxconn factories in China – facilities notorious for long hours, low wages and anti-suicide netting. In America, 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 so poorly they qualify for public benefits such as food assistance.

In early September, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill – the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (BEZOS) Act – that would levy tax penalties on large corporations to cover the cost of any public anti-poverty support that their workers require to stay afloat.

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.

No politician's to challenge

Unfortunately, most politicians have been wary of challenging the corporation’s clout. Amazon made $5.6 billion in profit in the US 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.

Yet the problem of Amazon’s market dominance – and corrupting political influence – is not merely a US concern. By 2015, Amazon was shipping more than a billion units annually to customers across Europe, where it now has more than 50,000 permanent employees. In India, Amazon is battling with Flipkart for dominance. In Japan, Amazon is the second-largest online retailer, fighting tooth and nail with homegrown Rakuten.

Prime day strikes

Sanders has offered a good model for crafting a public response, as have the Japanese anti-trust regulators who have repeatedly cracked down on Amazon for unfairly pressuring suppliers. Even better is the example of 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 honour. And it will require many more of Amazon’s workers to break out of their cages.