Amazon jobs: boon or torture?

The company at the root of the fortune of the world’s richest man is either a slave-driving torture camp, or a generous and understanding enabler of people seeking to grow their skills and develop satisfying careers. Both views are getting lots of air right now, as Christmas hiring in a tight job market is sparking a recruitment drive at the online retailing champion.  

Some people who have worked at Amazon denounce their former employer as an inhumane sweatshop. Consider this article in the New York Post, written by Maureen Donnelly, who worked for one month at an Amazon fulfillment center, where goods on order are packed into boxes for shipping to customers. Ms. Donnelly found the experience intolerable:

I soon learned that only difference between an Amazon warehouse and a third-world sweatshop were the robots. At Amazon, you were surrounded by bots, and they were treated better than the humans. (snip)

They assigned me as a “stower.” I stocked shelves, called racks.

Squat, square orange robots — they looked like an ugly cousin to the Roomba — carried 8-foot-tall yellow racks with dozens of compartments. The bots would whiz around to the stowers and stop. Somebody called a “water spider” would bring me boxes of items to stow. I would lift the items out of the box, scan them and put each item into a compartment in the rack. When the rack was full, I pressed a button, and the robot would zip away with the rack, and another robot would arrive with an empty rack for me to fill.

When I showed up for my shift, I’d walk in the main entrance and scan a security badge to get through a revolving door. The locker room was to the left. You had to put any personal items in the locker. No headphones. I think it was a safety issue. Absolutely no cellphones on the floor! They didn’t want anybody taking pictures or giving away their secrets! No food. No drinks — except water. (snip)

After putting away my personals, I’d go to the meeting area for 10 minutes of group calisthenics — I felt like I was in the Army.

Then it was on to my station to start stowing. I’d stare at what awaited me: An endless line of yellow racks. One hundred stowers lined up 15 feet apart.  It reminded me of the ending of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (snip)

It was hot as hell in that building — it felt like 150 degrees. 

People kept asking, “Can we get fans?” But the answer was always no. You know why? Because, we were told, the robots don’t function well in the cold. Finally we figured out why every manager in the place was wearing shorts.

There were hundreds of robots zigging and zagging on each floor. It was very creepy because no two bots ever crashed. The human stowers and pickers were on the perimeter of the robots’ fenced-in area. If the humans ever crossed into the robots’ domain it was a fireable offense.

The job was mind-numbing. The same thing every hour. Every day. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I had “‘projections.” I had to stock at least 12 items a minute. I was not even close. It’s physically impossible. You were constantly like, “I gotta get this done.” The computer constantly showed you how far off you from making the quota. 

I wasn’t disciplined because I was a newbie, and I quit before I could find out the punishment.

Ms. Donnelly obviously never worked on an assembly line, or in any machine-paced factory-like environment. I’ve worked in such situations and can tell her that it is worse than having to meet a quota. On an assembly line, if you fall behind and don’t perform your task on an item going by, it creates problems for the stations after yours, and a supervisor will soon bring that failure to your attention. The relentless pace of the line becomes your master, your disciplinarian, and your nightmares.

One of the consequences of the prosperity that President Trump has brought America (after 8 years of Obama telling us that 1% growth and high unemployment is the “new normal”) is that employers have to try harder to recruit employees.  This Christmas season, Amazon is advertising very heavily on TV touting the desirability of working for it. Here is one commercial that appears very frequently on Fox News, at least in the Bay Area, where the jobs market is extremely tight, featuring the health care benefits, tuition assistance, and other perks that Amazon uses to attract workers.



One of the pitches is that Amazon is “trans-friendly”

And Ms. Donnelly does admit that some of her colleagues were very enthusiastic about working for Amazon:

A very enthusiastic woman from the South in T-shirt and jeans — that’s the uniform — bragged that Amazon was the “best” company, “beyond huge.” She reeled off all the perks: Stock shares. Employee discounts. Full benefits. Four-day work weeks, with not a ton of mandatory OT. (snip)

On the first day, about 100 of us newbies gathered in a conference room, and a bunch of managers got up to talk. They were all the same. They all drank the Kool-Aid. They all said, “This is the best place to work.”

Looking back, it was cult-like. 

They went over the different jobs. If you got something you didn’t like, they’d give you something else. 

Like McDonalds, another major company that advertises for employees on national TV, Amazon sees its entry-level jobs as a rung on the employment ladder for younger workers to gain skills, build an employment track record, get educational assistance, and move on to jobs with upward mobility prospects. I am certain that these entry-level jobs are demanding and unpleasant in many ways. Like many jobs. But by helping those doing these jobs gain training for higher-level work, they offer a gateway.

I know that the very demanding jobs I did in my college years during summers motivated me to ensure that I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life in such circumstances, and helped me realize that hard work is necessary to produce and distribute all the physical goods that we consume. It engendered respect for all the people whose labor, much of it unpleasant, was necessary for me to be able to buy and enjoy various products.

If Amazon's bargain of work hard for flexibility and benefits doesn't appeal to you, then don't work there. Ms. Donnelly had the option of leaving and she exercised it. If enough people feel that way, Amazon wlll have to change what it offers. Or buy more robots. That's the glory of a market economy, where we get to choose.

If you experience technical problems, please write to