Amazon’s brave new world

“Fulfillment,” in Amazon’s lexicon, is all about getting what you want and getting it now. It is the acme of the consumer age through which the maximum number of desires can be fulfilled in the minimum amount of time. And it is in the service of this debased expression of human existence, that Amazon dedicates all its efforts.

But Amazon’s commitment to fostering customer loyalty, creates the impression of a human interest, concealing the indifference that the company displays towards its own workers — workers who are treated so badly that they probably envy their counterparts at Walmart.

The fact that Amazon calls its warehouses “fulfillment centers” shows the degree to which as a company, Amazon views its employees as simply expendable cogs in a machine. And since the closest most Amazon customers ever come to a human interaction with the company comes indirectly via UPS deliverers, most of Amazon’s actual workers toil invisibly in conditions far removed from anything that could be defined as fulfilling. Adding insult to injury, these workers then get branded with job titles like “Pick Ambassador” — tokens of respect, clearly designed to obscure the lack of respect with which Amazon views its employees.

In 2011, the Allentown Morning Call reported on conditions inside Amazon’s Lehigh Valley warehouse:

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor’s report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

In a better economy, not as many people would line up for jobs that pay $11 or $12 an hour moving inventory through a hot warehouse. But with job openings scarce, Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temporary employment firm that is hiring workers for Amazon, have found eager applicants in the swollen ranks of the unemployed.

Many warehouse workers are hired for temporary positions by Integrity Staffing Solutions, or ISS, and are told that if they work hard they may be converted to permanent positions with Amazon, current and former employees said. The temporary assignments end after a designated number of hours, and those not hired to permanent Amazon jobs can reapply for temporary positions again after a few months, workers said.

Temporary employees interviewed said few people in their working groups actually made it to a permanent Amazon position. Instead, they said they were pushed harder and harder to work faster and faster until they were terminated, they quit or they got injured. Those interviewed say turnover at the warehouse is high and many hires don’t last more than a few months.

From Jeff Bezos’s point of view, Amazon represents nothing less than the nature of the future and in saying this he is expressing a kind of technological determinism — the latest face of unstoppable progress.

But what he is articulating is more importantly a philosophy of commerce in which human interaction is seen as redundant or a form of inefficiency.

Sure, he wants to cultivate strong relationships, but these aren’t relationships between people; they are relationships between customers and an amorphous corporate entity towards which we are meant to turn for the fulfillment of all our needs.

Finally, just in case anyone took the bait of the promise of goods delivered by drones (a prospect that should be viewed as skeptically as the chances of Santa Claus climbing down a chimney), James Ball lists a few of the logistical problems:

It’s all well and good for the unmanned vehicles to fly to a particular GPS site, but how does it then find the package’s intended recipient? How is the transfer of the package enacted? What stops someone else stealing the package along the way? And what happens when next door’s kid decides to shoot the drone with his BB rifle?

None of that starts to come close to the legal minefield using drones in this way entails. At present, flying drones of this sort for commercial use would be illegal in the US. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates this area, intends to make commercial drones legally viable and workable by 2015, but this deadline is all-but impossible: managing the skies with this much low-level traffic is a problem people are nowhere near solving. Opening up crowded urban areas full of terror targets to large numbers of flying platforms is always going to be packed with conflicting interests and difficulties. And all this has come before the first lawsuit caused after someone is injured by a faulty drone (or that one your neighbour shot), crashing down to earth.

What Jeff Bezos announced amounted, essentially, to an aspiration to change how his company delivers products, in about five years time, if technology advances and regulation falls his way. If his TV appearance hadn’t included the magic word “drones”, Bezos’s vague aspirations to change an aspect of his company’s logistics probably wouldn’t have made waves. Lucky for him, he did – winning his company positive publicity just ahead of what is usually the biggest online shopping day of the year, the dreadfully named Cyber Monday.

Floating an exciting-but-impractical innovation for a swath of press coverage is such an old PR tactic you’d hope no one would fall for it, and yet everyone still does.

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