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No room for error, no toilet break: what working conditions are behind Amazon's success

Photo: facebook.com/Amazon

Photo: facebook.com/Amazon

Working under constant surveillance, changing conditions, lack of time to visit the restroom, and automatic dismissal are just some of the working conditions for employees of the e-commerce giant—Amazon.

Its record financial performance that the firm set during the pandemic comes at the expense of horrendous working conditions. In this article, we will continue to tell you about what it is like to work in the large technology companies not as development engineers, but in other jobs that are less prestigious and more exhausting.

Covid-winner: coronavirus as the driver of Amazon’s growth

Coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns imposed from time to time in different countries of the world have become a real impetus for the digital retail growth in general and for Amazon in particular.

Many BigTech giants showed record financial results in early 2021, increasing their profits and revenues. In particular, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft added 41% in total revenue. At the same time, Amazon alone for the second consecutive quarter reported an excess of its revenue of $100 billion. Amazon is confident that future quarters will be no less successful. Many people around the world have become more likely to order online and do not plan to abandon this practice even after the coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

These successes had a direct impact on the digital retailer's share price. If at the beginning of 2020 one Amazon share cost from $1,800 to $2,000, then by June 2021 the company's securities rose in price to almost $3,500. Accordingly, during the pandemic, the company's capitalization almost doubled.

The growing interest in online trading had a direct impact on the increase in the number of the company's staff. In March 2020, Amazon launched a campaign to increase the number of employees amid growing demand for online shopping. The company made several announcements for hiring employees, reporting on the search for from 10,000 to 100,000 specialists in various fields—from engineers to drivers.

For instance, in the Q3 of 2020 alone, Amazon hired more than 250,000 people. And due to that the number of employees who work for the benefit of the e-commerce giant exceeded 1 million. At the same time, the company hired more than 100,000 people in the USA and Canada alone because it could not cope with the orders handling.

Why there are increasing calls to boycott Amazon Prime Day

Amazon has long been known for its horrendous working conditions. The pandemic has only added the requirements for the company's employees that are often unrealistic for the ordinary person. For this reason, back in March of this year, there were calls to boycott Amazon Prime Day—a kind of "Black Friday" for users of the Amazon Prime service, during which they can shop on this site with huge discounts.

The call to boycott Prime Day that first appeared on the online trade union platform was joined by some politicians. In particular, Mayor of New York Bill De Blasio called the day perfect not to shop on Amazon, recommending to "shop in your city, support small business".

Senator Elizabeth Warren recalled that this day is one of the most dangerous for Amazon warehouse workers in terms of injury rate, and the company did not recognize the link between its demands for "productivity" and injuries. The horror stories about working at Amazon have appeared in the press from time to time over the past few years. And despite these publications, nothing has changed at Amazon.

Back in 2019, warehouse employees described how much it costed them to work on holidays and sales periods. Common phenomena included mandatory overtime work in the form of 10-hour shifts, and sometimes even more, for a total of more than 60 hours per week, refusal to take vacations, constant overstrain injuries that were a direct consequence of the large number of orders and the limited time that an employee could spend on arrange one order.

In 2018, The Guardian reported that the company's warehouses were included in the Dirty Dozen list of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a list of the most dangerous places to work in the United States. Describing working conditions, journalists told the stories of employees who were injured in warehouses and production facilities. Many of these people not only did not receive compensation for treatment, but were also laid off and even lost their homes, because treatment and recovery from injuries were very expensive.

Hire to fire

In recent months, there have been several leaks of documents that describe the principles of interaction between the company and its employees. In May 2021, documents appeared about Amazon's hire to fire program. It provides for the hiring of employees with the aim of subsequent quick layoffs in order to maintain staff turnover, more precisely, to fulfill one of the metrics for managers—the number of laid off people that the company calls the "unregretted attrition".

Various methods are used to fire employees, including the need to complete their own professional development program called Focus. As part of this training, one needs to complete a certain number of tasks, and those who failed are transferred to the training program Pivot that offers to either fulfill all the training requirements or quit with compensation.

In the second case, such an employee will no longer be recruited to the company. Having studied the more detailed conditions of this program, Business Insider journalists already in June of this year said that the conditions of the Pivot program are so unrealistic that they provide for constant many-hours-long processing and inadequate deadlines, as well as vague formulations of the tasks themselves.

No rights to visit the restroom

Amazon staff job scandals are literally haunting the company in 2020 and 2021. One of the most famous scandals emerged in March 2021. At that time one of the senators wrote that the company’s delivery drivers cannot use the restrooms and are forced to adapt empty bottles for this purpose. And this is at a fairly low level of earnings—only $15 per hour. An answer appeared to this on the official account of the company in the style of "If that were true, we would not have employees."

However, this post was the start of a real storm on social media and the media. The company's employees confirmed the reality of this situation, explaining that the main reason for this is the need to arrange a large number of orders and deliver 99% of them on time, which is often physically difficult and sometimes impossible.

Among the answers there was a photo of a drivers' instruction that clearly mentions the need to clean up urine bottles after themselves. The Intercept journalists analyzed the company's documents and also found not only mention of bottles, but also a ban on disclosing these cases. "Toilet" stories related to Amazon delivery drivers began to appear in the media as early as 2018, and in 2020-2021 the situation has further worsened by the increased number of online orders and increased norms for staff.

Care for staff: the Amazon version

From time to time the company publishes promises to solve the personnel problems that the media write about and human rights activists talk about, but the news related to work at Amazon does not look like an attempt to change the situation. Rather, the company is trying to control its employees even more. If in 2020 the media wrote about automatic dismissals by the electronic system due to failure to fulfil constantly changing norms and the massive use of surveillance cameras, then in March 2021 already the company demanded that its drivers and couriers give permission to collect biometric data for subsequent analysis, in particular, for possible "traffic violations" or "potentially dangerous driver behavior".

The launch of the program WorkingWell aimed to make the workplace safer and help employees cope with overstrain was presented as an incredible progress in the work of staff. As part of this program, the company plans to install special meditation booths AmaZen, send out warm-up recommendations and offer breathing exercises every hour.

To reduce injuries, the company began testing robotic loaders. However, this did not improve but even worsened the work of employees who had to scan more packages standing in one place, and that increased the risk of injury. Jeff Bezos, the founder and head of the company, also tried to answer claims regarding personnel injuries, who, in an address to shareholders, talked about the development of complex algorithms that would create a system for moving employees between different positions so that a person used different muscle groups. According to him, it should reduce the risk of injury.

In other words, Bezos promised not to solve the problem conceptually, for example, to reduce norms or extend breaks, but announced the creation of even better mechanisms for monitoring the work of employees. His statement not only did not refute the claims against the company that it treated employees like robots, but it actually proved this fact.

The other side of monopoly

Amazon is one of the BigTech companies that takes advantage of its monopoly position in the market in every possible way, crowding out competitors and promoting its own products. The largest digital retailer achieves its record results by exploiting employees and creating unbearable working conditions for them.

Although Amazon employees have held protests more than once, including strikes, in many cities this company is almost the only major employer. That is why people often have no choice—they have to work for Amazon in such conditions due to the lack of an alternative.

It is difficult to say whether the situation in the company will be able to change as a result of attempts by American regulators to investigate the activities of Amazon as a monopoly of the e-commerce market. So far, one of the most vocal, albeit unsuccessful, types of protest against the company's activities was a petition demanding not to let Jeff Bezos come back to Earth after his planned flight into space on July 20. At the moment, the petition has been signed by more than 115,000 people.

It seems that it is time to apply the slogan "Don’t be evil", the one that Google abandoned as its motto in 2018, to Amazon. At least, the company has maintained its reputation as one of the most terrible employers in Silicon Valley for several years.

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