Hightower: This holiday season, think about the Amazon workers

Hightower: This holiday season, think about the Amazon workers
Postal clerk Airmen inventory packages at the post office at RAF Mildenhall, England, May 19, 2020. Newly arrived packages are in-processed to ensure accountability of mail and alert customers to when their order has arrived. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joseph Barron)
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During the hectic holiday shopping season, Jeff Bezos' Amazon may seem like a great option, especially for us procrastinators. Anything you want can be shipped directly to your doorstep. All it takes is a few clicks on the Amazon website — and, of course, some of your hard-earned money.

The media sings the praises of Bezos' concept and business. But what you may not know is that, as head of the Amazon beast, Bezos is hard on his labor force. In fact, he was awarded a less-coveted prize by the International Trade Union Confederation in 2014: "World's Worst Boss."

Consider one of the most difficult of Amazon jobs: the "pickers." In each warehouse, hundreds of them are simultaneously scrambling throughout a maze of shelves to grab products. This is hard, physically painful labor for two reasons. First, pickers reportedly must speed-walk on concrete an average of a dozen miles a day, for an Amazon warehouse is shockingly big — more than 16 football fields big, or eight city blocks. Then, there are miles of 7-foot-high shelves running along the narrow aisles on each floor of the three-story buildings, requiring the swarm of pickers to stoop continuously. They are directed to each target by handheld computers. For example, "Electric Flour Sifters: Dallas sector, section yellow, row H34, bin 22, level D." Then, they scan the pick and put it on the right track of the seven miles of conveyor belts running through the facility, immediately after which they're dispatched by the computer to find the next product.

Second, the pace is hellish. The pickers' computers don't just dictate where they're to go next but how many seconds Amazon's time-motion experts have calculated it should take them to get there. The scanners also record the time each worker actually takes — information that is fed directly into a central, all-knowing computer. The times of every picker are reviewed and scored by managers who apparently have an unmerciful mandate to fire those exceeding their allotted seconds.

All this for $15 to $17 an hour. But few make even that much, for they don't get year-round work. Rather, Amazon's warehouse employees are "contingent" hires, meaning they are temporary, seasonal, part-time laborers entirely subject to the employer's whim. Worker advocates refer to these jobs as "precarious." On the one hand, when sales slack off, you're let go; on the other hand, when sales perk up and managers demand you do a 12-hour shift with no notice, you must do it or be fired. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Election Day, July 4 or (for God's sake) Labor Day — don't even think of taking those days off.

Also, technically, you don't actually work for Bezos. You're hired by temp agencies with Orwellian names like Integrity Staffing Solutions, or by such warehouse operators as Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. that do the retailer's dirty work. This gives Amazon plausible deniability about your treatment — and it means you have no labor rights, for you are an independent contractor. No health care, no vacation time, no scheduled raises, no promotion track, no route to a full-time or permanent job, no regular schedule, no job protection and — of course — no union. Bezos would rather get COVID-19 than be infected with a union in his realm, and he has gone all out with intimidation tactics, plus hiring a notorious union-busting firm to crush any whisper of worker organization.

Jeff Bezos is no Santa. His treatment of workers is downright disgusting. We can let him know there are alternatives to his Amazon by doing our holiday shopping at locally owned, independent businesses. Visit the American Independent Business Alliance website to get started.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

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