Amazon Prime Day deals aren't worth the moral cost of exploiting their workers

Fulfilling orders turns out to be a rather unfulfilling livelihood, according to striking workers at a Minnesota Amazon facility.
Image: Amazon Fulfillment Center
Packages move down a conveyor system at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Sacramento, California, on Feb. 9, 2018.Rich Pedroncelli / AP
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Michelle Chen

The promise of Amazon Prime Day — to be an all-encompassing one-stop shop for all our material desires at the lowest possible prices — increasingly rings hollow both for the people who fill the boxes and for the consumers who unpack them. Amazon might offer shoppers infinite choice, but there are often vanishing few alternatives for those who want to escape its grip. Whenever we “proceed to checkout,” our wish becomes the command of a distant anonymous warehouse worker, but the transaction comes at the cost of our civic soul.

Prime Day 2019 offers twice the shopping euphoria this year — a full 48 hours of scrolling endlessly and stuffing our bottomless virtual shopping carts. But this year’s Prime Days are double the pain for workers at Amazon fulfillment centers — the industrial caverns where humans and robots pack orders at a frenzied pace — to ensure that our next coffee grinder arrives with the company’s hallmark seamless efficiency.

Fulfilling orders turns out to be a rather unfulfilling livelihood, according to the workers who engaged in a six-hour strike at the Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, on Monday. The targeted work stoppage during the Prime Day bonanza was a strategic escalation; a hundred or so workers striking, out of hundreds of thousands of workers toiling nationwide, was not going to dent Amazon’s overall production rate. Nonetheless, the largely East African immigrant workers coupled their workplace action with a public campaign for fair working conditions.

They were joined by labor unions who hope to organize the massive warehouse workforce across the country, as well as thousands of protesting workers in Europe who are also mobilizing for fair working conditions across Amazon's global e-commerce hegemonic presence.

Get the think newsletter.

The workers at Shakopee and elsewhere have long complained of being worked to exhaustion under strict production quotas — typically requiring workers to package hundreds of items per hour on long shifts. They say Amazon is a uniquely brutal boss: Their performance is constantly monitored and managers issue warnings to ensure that workers don’t stray from their regimen. Workers complain that the hourly production quotas haunt them even during meal and rest breaks, leaving many with chronic stress.

Last year at Shakopee, they campaigned for religious accommodations, such as a dedicated prayer space for Muslims and a reduction of their bone-crunching workload during their Ramadan fast. Amazon agreed to talk with workers about reforming some of their labor practices, but the workers still say they face unbearable pressure on the job.

Their campaign has been boosted by politicians — including Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Somali American and the first Muslim woman in Congress, as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — who see Amazon’s empire as emblematic of the country’s abysmal inequality. But the Shakopee workers draw most of their support from the grassroots, organizing with the immigrant advocacy group Awood Center with support from the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Service Employees International Union.

Amazon dismissed this year’s Prime Day protests, though claiming that unions — by advocating for fair working conditions — are “conjuring misinformation to work in their favor.” Just as it cultivates consumer fidelity by becoming the shopping destination for all of their needs and wants, Amazon insists that it already offers what workers are demanding — they boast of giving workers a $15 minimum wage and various benefits.

But even with “competitive” wages, Amazon’s front-line workers just want to be free of the daily terror of being arbitrarily fired because they took an extra bathroom break. As Shakopee worker Mohamed Hassan told me, “Whether you work 10 years or one year, it's the same. Whether you are temporary or permanent, nothing different, they can fire you any time.”

The dehumanizing climate at Amazon facilities is often also aggravated by the actual climate. In 2011, sweltering temperatures at a Pennsylvania warehouse led to workers collapsing from heat stress. And today, climate intersects with the Shakopee strike in a different way: Some of Amazon’s tech employees traveled from Seattle to join the Shakopee workers to protest the company’s climate policy, which they say is wholly inadequate in light of the company’s massive wealth and gargantuan carbon footprint. Thousands of Amazon employees have signed a letter urging the company to pursue not just a promise for reduced emissions and a sprinkling of solar panels on warehouses, but a real climate justice agenda. That means tackling the racial and economic inequities that overlay the climate crisis in poor and marginalized communities.

The convergence of office and warehouse workers on climate change issues reveals the core of the growing backlash against Amazon: Not just the struggle for a pay raise, but also for an end to corporate impunity.

The demand for corporate accountability at Amazon culminated earlier this year with the collapse of much-hyped plans to build its HQ2 corporate headquarters in Queens. A coalition of community and labor groups spearheaded the resistance, criticizing the lavish tax breaks attached to the deal. They argued that Amazon is one of many corporate benefactors of taxpayer subsidies that have promised to bring jobs but fail to provide unionized, family-sustaining livelihoods. The backlash also included condemnation of Amazon's collusion with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the development of facial-recognition software — a nexus of Big Tech and government surveillance that outrages the communities of immigrants and people of color who are wary of Amazon’s growing power over their local economies and neighborhoods.

The movement for workplace justice at Shakopee — encapsulated in the slogan “We’re human, not robots” — foregrounds an often-overlooked side of Amazon’s empire: grassroots worker activists, immigrants who have struggled to put down roots in the heartland and are now fighting to restore basic humanity to the e-commerce machine.

And the demand for a more humane workplace and equitable jobs parallels Amazon’s other ethical quagmires: its monopolistic control over about half of the online retail market has raised antitrust concerns among federal authorities and, at the community level, Amazon’s market power is associated with the strangulation of local mom-and-pop businesses, as our shopping is increasingly limited to transactions with an algorithm instead of interactions with real-life workers and neighbors.

Prime Day might offer unparalleled deals, but ultra-convenient online discounts carry a real-life cost for labor and communities. And workers around the world are fighting to stop Amazon from treating them like they are just as disposable as the boxes they fill.