Amazon's Giant Hypocrisy

There’s a cliché about Seattle’s biggest corporations.


Boeing is the extortionist, after threatening to move without billions in new tax breaks. Starbucks is the litigator, being sued for ripping up big contracts and hoarding barista tips. Microsoft is the monopolist, from trying to rule the world’s computer operating systems. And Amazon is now earning the title of the hypocrite, for giving millions to local causes but not raising hourly pay for warehouse workers across the country—people who hustle in the hot and cold when we click the buy button.

The giant online retailer has bought multi-million dollar streetcars for Seattle. It’s bankrolled a city Museum of History and Industry. It’s built office towers and housing during the recession, lifting the construction business. It’s responsible for 100,000 hotel stays annually. All this and more comes from Amazon selling everything online, including books on why a higher minimum wage is needed.

Earlier this month, Amazon’s home city raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. It will be phased in over the next few years—starting with Seattle’s biggest employers in 2017 who don’t provide healthcare. Washington state already has the highest minimum wage, $9.32. According to the Seattle Mayor’s office, 24 percent of city residents earn $15 an hour or less. That’s not most of Amazon’s Seattle employees; people managing its shopping empire.

You have to go to far-flung locales to find most of Amazon’s low-wage workers. Cities like Jeffersonville, Indiana, where its agency, IntegrityStaffing.com, has warehouse jobs paying “up to $11 an hour.” Or to Las Vegas, Nevada, where the hourly rate is “up to $12.50.” Or Cleveland, Tennessee, where it’s “up to $11.50.” A half-dozen other small cities all have warehouse jobs under $15 an hour, according to Integrity. This army of workers might wish they were on Amazon’s home turf, but they’re not. And corporate headquarters is not giving any indication that it’s going to raise their pay.

TheStranger.com is a Seattle-based news website that has written about how Amazon’s selective local largesse hasn’t just lifted the Seattle economy; it’s also bought silence in a progressive city from people who otherwise would be concerned about harsh corporate practices. Amazon is now in a nasty battle with the Hatchette Book Group over pricing e-books. It is playing hardball by pulling titles from its online shelf. When the Stranger sent a reporter down the street to get comments from Amazon employees about that fight, one said something that eerily applies to the question of whether the corporation should honor Seattle’s minimum wage in 20-odd states where its “fulfillment centers” are found.

“Amazon is really frugal,” the employee replied. “I think the acquisition of Kiva, the robotics company, will improve conditions in the warehouses.” Another example of frugality: Microsoft and Google “give a lot of free food. Whereas Amazon only supplies very poor coffee. We don’t get many perks.”

Amazon’s pubic relations department did not respond to AlterNet’s questions about what impact Seattle’s higher floor wage would have on warehouse workers nationwide. But its “customer-first” ethic does not seem to be matched by its treatment of warehouse staff.

Like WalMart, its reputation is not very good. The Seattle Times has reprinted reports from newspapers in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley describing warehouse temperatures that topped 100 degrees and supervisors disciplining employees who went home early from heat exposure. Workers who could not meet quotas “were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were constantly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse.”

Even move vivid accounts came in the comments to this feature on AllThingsD.com that posted pictures from inside an Amazon fulfillment center.

“Crying poor as they build new fulfillment centers all over the country and world at break neck pace and all time highs in your stock tells me you can afford it,” az1234 wrote. “In my six years, most managers I’ve witnessed have zero people or communication skills. Reasons you ask? They acquire most through former military and young kids with recent college degrees but little of any job experience… The ones from the military who become managers think they are still in the military by the way they speak and treat the employees.”      

“Forget the photo’s - ask the employees about their day,” wrote BarneyFife. “Amazon hires through a temp agency called INTEGRITY where it is more of a, if “you’re warm and can pass a drug test” you can work 10 hour days and 15 miles+ a day at walking. Yes, I said 15 miles+ a day, pushing a cart and using a hand scanner, - that you are timed as a job-keeping requirement - to locate items to put onto a six mile long conveyor belt.

BarneyFife’s concluding remarks underscore why Amazon will not be jumping to follow Seattle’s minimum wage example.

“Does Amazon have good prices? Yes. Good online help? Yes. Do the locals who fill the orders work in shameful conditions? Yes,” he said. “Would it be easier to maintain help if the shifts were only eight hours a day? Yes. Should they allow new hire[s] to have a gradual schedule to building up to walking the Bataan Death March? Yes. Does Amazon do this simple and obvious step? NO - Because profit is all it cares about.”

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