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.