Is Amazon.Com Perfecting the American Sweatshop?

There’s a reason you get your online order so fast.

So is building a new warehouse in Middletown, Delaware, with a promise of more than 850 new jobs by September and potentially over 2,000 seasonal jobs. People are ready and willing to work, and an American company like Amazon looks like a prime prospect for a local economy.

Delaware tripped over itself to get Amazon to pick them. Their Economic Development Office gave the online retailer $3.47 million from something called the Strategic Fund, and supposedly $2.12 million of that is for the creation of new jobs at the site. The fund is also investing another $1.35 million in the company’s infrastructure, and Amazon gets a 10-year tax abatement from Middletown.

Maybe more than 850 people will go to work in that warehouse, maybe more over the holidays, but they probably won’t exactly be working for Amazon, not reaping the benefits of an enormously profitable American company. Ironically, the very taxpayers funding Amazon’s sweet deal won’t get basics like insurance or paid time off.

Last fall, the Morning Call exposed problems at Amazon’s Lehigh Valley warehouse. The fact that extreme heat required EMTs to remain on-call in the parking lot due to frequently fainting employees was bad enough, but Amazon’s bamboozlement of its workers was worse. Most of the people hired weren’t hired by Amazon, and it seems they never had a prayer of working for Amazon either. The warehouse was mostly staffed for Amazon by employment agencies with promises of permanent positions for “people who worked hard enough,” and this conveniently turned out to be mostly no one.

About a month before the Morning Call’s piece was published, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, told the New York Times, “Low prices, expanding selection, fast delivery and innovation are driving the fastest growth we’ve seen in over a decade.” By “innovation” he must mean, “We’ve found a way to staff our warehouses with mules who don’t need health care or paid time off or water. When the EMT’s can’t revive them, we get some more. That’s how we’re making a sick profit in a recession. Duh.”

Unemployment is no picnic, but neither is underemployment, and there’s a new worrisome adage punctuating people’s complaints about work. If you haven’t said it yourself, you’ve heard it said: “I shouldn’t complain. I know I’m lucky to have a job.” Even if it means working for a company that values its workforce so little that its idea of health care is EMTs in the parking lot?

Consider that the living wage estimate, which is based on a very modest existence, is $22 an hour to $30 an hour, after taxes, for two parents with one child. The average warehouse job pays about $11 an hour before taxes, which is more than minimum wage, but a scant few bucks over the poverty line. No one could pay for health insurance on that, or afford to take an unpaid day off. Thanks to government-funded programs like CHIP though, children can get health insurance when their parents aren’t provided any by an employer and can’t afford it, so companies that don’t offer benefits are essentially getting another kickback because the government steps in to provide what they can afford but choose not to offer their workers.

While I admire the Occupiers, my life doesn’t lend itself to live-in protesting right now, so on my own little corner of the planet, I’ve become very selective about whom I patronize. In the last few years, I’ve done at least a third of my holiday shopping on Amazon, and the rest of the year I’ve treated it like it’s the public library. Why go out in the cold to get something for free, when you can pay for it right now, from your bed, and get it sent to your doorstep? Those days are over. I’m boycotting Amazon, and I intend to stick to it.

Deals like the one they just got from Middletown are negotiated and brokered under the pretense of what’s good for a community, but it’s truly only about the company getting the most for the least. Big business is as profitable as ever. The pervasive b.s. that the workforce should expect wages and benefits to be cut because of a bad economy is an unacceptable excuse to exploit workers. Don’t accept it, unless you think sweatshops are a good thing.

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  • Lance

    I am a proud full time associate with Amazon. I started 2 years ago with Amazon in Kansas and have worked my way up to a promotion relocation to South Carolina. I have done all tasks and jobs on the floor and it does require hustle to get the job done for customer satisfaction. It is not rocket science or “sweatshop work” Picking items is like shopping at walmart on a fast pace walk. I worked at one of the million sqft warehouses that did not have air-conditioning and yes in the June and July months tempatures did reach in the 90’s and 100’s. there was ice cold water bottles provided every 50-100 feet. a 20 minute break within every 2 hours. Gatorade and fruit provided in air conditioned break rooms. And at least once to twice a day pop cycle treats provided to associates. Very tolerable conditions to work in. I have never been denied a 40 hour week since working there in two years. Like many, I did start with a temp agency, worked hard to prove myself to become an Amazon associate with more than generous benefits. I work with many great associates that take pride in what Amazon does best is to take care of the customer. I am very proud to work for Amazon and the stated $20-30/hr jobs are greedy in any type of job and I feel that is what has made the economy a mess paying high wages to force people to live out of their means. Yes America needs to get a work ethic back and Amazon is the only company I know working towards that!

  • alexbarbadoro5

    Lance: I’m glad you’re treated well at your facility, & that you’re happy in your work. Please follow the link in my piece regarding our closet local Amazon dist. center. Workers here in PA did not have the same experience that you are. Also, if you’re contributing to the profitability of a very successful company, why would earning a true living wage be greedy? Until we get to determine what constitutes a living wage, like by naming how much we want to pay to put gas in our cars or for the utilities in our homes, it is not greedy to expect to live on what you earn.

  • jerseygirl7

    I have been working at the Amazon facility in the Lehigh Valley area for a year and a half, through the last two peak seasons, and through it’s first summer. I can say from experience of actually being employed there and through knowledge that the news articles that were printed were highly exaggerated, and that many of the interviews from those articles were from angry employees that were either laid off do to their lack of work, pointing out or for failing a random drug test. Work at amazon in direct labor jobs are easy to do, and don’t require high education to do. Yes you are working long hours, and perhaps walking a lot through out the day; it’s a job that someone has to do to fulfill customer orders, but at the same time, the conditions are reported in the job description for those who have not read it properly. The Amazon job description states the hours, walking long distances, standing, lifting and placing up to 50 pounds, high and low extreme weather conditions. I was prepared for what I was getting myself into upon starting my Amazon employment.

    I started out as a temp working for ISS during the peak holiday. I was among hundreds of employees, who were also hired through the temp agency. The agency DID NOT guarantee us full-time employment with Amazon, and stated that we were hired for seasonal, temp to hire with a possibility of full-time, permanent hire. Amazon has rates for all departments (direct labor) which from working in each of them are not hard to make, considering you work your best. I started out in the pick department, which at the time the rate was 80 units per hour during peak, and 125 post-peak. Everyday I was able to make rate with out waring myself out or trying to hard. However there are many people who would stand around and talk for hours through out the day and wonder why they couldn’t make rate, or would get pissed if they had a coach come talk to them for their low rates.

    I was one of hundred of other employees, many my friends, who started as a temp and was converted to a full-time Amazon employee. It really was not hard, and I wouldn’t say that it was hard to do… go to work get there on time, don’t call out everyday or point out, and you’ll be appreciated.

    I was also a temp during the summer season. Yes, it got hot! This was a new building and Amazon didn’t predict or know the extent of how hot it was going to get in the building. This was also one of the first Amazon buildings that had more than one floor, most amazon warehouse are one floor, this one has three. Like Lance stated, we were offered extended 15 minute breaks (so they were 20), our usual half hour lunches, but also 5-10 minute water breaks every hour. We were encouraged to do the best we could do, and were not yelled at if we would stop to rest or take a water break. We were also offered ice cold water bottles, thousands of water bottles were brought in and stocked with coolers on each floor of the pick mod, fans, and cold head bands. We also received fruit (oranges, apples, and banana) and Gatorade.

    Yes temps may have had it harder than Amazon employees. If you were under rate, an ISS coach would come and track your rate… but even though it was hot, the coaches had a job to do as well and you can’t fault them for that.

    Employees who worked during the summer who left early due to heating conditions were not pointed, and were able to make up their time if they wished. Also people in the article complained about Mandatory over time. Yes we had it, but over the summer it was limited. I believe my shift had it maybe 4 times after the new shift change that took place in July. And with the massive heat is had stopped completely and work was transferred to other facilities until Amazon installed the air system. Amazon did get a temporary air vent in the building towards the end of the summer and is currently working to place an air conditioning system in the building over the next few weeks witch took planning to implement in a building of this size.
    I am now a full-time Amazon associate, and I made it through two peaks and the horrible summer. I worked my self up to an indirect labor position working in problem solve most days of my work week. I wish the pay was better but we do get raises every six months and I have great benefits, payed time off and vacation and monthly bonus checks. I don’t see my self working at Amazon for the rest of my life, but I don’t agree with the exaggerated stories about the company and the lehigh valley warehouse causing Amazon (as a whole) to get such negative reviews.