Amazon is famous for its extreme efficiency yet behind the curtain is a crippling culture of surveillance and stress, according to a study by the Open Markets Institute.
The think tank and advocacy group that repeatedly takes companies like Google and Facebook to task warned in the report [PDF] that Amazon’s retail side has gone far beyond promoting efficient working and has adopted an almost dystopian level of control over its warehouse workers, firing them if they fail to meet targets that are often kept a secret.
Among the practices it highlighted, the report said that workers are told to hit a target rate of packages to process per hour, though they are not told what exactly that target is. “We don’t know what the rate is,” one pseudonymous worker told the authors. “They change it behind the scenes. You’ll know when you get a warning. They don’t tell you what rate you have to hit at the beginning.”
If they grow close to not meeting a target rate, or miss it, the worker receives an automated message warning them, the report said. Workers who fail to meet hidden targets can also receive a different type of electronic message; one that fires them.
“Amazon’s electronic system analyzes an employee’s electronic record and, after falling below productivity measures, ‘automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors’,” it stated. The data is also generated automatically: for example, those picking and packing are required to use a scanner that records every detail, including the time between scans, and feed it into a system that pushes out automated warnings.
As with other companies, Amazon installs surveillance cameras in its workspaces to reduce theft. But the report claims Amazon has taken that approach to new lengths “with an extensive network of security cameras that tracks and monitors a worker’s every move”.
Bezos’ bunch combines that level of surveillance with strict limits on behavior. “Upon entering the warehouse, Amazon requires workers to dispose of all of their personal belongings except a water bottle and a clear plastic bag of cash,” the report noted.
For Amazon drivers, their location is constantly recorded and monitored and they are required to follow the exact route Amazon has mapped. They are required to deliver 999 out of every 1,000 packages on time or face the sack; something that the report argues has led to widespread speeding and a related increase in crashes.
The same tracking software ensures that workers only take 30 minutes for lunch and two separate 15-minute breaks during the day. The report also noted that the web goliath has patented a wristband that “can precisely track where warehouse employees are placing their hands and use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction”.
Amazon also attempts to prevent efforts to unionize by actively tracking workers and breaking up any meetings of too many people, including identifying possible union organizers and moving them around the workplace to prevent them talking to the same group for too long, the report claimed.
It quoted a source named Mohamed as saying: “They spread the workers out … you cannot talk to your colleagues … The managers come to you and say they’ll send you to a different station.”
The combined effort of constant surveillance with the risk of being fired at any point has created, according to workers, a “Lord Of The Flies-esque environment where the perceived weakest links are culled every year”.
Stress and quotas
The report said Amazon’s workers “are under constant stress to make their quotas for collecting and organizing hundreds of packages per hour” resulting in “constant ‘low-grade panic’ to work. In this sense, workers are dehumanizingly treated by Amazon as if they are robots – persistently asked to accomplish task after task at an unforgiving rate.”
At the end of the day, warehouse employees are required to go through mandatory screening to check they haven’t stolen anything, which “requires waiting times that can range from 25 minutes to an hour” and is not compensated, the report said.
Amazon also allegedly fails to account for any injuries, the report said, to the extent that “Amazon employees feel forced to work through the pain and injuries they incur on the job, as Amazon routinely fires employees who fall behind their quotas, without taking such injuries into account.”
It quoted another piece of reporting that found Amazon’s rate of severe injuries in its warehouses is, in some cases, more than five times the industry average. It also noted that the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health listed Amazon as one of the “dirty dozen” on its list of the most dangerous places to work in the United States in 2018.
The report concluded that “Amazon’s practices exacerbate the inequality between employees and management by keeping employees in a constant state of precariousness, with the threat of being fired for even the slightest deviation, which ensures full compliance with employer-demanded standards and limits worker freedom.”
Being a think tank, the Open Markets Institute listed a series of policy and legal changes that would help alleviate the work issues. It proposed a complete ban on “invasive forms of worker surveillance” and a rule against any forms of surveillance that “preemptively interfere with unionization efforts”.
It also wants a law that allows independent contractors to unionize and the legalization of secondary boycotts, as well as better enforcement of the rules against companies by government departments including America’s trade watchdog the FTC and Department of Justice, as well as a ban on non-compete agreements and class action waivers.
In response to the allegations in the report, a spokesperson for Amazon told us: “Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian – be it corporate employee or fulfillment center associate and we measure actual performance against those expectations.
“Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour. We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”