The Amazon warehouse — a space for creating and regulating efficient workers

Amazon’s problematic and questionable business practices have received a lot of press over the past few years. Yet, their chokehold on retail stands. What are the modes of production that make it easy to participate and be complicit with corporations that hold problematic ideologies? This questioning should never be about shaming each other for using these services, but rather trying to unpack the reasons why to try to create the conditions to support alternate business practices.

Amazon chokehold on retail

Amazon uses GPS to track the minute activities of the bodies of its employees. Upon further searching Tesco (a big box chain in Europe) also does this. The idea of using GPS bands to monitor the exact movement of workers is of interest to us —the regulation of bodies and the production of spaces to accommodate such regulation. In particular, we should also ask how dominant powers use technology to maintain power.

I have picked out some crucial points below from a 2011 in-depth article on Amazon warehouse issues which includes detailed worker interviews. Focused on the ways in which Amazon let temperatures rise to above 114 F (45.5 C!) in one of their warehouses, it opens up discourse around the problematic business practices of Amazon that basically sees its workers as drones able to fulfill their quotas (an abstract mathematical system of economic power). The piece also outlines the ways in which Amazon dealt with issues of the heat as well as the extreme surveillance and discipline imposed on its warehouse workers. At first, Amazon didn’t do anything about the heat, and then later they tried to cover up that it was such a problem, installing a small amount of fans, providing cooling bandanas, and simply firing those who had a problem and couldn’t cope with the harsh conditions.

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems.

Both permanent and temporary employees are subject to a point-based disciplinary system. Employees accumulate points for such infractions as missing work, not working fast enough or breaking a safety rule such as keeping two hands on an inventory cart. If they get too many points, they can be fired. Workers use hand-held scanners to track inventory as it moves through the warehouse, which enables managers to monitor productivity minute by minute, employees said.

Goris, the Allentown resident who worked as a permanent Amazon employee, said high temperatures were handled differently at other warehouses in which he worked. For instance, loading dock doors on opposite sides of those warehouses were left open to let fresh air circulate and reduce the temperature when it got too hot, he said. When Amazon workers asked in meetings why this wasn’t done at the Amazon warehouse, managers said the company was worried about theft.

Computers monitored the heat index in the building and Amazon employees received notification about the heat index by email. Goris said one day the heat index, a measure that considers humidity, exceeded 110 degrees (43.3 C!) on the third floor.

Salasky (44 years old) had worked as a waitress, so she didn’t mind being on her feet all day. And she enjoyed the walking, which she considered good exercise. But she said she grew frustrated when she received a warning letter in March from a manager stating she had been unproductive during several minutes of her shift.

Mark Zweifel, 22, of Coopersburg worked in the warehouse as a permanent Amazon employee for more than a year until he was fired Sept. 9, he said. His primary job was on the receiving line, unloading inventory from boxes, scanning bar codes and loading products into totes so stowers could store them in bins. He had previous shipping industry experience and liked the job for the first six months, but then he said the productivity rate abruptly doubled one day from 250 units per hour for smaller items to 500 units per hour.

Employees were threatened with termination on a daily basis during meetings at the beginning of their shifts, Zweifel said. Amazon managers used tough talk to motivate workers, he said.

Another worker in his 50s was expected to pick 1,200 items in a 10-hour shift, or one item every 30 seconds.

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