Remember the bad old days when if you wanted to buy a book or a box of crackers you had to go to B. Dalton or the supermarket? Then came Amazon. If your order total reached a certain minimum or you paid for an annual subscription, certain items could arrive at your house in only two days. Now in many major metropolitan areas the shipping time has been reduced to mere hours.
What made this logistical miracle possible? According to a recent report in The Verge, the same sort of thing that is usually responsible for these supposed triumphs of the spirit of entrepreneurial know-how: a great deal of human suffering, in this case under conditions that most of us would more readily associate with workers in the factories of the Third World than with employees of one of the world's wealthiest corporations in some of America's largest cities.
It has been apparent for years now that Amazon does not value the privacy or the dignity of its warehouse employees. The system it uses to "optimize" the performance of those responsible for bringing items from shelves to doorsteps is tyrannical. It is also, quite literally, dehumanizing. Employees are reportedly directly supervised not by other men and women but by automated computer systems. These programs allegedly track everything from how fast warehouse employees carry out various work-related tasks, such as packing items and sorting them for shipment, to how long it takes them to use the bathroom. The acronym for the latter — there is always an acronym with these people — is TOT, or "time off task."
But the situation appears to be much worse than all this. In addition to relentlessly policing their individual behavior at work, Amazon warehouse employees are reportedly collectively subject to an oppressive system of automated performance review. Whenever 75 percent of employees are meeting certain pre-assigned goals, the numbers reportedly can be increased. The majority of employees are then reportedly required to meet these new higher targets — the rest are placed in "training" programs or fired. Documents obtained by The Verge suggest that some warehouse locations lose as much as 10 percent of their staff annually because they failed to meet these arbitrary standards.
The bogus gospel of so-called "scientific management" has been with us for a century now. But unlike in the past there is seemingly no threshold employees of Amazon can possibly meet at which their performance will be deemed good enough. If efficiency goes up by x percent in a calendar year, the old standard plus x becomes the minimum that is acceptable. Employees could then be fired for working just as hard as they did a year ago when their quotas were lower. This is Sisyphean cruelty.
It is not just inhumane to treat people this way — it is anti-human, a blanket denial of the innate metaphysical dignity of rational creatures made in God's image. It is also a reminder of the fact that, so far from having made significant economic progress in this country in the last half century, we have regressed to the point that employees of our largest corporations are being denied rights that the labor movement fought for 80 years ago. How much worse will things be a decade from now?
It is grimly amusing now to recall the cravenness with which various mayors, councilmen, and local and county development "authorities" prostrated themselves before Amazon last year in an effort to entice the world's largest retailer into establishing a corporate headquarters in their respective cities. In most cases ordinary citizens had no say whatsoever in any of these proceedings; they were forced to sit back and hope for the best while the looting of their patrimony by billionaires was calmly discussed in a dark room somewhere. When we lament the role of money in politics we are making a category error. Money is American politics, without or without the tedious formalism of corporate donations to the election committees of this or that individual politician.
This is why nobody should give Jeff Bezos a pat on the back when he announces that he is giving his employees a raise. A just wage — if one assumes that $15 an hour for this kind of labor is a just wage in expensive major cities — does not exhaust the responsibilities that employers have toward those who serve under them. And a wage that is contingent not upon the performance of certain agreed-upon tasks but upon the total surrender of one's humanity to a computer program is not really a wage. It is a kind of servitude.
Amazon is not a triumph of anything except the barbarism of capital. Their warehouses are sweatshops.