February 20, 2013

Amazon warehouses working-condition complaints are nothing new


An Amazon worker in the midst of one of the company’s massive warehouses.

Alarming reports of seasonal workers being harassed and intimidated at Amazon’s massively huge warehouses surfaced over the weekend after a half-hour investigative documentary aired on television in Germany. The program apparently showed

a heavy presence of security staff from a company called H.E.S.S (Hensel European Security Services), with the program questioning a possible allusion to Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess. The security firm was contracted by an employment agency, not Amazon directly.

Germany is Amazon’s second-largest market after the United States, and recorded sales of 6.8 billion euros in 2012. After the program aired, many Germans called for a boycott of Amazon, and a trade union circulated a petition calling for Amazon workers to receive a fair wage, adequate living conditions, and transparent contracts. The petition has now almost achieved its goal of 30,000 signatures.

Concerns about working conditions have been protested in the United States too. On May 10th, 2012, The Seattle Times reported on a rally outside Amazon headquarters, responding to workers’ issues with the company’s warehouse conditions.

Conditions at Amazon warehouses in Pennsylvania and Kentucky have come under scrutiny in news reports where former employees describing workers collapsing in the summer heat, getting fired after injuries and other problems …The rally was organized by Working Washington, a union-backed organization that has developed an Amazon.com warehouse-workers bill of rights.

An account in the Los Angeles Times described over 100-degree temperatures in the Allentown Amazon warehouse, and as reported on this blog, the Business Insider recently quoted someone saying that working in the Amazon warehouses in the UK were like being in a “slave camp.”

One problem in Amazon warehouses worldwide is that workers are hired on temporary contracts, which leads to unfair treatment, lower wages, and the ability — as in the German case — of going overboard on surveillance of seasonal workers.

In an article in the International Business Times, an Amazon executive explains the need for temporary employees:

“It gets very busy at this time, and folks work hard for sure, but again, we bring in help,” said Craig Berman, corporate vice president at Amazon. “We’re hiring 50,000 seasonal employees to help meet that demand, and we’re excited.”

The need for so many people is a result of an organizational system called “chaotic storage” that requires many human hands:

Amazon must rely on barcodes and human hands to find the ordered items and drop them into the proper bins — without robots, Amazon utilizes a system known as “chaotic storage,” where products are essentially shelved at random…The real advantage to chaotic storage is that it’s significantly more flexible than conventional storage systems. If there are big changes in a product range, the company doesn’t need to plan for more space, because the products or their sales volumes don’t need to be known or planned in advance if they’re simply being stored at random.

And voila! Shorter advance notice to publishers for book orders and more poor temporary workers required to feed the relentless machine.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.