Efforts to elevate labour concerns come amid allegations of monopolistic practices and environmental racism.
Amazon.com Inc CEO Jeff Bezos hands over the reins to his successor on Monday, marking the end of an era at the internet giant supercharged by new business growth.
Andy Jassy, until now the head of Amazon Web Services, is becoming the company’s chief executive on July 5, the same date the e-commerce firm originally incorporated in 1994.
Bezos ran the mammoth technology corporation across three decades, building it into a dominant force in online retail, cloud hosting, media production and artificial intelligence.
In his new role as executive chairman, the world’s wealthiest person — with a net worth of almost $200bn, according to the Forbes index — will spend much of his time working tangentially on space exploration and climate projects.
Bezos will not exactly be taking a breather, though. He and his brother, Mark, will blast off on July 20 in the first human flight for Blue Origin LLC, Amazon’s privately held sister company.
While Amazon admirers see his role in expanding the company as a heroic mission to give everyday shoppers low-cost access to any item under the sun, his detractors suggest the Bezos ethos has contributed to poor working conditions and harmful monopolistic practices.
Amazon has also faced increasing pressure from antitrust regulators examining whether its market dominance harms consumers, or if the company has simply been effective at vanquishing the competition in a fair but ruthless fight for market share.
How will Bezos — the man, the myth, the legend — be remembered as a new CEO takes over at Amazon? And how will the firm’s $1.75 trillion market capitalisation change as he steps aside amid loud calls by critics to break up the conglomerate?
Bezos turned Amazon from a fledgling online bookstore into a massive internet institution that currently ranks as both the world’s biggest digital sales firm and internet company by revenue.
Beyond its web marketplace, Amazon is also the number-one cloud services provider and “Alexa” is the top virtual assistant worldwide.
“He has to go down in American history as one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time, up there with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
“Back in 1994, you could see that computing power was doubling every 18 months, and they knew at some point that you would have hand-held devices like the iPhone that would make connectivity vastly faster and cheaper,” he told Al Jazeera.
“[Bezos] saw those trends and had a transformative effect on how people buy things,” Atkinson added.
He said that creating Amazon Prime, a subscription service for quicker shopping delivery and streaming premium media content that now serves 200 million people, was a key move that made Bezos a trailblazer — failures like the Fire Phone notwithstanding.
Atkinson also emphasised the company’s wave of automation, machine learning and robotics, citing these breakthroughs as ultimately beneficial for workers. The company added 500,000 workers in 2020 alone and now employs 1.3 million people worldwide.
Although technology advocates believe these advances will make life easier for manual labourers and enrich society in the United States and elsewhere, sceptics have their doubts.
Jobs in Amazon’s fulfillment centres are highly taxing, with the company taking political flack for not treating its labour force better. Activists hoped in vain — following a failed unionisation drive in Alabama — that a shareholder resolution in May would land an hourly worker on the board.
Lebaron Sims, associate director of policy and research at progressive think-tank Demos, told Al Jazeera that Amazon’s ascent bears strong similarities to big-box retailer Walmart’s trajectory.
“Amazon’s version is not as insidious or parasitic, but is much grander in its scale,” said Sims, referring to both of “their rock-bottom prices led by rock-bottom wages”.
“The way I will remember [Bezos] and his lasting legacy will be an almost shockingly cynical and bleak worldview that has informed Amazon’s institutional design and how it relates to rank-and-file delivery workers,” Sims added, suggesting that the outgoing CEO sees warehouse workers as “lazy” and has relied on “constant surveillance and threats to supervise their work”.
The company has faced recent controversy for denying that its drivers are forced to urinate in water bottles. And contractors have spoken out against being terminated via email by rogue algorithms, despite apparently doing nothing wrong.
“The turnover, churn, and physical exploitation are baked into every level of their business model,” said Sims, calling employees “serfs reliant solely on the graciousness of their lord”.
“But this essential [Amazon] infrastructure of the internet is a remarkable testament to Bezos’s vision, whether you think that vision is reasonable or not, scary or not,” said Sims.
Other critics say that Amazon ending hazard pay in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic — a booming period for its business — was wrong.
Meanwhile, investments in research and development helped the company take massive tax breaks of $2.3bn in 2020, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
On Wednesday, Amazon requested that new US Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan recuse herself from investigating the company because of her past antitrust criticisms – a move that came just weeks after the District of Columbia’s attorney general filed a suit accusing Amazon of price-fixing.
‘What makes us special’
On top of the Whole Foods Market purchase in 2017, new directions for the company could pay off — if risky bets like Amazon Care, an on-demand telehealth service to launch this summer, and Project Kuiper, a satellite broadband initiative, turn out to be good business decisions.
Looking ahead, Amazon aims to disrupt the challenging healthcare and telecom industries, which face massive headwinds in offering affordable prices for the best available technology.
An employee email that Bezos sent in February confirmed that he will spend much of his time going forward largely on his non-Amazon projects. But as executive chair of Amazon, he will still be involved in key strategic initiatives such as labour safety — like trying to reduce the rate of musculoskeletal disorders, which comprise 40 percent of the company’s workplace injuries.
With his Washington Post newspaper evolving past the “Trump bump” in which digital subscriptions tripled, 57-year-old Bezos has plenty to keep him busy outside of Amazon.
The outgoing CEO plans to devote considerable attention to the Bezos Earth Fund, a private philanthropic effort to solve the crucial problem of global warming to the tune of $1bn per year over the next decade.
However, environmental stewards within Amazon argue that more can be done from within their opaque Seattle boardroom.
“Amazon’s climate goals do not yet reach the scale or understanding we need,” said a statement from Amazon Employees for Climate Justice provided to Al Jazeera, recommending that the corporation shoot for zero emissions by 2030.
They added: “Amazon has yet to acknowledge that its pollution is concentrated in communities of color”.
But Bezos is increasingly oriented toward outer space, where his Blue Origin has seen a series of engineering successes. Yet the jury is still out on whether the Bezos-funded outfit is more a vanity project for wealthy space tourists or a vehicle to launch Amazon satellites into the ether.
Either way, in his March 2021 Amazon shareholder letter, Bezos set a sky-high bar for his successor: “I guarantee you that Andy won’t let the universe make us typical.”
“He will muster the energy needed to keep alive in us what makes us special,” Bezos wrote. “That won’t be easy, but it is critical,” he added, alluding to his own upcoming change of focus.
“What motivates people like Bezos is not running companies, but building companies,” said Atkinson, the ITIF think-tank president. “Builders don’t like managing. They like building.”