Sure, low prices are great when you're on a budget or don't feel like spending money, but just as in thermodynamics, there's no such thing as a free lunch in retail. That $2 six-pack of socks has to come out of someone's hide. Now I read there's an American corporation worse than Wal-Mart, one that might be even harder to avoid -- Amazon. Their low prices and vast selection have helped make brick-and-mortar bookstores a thing of the past, but how do they keep prices so low?
As at Walmart, Amazon achieves this with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. As at Walmart, there is a pervasive “three strikes and you’re out” culture, and when these marginal employees acquire too many demerits (“points”), they are fired.
Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.
All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.(HT PZ Myers) Treating employees like subhuman chattel, that's how. Apparently recreating conditions not out of place in an Upton Sinclair novel (albeit with an IT upgrade) is acceptable as long as it results in low, low prices for the customer. But is getting the latest Dan Brown novel for $12.99 worth it when people are treated like this just to get it to you?
At the Allentown warehouse, Stephen Dallal, also a “picker,” found that his output targets increased the longer he worked at the warehouse, doubling after six months. “It started with 75 pieces an hour, then 100 pieces an hour. Then 150 pieces an hour. They just got faster and faster.” He too was written up for not meeting his targets and was fired. At the Seattle warehouse where the writer Vanessa Veselka worked as an underground union organizer, an American Stakhnovism pervaded the depot. When she was on the line as a packer and her output slipped, the “lead” was on to her with “I need more from you today. We’re trying to hit 14,000 over these next few hours.”
Beyond this poisonous mixture of Taylorism and Stakhnovism, laced with twenty-first-century IT, there is, in Amazon’s treatment of its employees, a pervasive culture of meanness and mistrust that sits ill with its moralizing about care and trust—for customers, but not for the employees. So, for example, the company forces its employees to go through scanning checkpoints when both entering and leaving the depots, to guard against theft, and sets up checkpoints within the depot, which employees must stand in line to clear before entering the cafeteria, leading to what Amazon’s German employees call Pausenklau (break theft), shrinking the employee’s lunch break from thirty to twenty minutes, when they barely have time to eat their meal.Go read the whole thing and see what happens when industry is allowed to run unfettered in the pursuit of maximum profits.
This news leaves me in a bit of a predicament. I don't order physical items through Amazon -- part of my concerted effort not to accumulate 'stuff' -- so I'm not helping heap more misery on the warehouse workers, but a simple bit of searching shows that Amazon does have a fair few ebooks I would like to purchase. What to do? Bail on Amazon and search for alternatives that may not have the selection and affordability of the big retailer, or, in the name of convenience, continue handing over money to a corporation whose business practices I do not support?
Is it worth it to be an ethical consumer? Certainly as far as non-monetary value goes, but there is always that pesky matter of money. As usual, Greta Christina is replete with insight. First, on why it's difficult to save money and still be ethical:
Because many of the things companies do to lower prices are unethical: from paying substandard wages (close to slave labor wages in some countries), to driving small and local businesses out of the market, to cutting corners in safety standards (both in workplaces and in products).
We have an unreasonably low sense of what it costs to make and ship things, and we expect everything to be cheap, without looking at the long-term and indeed medium-term costs of that cheapness. (Look at what happens when a Wal-Mart moves into a community: the products are cheaper, and people abandon local businesses that charge more, but then the people who work for those local businesses are out of work when they close down, and they then have to work for Wal-Mart, who pays for shit and has horrible benefits and treats their employees like dirt but is now the only employer in town.)
I get that not everyone can afford to pay a little more for somewhat more expensive but ethically produced products. Those of us who can, should.Second, on what to do to reward those businesses that do conduct themselves ethically:
What we can, when we can. When we can: Buy from small local businesses. Buy from companies with reasonably ethical practices. Boycott companies with truly horrible practices. Support unions: don’t cross picket lines, buy union when you can, use social media to spread the word about unionizing and labor events. Talk with people about this stuff. Unionize.Looks like there are some hard decisions in my future. There's the right thing to do, and then there's the path of least resistance. Of course, if doing the right thing was easy, everyone would do it.