The conversation cranked open by the Amazon expose still hasn’t died down. The global tech giant’s workplace culture, you will remember, was dramatically depicted last week in a 10,000-word piece in the New York Times, from which emerged a cruel picture of a sort of futuristic, dystopian wage hell.
Employees past and current spoke of a terrifyingly punishing, mean, and hard-paced environment, where it is common to see colleagues crying at their desks, where staff are berated for not being available 24/7 and are encouraged to undermine each other, and where notions of compassion or humanity – “bereaved? Get back to work!”, “Miscarriage? Get over it!” – have long ago left the building.
Since then, the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos has shot back, claiming not to recognise the workplace described. A current employee took to LinkedIn to insist that the NYT piece was “blatantly incorrect”. Rebuffing the piece point by point, this Amazon manager wrote that Amazon may have been a hive of bad work practices in the past, but today, “Amazonians” – as staff are somewhat nauseatingly called – “come to work, do our best, have fun, and go home”.
Like some others weighing in on the issue, this “engineering leader” added that the company simply couldn’t attract and keep the cream of the tech crop if they behaved in the way described in the NYT piece.
No worse than others?
That last bit isn’t necessarily the case, though. First, because it’s fair to suppose – as some commentators have suggested – that Amazon is no worse than others in its field, or in the US’ high-ranking, white-collar workplace, more generally.
What’s more, while reams of research suggest that employees go past peak productivity if they are unhappily chained to their desks for extreme hours, it seems that the fierce competition over jobs coupled with the fear of being replaced – in our current austerity-raddled climate of wage stagnation, spiralling living costs, and no-frills contracts – might be enough to keep staff locked into such conditions.
Advanced capitalism has somehow taken workplace competitiveness, slavish hours and impossible, round-the-clock work demands and turned the whole into a good thing.
Moreover, advanced capitalism has somehow taken workplace competitiveness, slavish hours, and impossible, round-the-clock work demands and turned the whole into a good thing. And we lap it up, revelling in the hyper-competitive hard work, wearing it as a badge of honour and proof of our super-modern, professional status; after all, isn’t the repeated modern refrain “I’m so busy!” just a new status signifier?
Sure, crazy work demands might be taking a toll on your personal life, loved ones, health and wellbeing, but what’s not to love about thriving in a dynamic, innovative workplace? The preening subtext in all the talk around tech companies, in particular, is that some people just can’t take the pace; these shiny, buzzy workplaces are where the future happens, but, you know, not everyone can be a part of that.
Long ago, we accepted that the cost of our fast, disposable baubles – the stuff that makes advanced consumer capitalism go round – is an increasingly impoverished, exploited and largely unseen workforce.
For some years now, the sweatshops and call centres have been discussed and bemoaned and remained exactly the same. Remember the reports about high-street chains and global trainer brands exploiting mostly female labour, paying a pittance in unregulated factories? It’s all still going on – and if anything, is getting worse.
And what about when we found out that some of our mobile phone and laptop components are “conflict minerals”, and the mining of which fuels conflict in the developing world?
Appalling warehouse conditions
Amazon isn’t the first US giant to be subjected to scrutiny over punishing workplace practices; that other great US retailer, Walmart, was similarly castigated over a decade ago.
But Amazon also came under fire a few years ago for its appalling warehouse conditions. One of the tech industry’s most admired companies, Amazon was described as running “slave camp” conditions in the UK: timing warehouse staff’s toilet breaks, penalising them for talking, having them walk 11 miles in the course of a working day – all for around 6.50 pounds ($10.25) an hour.
Meanwhile in the US, on top of the mandatory overtime and pushing workloads, Amazon’s giant warehouses became so overheated that it parked paramedics outside the building, ready to treat staff suffering heat stress and dehydration. Amazon issued rebuttals to accusations on both sides of the Atlantic and reported it had installed air conditioning units in warehouses, which, in company-speak, are called “fulfilment centres”.
We know all this, but we also know that Amazon is really good at delivering a dazzling array of products to our doorstep – and really fast. Just as we know that Walmart and others conveniently sell pretty much everything at low-cost and in one space.
The two things are joined, of course, but who dwells on the connection? It’s too much to think about – not just because to do so might mean giving up the convenience offered up by companies like Amazon, but because the change needed is so much more systemic, fundamental and far-reaching. Entire systems, societies and lives are constructed around consumer capitalism: To contemplate doing something different is, on an individual level, just impossibly daunting.
And the genius of this set-up is that it has managed to keep both ends of the workforce – factory and fun, happy office space – caught, in various ways and with varying degrees of pressure (and, of course, with varying degrees of choice), in this modern – but so Victorian – work culture. The reports keep coming out: The latest in the UK warning that working long hours makes us 33 percent more likely to have strokes.
But still we go on, maybe wondering somewhere deep inside: Is this what I want? Is this how life should be? Can it ever be anything else?
And meanwhile, after a week of outraged commentary and calls to boycott the company, Amazon has emerged unscathed. The stock market responded to all of this with what one report described as the “equivalent of an emoticon shrug“.
For a moment, maybe, the story caused a tiny ripple in our social fabric, a little bit of turbulence, a possibility of doubt – but now all is calm again – at least on the surface.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.