“Exploitation” at Amazon?
Critical public opinion gets a whiff of something like that
and weighs the pros and cons of technical advances in the market economy
Critical public opinion in several countries – sparked by reporting on the conditions in Amazon’s logistics centers in the Financial Times, the Seattle Times, and on German television – recently made a truly shocking discovery: there is exploitation in our country! How do they notice this? With expressions of outrage, it is reported that the logistics centers of the online retailer are characterized by extreme time pressure and inhuman working conditions, that employees undergo constant surveillance whether or not they are stealing anything or complying with occupational safety laws. Anyone who does not meet performance targets, thus does not show their benefit for the company, gets the boot as useless. Only the best are rewarded with permanent positions.
Amazon reveals why this must be: This is the way – and there really isn’t any other – to get the customer’s money: “We work in our logistics centers with highly technical systems and processes. The aim of such systems is quality assurance, in order to quickly and reliably deliver orders to our customers.” Precisely because of the strictly organized, computerized work process in its global distribution centers, the company has become the undisputed winner in the global competition of e-commerce companies. This could only work out because Amazon makes itself thoroughly independent of any individual skills, all the special human qualities of its workers, and precisely in this way ensures they meet the stringent performance requirements. The logistics software not only routes the warehouse workers to the inventory, not only gives the most time-efficient way to locate the commodities to be picked for shipping, but also the time -- to the exact second – they are permitted to take for it. They should put together as many orders as possible, eventually walking as many as 15 miles a working day. The exact location of the individual worker is GPS-controlled and transmitted to management in real time. Should anyone stop three seconds to talk to a co-worker, they not only fall behind the time allowance of the hand-held scanners and computers, but also are immediately goaded by a warning message on the screen. The workers in such a company are, as one manager aptly expressed it to the Financial Times, “sort of like a robot, but in human form” and their integration into the logistics process is “human automation.” The company compares the performance and cost of its logistics workers with the possibilities of replacing them with robots. Amazon has already bought a robot company for this, but humans are still needed because they currently work much better than robots at coping with the many differently shaped products that Amazon sells.
The human robots must allow their performance to be measured in the technical performance and cost of mechanical robots – and they currently still hold first place in this competition. They must bring to it nothing more than their naked exertion, abandoning any special ability. That’s what the company hones in on, and that’s the material that it models so perfectly that it can fit into a workflow defined by machines. It embodies skills that once hinged on workers. A job at Amazon is rightly regarded by the labor offices in all countries as a perfect fit for unskilled workers – “unskilled” is almost the most important skill for this job.
This “skill” is, as you can see, enormously useful for the employer. Such people can be hired at low wages and put under the harshest conditions. Pundits like to push moral buttons and say: here humans are treated like commodities. But obviously they are not a commodity. Rather, they are owners of their labor power, and that is a commodity in capitalism. As humans, they sell this with their free will, because they have nothing else they can sell to get money, and without money they can’t get the commodities they need to live on. It is this compulsion which ensures the steady flow of job applicants to the Amazon warehouses. They are happy to have any job at all again that brings in money to make a modest living – even when the content of their work seems like it’s slave-driven.
With the sale of the commodity labor power at Amazon, the use of this commodity is handed over to the employer – it uses them for its purpose. It has not bought a specific amount of labor to be done, but free disposal over the labor power which it organizes according to its profitability criteria into the work process. To meet this criteria, enough effort can never be gotten from the labor power that it has purchased. The limit lies solely in the sheer physical capacity of the workers, and even this limit is still relatively flexible. Each department has its own manager who continuously monitors each step by a worker for how it could be made even quicker. And this is constantly provided new stimulus by the competition that is very successfully established between the workers themselves, especially the temporary workers who hope that they will get a permanent position by using their last ounce of energy to meet or surpass the performance requirements. And if someone no longer fulfills the work according to specifications, there are plenty of others available: job hunters all over the world provide Amazon an almost inexhaustible recruiting ground.
However, the flexibility of human labor power opens still more freedoms in its use. In the end, always exactly as much work should be available as required by the orders. Shift work, overtime, and above all temporary workers who can be used on exact days, make sure that labor power is never paid more than is needed by the specified workload. Idling – and that is measurable in seconds – costs money. People’s lives, not to mention any plans for a life they may have, are dependent variables of the profitability calculations of the company. This is shown here in its purest form.
In this rationality of its production processes, Amazon is no different in principle from any other successful capitalist company. However, in this respect it is a market leader and gives new benchmarks for the rivals in its industry and creates ever new standards for working conditions under the regime of capital. Critical observers have noticed this commercial success, but they do not want to draw the conclusion that this is normal when wage labor is subjected to the profitability requirements of capital. Rather – as always – they look for aberrant developments and violations, abuse of temporary workers, things which, for example, might have given the company an “unfair” competitive advantage. Only: they don’t find much there. Amazon pays meticulous attention to compliance with the law and knows very well its legal possibilities and permissable scope of action. Therefore, the exposés about its warehouses do not turn into a real scandal. Because the completely normal hardships of exploitation taking place there do not fulfill the criteria that counts for a scandal in the bourgeois public sphere: no violation of the law can be discovered anywhere which gives reason to call on the state or to accuse it of failing to enforcing its laws.
The most successful e-commerce company in the world has not in any way trampled the market economy underfoot, but uses the legal freedoms it gives companies in order to set new productivity standards in capitalist competition with its advanced exploitation techniques. This enables public opinion to find positive aspects in the exploitation that has just been scandalized, and indeed with the killer argument: Amazon creates jobs, which is even more valuable for difficult-to-place unskilled workers and in depressed regions with high unemployment. That’s the larger context into which the newspapers fit the initial outrage about the conditions in the logistics centers of this huge job creator. In this way, the scandal performs a service: one takes note of the “progress” that the state-fueled and -regulated capitalist competition creates, and chalks up the ruinous consequences for the workers as its unfortunate but inevitable downside.
Translated and adapted from a radio broadcast by GegenStandpunkt, 3.11.13