Ethics Make My Head Hurt

You did what?  You’ll probably get someone fired or gum up a machine!!!               — JoAnne Cook

Ethics make my head hurt.  I read the horror stories about Foxconn, the Chinese conglomerate that manufactures and assembles Apple products.  Their management style would need to improve greatly to become merely draconian.  Corporate response to disenchanted workers subjected to mind-numbing routinized labor and claustrophobic dormitory living has been to thwart further suicides by installing more suicide nets!  (The flogging will continue until morale improves.)  Still I am writing this on my Apple computer, which I prize nearly as much as my iPad (see HLP 10/11) and my iPod, rationalizing that China is another culture, and very far away.

Ohio and Pennsylvania are not that far away.  Mac McClellan, writing in the March-April issue of Mother Jones, and Spencer Soper in The Morning Call, an Allentown (PA) newspaper, chronicle the working conditions at online retail facilities.   Before you stop reading, shake your head at the nonsense that passes itself off as community news, harrumph loudly, and turn to the real estate ads, give me just a few paragraphs.

Amazon began shipping books in 1994. Expanding to a limitless array of products and riding the wave of the Internet, the company has become the 21st century rebuttal to the quaint notion of shopping by driving, finding parking, dealing with surly, barely conscious, retail clerks in a too air-conditioned, insipid music-blasting, brick and mortar retail store that is out of what you need despite calling ahead to make sure they have it.  Amazon stock (which I neglected to buy) has grown eight fold, and the company made $34,000,000,000 in 2010.  With 33,700 employees and free shipping, what’s not to like?

 

As it turns out, quite a lot.  I never really questioned how a point and click brought anything I wanted to my front door so quickly and tax free.  Amazon is the biggest, but almost all online retailers ship from vast warehouses, with several companies often sharing space.  Located in rural areas on vast tracts of land with tax incentives, near rail lines and major highways, they are often the only game in town for employment.  Ma and Pa stores, Woolworth’s, and a recognizable downtown are long gone, driven out in part by low Internet prices.  This is the future going forward, fast, cheap, and barely in control.  I do not believe many of us connected the dots between a displaced, desperate workforce and an Internet industry that is not yet twenty years old.

Mac McClelland is a 31 year old journalist, who went “underground” like Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickle and Dimed in America. The Secret Hell of Online Shopping chronicles her employment at a vast online warehouse, probably in Ohio.  She describes the workplace as cavernous and silent despite the thousands of people filling orders or standing at conveyor belts.  Temperatures range seasonally from 60 to over 95 degrees. Ten hour days are standard, longer near the holidays.  Most employees are pickers or packers.  As a picker she walked 12-15 miles per day on  concrete.  Armed with a scanner and an impossibly high quota of orders to fill, she and thousands more were continually “counseled,” prodded, and demeaned by supervisors to work harder, faster and error-free to please the customer.  Failure is met with demerits which are also accrued by being even seconds late returning from one of the two 15 minute daily breaks, perhaps because the bathroom line was too long.

The pace is intense and workers are disposable, fired at will because there are 15 people in line for every job.  Conversation is not forbidden, but there is simply no time. It is a joyless Orwellian world with everyone being watched and every second needing to be accounted for.  McClelland writes poignantly about the “workampers,” people who drive RV’s around the country from temporary job to temporary job, docking in trailer camps.  Many are retired couples not able to make it on their savings.

What I did not realize is that Amazon, Netflix, Staples, Office Depot and the other giant companies do not commonly employ entry level warehouse workers directly.  They contract with a 3PL or third party logistics staffing agency.  One of the biggest is Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS). A 3PL sounds benign, but the competition between “temp agencies” for multimillion dollar contracts is brutal.  This filters down to the employees.  Just enough workers are hired at the lowest wage allowable (between 8 and 11 dollars an hour).  Asked to perform at maximum efficiency like robots, human problems like sick kids and car trouble are not factored into the equation. Workers are barely able keep up with the ever-increasing demand.  This is how companies are able to slash prices and deliver products super fast and offer free shipping and still post profits in the billions.  It comes at the expense of employees pushed to their breaking point.  McClelland asks if the workplace has to be this bleak and stressful to make a profit.

The 3PLs play the bad cop, the heavy, the wicked stepmother, shielding Amazon and other household names from lawsuits and negative publicity about their labor practices.  The retailer retains plausible deniability, avoids paying benefits, and discourages unions, as the workers are only temps, no matter how many years they are employed.  A carrot held out to new hires is the promise of a full-time job with the parent company.  Most are either fired or quit before that happens.  There is no regulation or licensure of these contracted companies.  If the first step toward change is public awareness, then the second is accountability from the online retailer and their responsibility for the policies of their 3PL.

Would you pay more for a free range chicken, or grapes picked by a union-protected field worker?  Scrolling the various Internet sites for the lowest price is just modern shopping.  How about paying a little more to ensure the picker and shipper in charge of your order are treated in a humane manner, given occasional time off and healthcare benefits?  Perhaps you would say it is the responsibility of Jeffrey Bezos, founder of Amazon and #30 on the worlds wealthiest list at 18.1 billion.

A desperately unhappy person in China may have assembled my computer.  A seven year old in Malaysia likely stitched my sneakers, and a pregnant woman in Allentown, Pennsylvania who cannot afford to be on bed rest shipped them to me.  How am I supposed to feel?  Someday, the robots will take over.  For now many workers eek out a living in warehouses that bear little resemblance to the places you and I may have worked to get money for college decades ago.

I am hoping that someone younger and smarter will blog, tweet, or twitter about the conditions and hardships of warehouse workers today.  I’ ll provide the slogan, There is no such thing as free shipping!

 

Tom H. Cook lacks the energy to lead a boycott.  He is such a bleeding heart, he enclosed a dollar bill in his red Netflix envelope. That is why JoAnne was so alarmed.

 

 

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