Pity the elf slaves of online shipping

Mac McClelland writes: Since June, I’ve been ruining my friends’ online-shopping lives. Back then, I reported on a vast warehouse in Ohio where goods bought from online retailers are sorted, boxed, and shipped to consumers. Unsurprisingly, this job does not pay well. A little more surprisingly, this job seems designed to crush employees’ spirits. During my visit, two people got fired within 10 minutes, one for talking to someone while he was working—"Where are you from?" was the offending comment—and one for going to the bathroom too much. So occasionally, and now more that it’s the holidays, my friends and family will call to complain that "Bleh, I want to order something from Amazon/Walmart/Staples/whatever, but I feel guilty about helping oppress workers."

Why would online retailers be so mean? Well, in the case of many, they have helpfully outsourced interaction with workers. When Walmart started selling its merchandise on the internet, it turned to third-party logistics contractors, or 3PLs, experts who could handle the, uh, logistics, like warehousing and transportation, of online sales. Take Exel, for example, the largest 3PL in the country, and a subsidiary of Deutsche Post DHL, one of the largest companies in the world. Exel alone has 86 million square feet of warehouse all over North America and processes literally millions of goods every single day. Other retailers directly perpetrate the oppression. Amazon.com made headlines earlier this year when 20 current and former employees of its Breinigville, Pennsylvania, warehouse told the local Morning Call that workers were fainting in stifling heat and getting yelled at for not meeting ridiculously high productivity goals and generally being "treated like a piece of crap." Employees who were sent home with heat exhaustion were disciplined; a local ER doc eventually called OSHA and reported "an unsafe environment."

Either way, many of the people actually loading and unloading trucks, packing boxes, and pasting labels work not for retailers, or for 3PLs, but for yet another company: temporary staffing agencies. When an online retailer (especially one that doesn’t actually make anything) wants to wring out the most profit possible, it helps to have a labor pool that is on demand, so it can order the exact number of humans it needs to fill that day’s number of orders if the humans are working at top capacity. That way, workers can’t unionize or be legally entitled to decent benefits. That way, the online retailer can give them outlandish productivity goals, like hundreds of orders and thousands of items per day apiece—and when workers burn out, just replace them with the next temp, who can join the rest of the ranks living in fear that they won’t make their numbers and might be incessantly berated for it, or simply fired. Even if you meet the outlandish goals, don’t necessarily expect to be rewarded by say, a real job. As with so many in the industry, the warehouse in Ohio are mostly "temps"—even though some of them have been working in the same place for more than a year.

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