While a recent surge in Amazon stock values has financial analysts pondering whether Jeff Bezos is really the richest man in the world (again), it’s worth noting that Amazon employees are increasingly relying on public services to survive on their subpar wages.
The richest man in the world doesn’t become the richest man in the world without a little help, though. In Bezos’s case, his help is thousands of workers at fulfillment centers who are reportedly subjected to grueling work conditions— workers who are vital to Amazon’s success; ensuring Amazon’s picking, packaging and sorting.
Policy Matters Ohio reported last week that more than one in 10 Ohioans working for Amazon received SNAP benefits during their research period. Says PMO’s Research Director Zach Schiller:
“The sudden emergence of Amazon as an employer of so many who need that assistance raises a question: Why is this giant, successful company offering such limited pay and hours of work that many of its workers need help buying food?”
As if low pay wasn’t enough, it’s long been reported that Amazon provides subpar—and even dangerous—working conditions.
A 2011 dispatch from Allentown, PA reports that out of 20 warehouse employees interviewed, only one described Amazon as a good place to work.
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.
And it’s not just in the warehouses. Last August, Amazon security guards protested at the company’s Seattle headquarters for better wages and working conditions, and were even joined by white collar Amazon workers, who also face notoriously intense office cultures and standards. Drivers in San Diego couldn’t even get uniforms to help identify them and their vehicles as Amazon employees.
It’s also not just in the U.S. Amazon workers in Italy and Germany walked out on Black Friday; the Italian workers even refused to work overtime this holiday season.
And because Amazon relies heavily on staffing agencies, they’re not only able to avoid the expense of full-time employees, they’re also able to shift responsibility for the way they treat their workers.
An Illinois fulfillment center employee who has been on Amazon’s temp-to-hire yo yo for more than a year claims the company is no better than Walmart.
It used to be that if you were hired by a Fortune 500 company, you thought you had it made, and you’d be getting decent pay, benefits, and long-term employment if you worked hard. For many Amazon warehouse workers like me, it now means short-term, badly-paid work with no benefits, being laid off all the time, and having the company pretend it isn’t even your boss.
Yet even as Walmart has long been reviled and blamed for the demise of small-town businesses (and rightfully so), Amazon utilizes many of the same business practices. Property tax subsidies mean the company doesn’t even pay for the daily emergency responder visits any busy warehouse requires. Not having to collect sales tax effectively translates to discounts on Amazon products.
All of this buzz about Bezos’ net worth comes after an enormous holiday season for Amazon, which captured nearly 90 percent of that online sales period, ending a year that also saw the retail giant purchase Whole Foods. And with its Prime service offering free and fast delivery, Amazon has developed some of the most loyal and frequent users in retail, with high expectations. A recent Feedvisor study confirms this.
“One of the most interesting things we found in the study is that Amazon is truly the ‘one-stop shop’ for consumers,” says Claudia Hoeffner, Feedvisor’s vice president of global marketing. “Consumers go to Amazon for almost every activity possible in their shopping experience.”
There’s a very human cost to getting cheap stuff delivered directly to one’s doorstep. As Amazon continues to mutate and grow far beyond its roots as a humble online bookstore, it’s long past time to focus less on how much money Jeff Bezos has, and more on how he’s building that fortune at the expense of our cities and workers.