February 28, 2012

The miseries of shipping books for Amazon


“I love being around books,” Mac McClelland writes. But the sentiment drips with sarcasm because McClelland is describing her experiences working for Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc., a third-party logistics contractors that fulfills shipments for many companies, including Amazon. Her investigative journalism piece at Mother Jones describes the many indignities, cruelties, and dystopian realities of a massive low-wage warehouse economy that can’t be exported to the lethal Foxconn factories in China. Since shipping relies on proximity, these revolting labor conditions remain local. Hooray?

So what’s so bad about picking books for shipment?

Picking books for Amalgamated has a disadvantage over picking dildos or baby food or Barbies, however, in that the shelving numbers don’t always line up. When my scanner tells me the book I need is on the lowest level in section 28 of a row, section 28 of the eye-level shelf of that row may or may not line up with section 28 of the lowest level. So when I spot eye-level section 28 and squat or kneel on the floor, the section 28 I’m looking for might be five feet to my right or left. Which means I have to stand up and crouch back down again to get there, greatly increasing the number of times I need to stand and crouch/kneel in a day. Or I can crawl. Usually, I crawl. A coworker is choosing the crouch/kneel option. “This gets so tiring after a while,” he says when we pass each other. He’s 20. It’s 9:07 a.m.

That’s not all. In a nightmarish detail, McClelland describes how the warehouse shelves electrically shock the workers in the factory.

[I] reach for Diary of a Wimpy Kid and “FUCK!” A hot spark shoots between my hand and the metal shelving. It’s not the light static-electric prick I would terrorize my sister with when we got bored in carpeted department stores, but a solid shock, striking enough to make my body learn to fear it. I start inadvertently hesitating every time I approach my target. One of my coworkers races up to a shelving unit and leans in with the top of his body first; his head touches the metal, and the shock knocks him back. “Be careful of your head,” he says to me. In the first two hours of my day, I pick 300 items. The majority of them zap me painfully.

In dozens of disturbing, Orwellian, and, yes, shocking details, McClelland describes how Amazon, and many other companies, use and abuse workers to shrink their margins to such an extent that they can dominate the market. If you’ve ever wondered how Amazon can offer such delightfully low prices, here is the explanation.

McClelland has a first-hand understanding of the market economies that hurt her back, punish her intelligence, and zap her flesh, but she also understands the market systems that insist on such realities, that lead to poor consumers leading to poor conditions for desperate workers:

I suppose this is what they were talking about in the radio ad I heard on the way to work, the one that was paid for by a coalition of local businesses, gently begging citizens to buy from them instead of off the internet and warning about the importance of supporting local shops. But if my coworker Brian wants to feed his new baby any of these 24-packs of Plum Organics Apple & Carrot baby food I’ve been picking, he should probably buy them from Amazon, where they cost only $31.16. In my locally owned grocery store, that’s $47.76 worth of sustenance. Even if he finds the time to get in the car to go buy it at a brick-and-mortar Target, where it’d be less convenient but cost about the same as on Amazon, that’d be before sales tax, which physical stores, unlike Amazon, are legally required to charge to help pay for the roads on which Brian’s truck, and more to the point Amazon’s trucks, drive.