The future dominated by robots is an intrinsically fascinating conundrum for all. The eradication of human error and imperfection solved by the installation of droids leaves a question as to where that leaves the rest of us. What do we do when all the jobs are gone?
Slivers of this sci-fi future are already glimpsed today in automation. Robots are already replacing humans in some jobs. But we are a while away from completely reaching there and until then it seems the answer for the biggest corporation in the world is instead to treat humans as robots.
Amazon are today’s biggest corporate entity. They are omnipresent; pervading almost every aspect of our lives. That’s extended from just distributing goods to consumers to now producing a Lord of the Rings TV show and televising some Premier League matches, bookmarked for the future. But while this might make them an attractive business there are many justly concerned in how Amazon are exploiting their workers across Britain and the rest of the world with deeply draining workplace environments.
Some of the experiences of their workers are well documented but no less shocking. Workers who miss a shift due to illness are slapped with a point – and the accumulation of a certain amount result in dismissal. They’re paid the minimum wage but in Amazon’s flagship warehouse in Rugeley, effectively take home less due to the long-distance travelling. The same warehouse has failed to guarantee workers’ safety while workers are subject to sapping long-hour shifts with extremely short lunch breaks.
There is something that encapsulates Amazon’s view of human workers as mere robots: a patent for electronic wristbands that monitors a workers’ movement was granted to Amazon. This is about increasing worker output and maximising their efficiency but transplants a sense of mechanism on people who have physical and emotional limits. The seeds for this sort of thinking from management spawned from books like The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Taylor. He believed in perfecting human labour through recording and monitoring the workers in order to convert their movement into productivity. There are shades of these principles in how Amazon run their employees.
The consumerist nature of society – as well as Amazon’s near monopolisation of the online shopping market – means calling out this sort of unethical practices are difficult if you can’t see how the goods are produced or if there are few alternatives. There’s also discomfort in knowing the answer to where goods come from for fear of complicity, however distant and removed from the injustice one may be. But it’s difficult not to be concerned at how Amazon workers are treated like trampled ants by the multinational company across different countries. There is a human cost to keeping free-market globalisation chugging along and it’s this: a single company with a reach like tentacles ensnaring workers from everywhere. Whether it’s in Britain with its warehouses or in China, where Kindles and Echo smart speakers were produced through agency workers hired and paid illegally, this resembles an oppressive dystopia for workers where the market reigns absolute supreme and there is nothing they can do about it.
In his book Hired the left-wing writer James Bloodworth spoke about his experiences in the Rugeley warehouse. There, workers were treated as if they weren’t people; illness brought the risk of dismissal while the shifts were long and the lunch breaks short. The pay was not great and the nature of the work atomised everyone. And of course, everyone’s work progress was monitored. They were treated as expendable droids.
It would be quite easy to dismiss this simply as an anecdotal data not fit for painting an impression of life as an Amazon worker; but a Freedom of Information request to ambulance services from the GMB union revealed that the emergency services had been called out 600 times to the company’s warehouses during the past three years. Of these, 115 of them were to Rugeley where Bloodworth worked as did 1,800 people across the year. A rebuttal could be made that warehouse work is innately dangerous and yet a Tesco warehouse close to the Amazon warehouse only posted eight calls in total to the emergency services; this despite having a similar workforce capacity and physical size. Some of these calls within the Amazon warehouse related to pregnancy, major trauma, and call-outs for electric shocks and workers who had fallen unconscious.
So why has it been so easy for Amazon to exploit warehouse workers in Britain? A lot of these warehouses are in post-industrial towns where simply the range of employment options are thin. London like a vacuum has hovered up much of the country’s opportunities leaving crumbs for the rest. The shortage of few options mean some have little option but to endure what’s laid out in front of them by Amazon. And if they don’t there’s always someone else desperate enough to take the job in this day and age. A lot of the warehouse workers in Rugeley are migrants whose desperation and poverty means that it’s not difficult for employers to exploit them. And with trade unions in decline they have little sense of hope or security for protection against how they are treated by Amazon.
The tendency of those who regularly push back against criticisms of businesses is that they are wealth creators. Who wouldn’t want the biggest company in the world investing in Britain? But it’s worth asking what kind of jobs and wealth Amazon are creating that their workers benefit from. Is it really creating wealth if a worker is essentially taking below the minimum wage – it itself a poverty earning – because of the expensive cost of travelling? When pregnant workers are being reported to emergency services or the shifts are ten hours long with ridiculously short breaks, what benefits are there? Jeff Bezos has carved a fortune out of Amazon but his workers toil in deep destitution. This is not freedom. It’s a capitalist dystopia.