Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, soon to be the world’s richest man, needs our help spending his money.
Not on cars, houses, spaceships or overpriced grocery stores, mind you. Rather, on philanthropy.
Bezos hasn’t said precisely how much of his estimated $80bn net worth he plans to give away in the coming years. Unlike business titans such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other members of the world’s 0.01 percent, who’ve declared their intention to give away the lion’s share of their vast wealth as part of “The Giving Pledge” project, Bezos has so far donated only a few tens of millions of dollars to charity.
It’s also clear that he’s seen the Washington Post, which he purchased in 2013, and his company Blue Origin, which develops technologies to move heavy industry off the planet in order to reduce its environmental impact, as charity efforts of a sort.
But now he wants to spend money to help change the world. “This tweet is a request for ideas … I’m thinking of a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time – working on the long term … [on businesses that] are contributing to society and civilization in their own ways.”
I’m not sure how much Amazon.com has contributed to civilisation, but there’s no doubt it’s made my life a lot easier, and probably those of many readers as well. Now, however, he wants to focus on “the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact”.
Like tens of thousands of other people, I tweeted Bezos my thoughts about what he could spend his money on. For me, grassroots media literacy and music projects, such as the Cmapping and Chicoco community projects I work with in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, offer a good model to empower highly marginalised communities in societies – whether the United States or global South – where they have little access to power holders.
But as I typed several 140 character messages hoping Bezos might find interesting, it also occurred to me: If Bezos has tens of billions of dollars to spare, why doesn’t he spend it closer to home – like on his own workers?
The founders of Amazon.com, Uber, facebook, Apple, Tesla and the rest of the new economy titans might well be 21st-century visionaries when it comes in product design and services. But a large share of their workforce is toiling in 19th-century conditions
Bezos might be shooting for the stars, but there is no way he’s not fully aware of how his warehouse workers back here on earth are fairing. Search “Amazon.com workers conditions” and you get 13,500,000 results in less than a second, the vast majority describing just how stressful, precarious, and often low-paying the jobs of the people who actually make sure our orders get on a truck are.
The New York Times describes the warehouses as “bruising workplaces”, where when you “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace of work, the only option is to “climb the wall” and work harder – back, foot, head, or arm injuries be damned. A Huffington Post expose revealed workplace deaths for overstressed temp workers.
Conditions overseas are even worse, with workers at a Scottish warehouse describing “intolerable conditions,” as revealed in a 2013 BBC documentary, Amazon The Truth Behind the Click, which produced calls for a parliamentary inquiry. Even German workers and their vaunted unions are struggling under brutal conditions in the Amazon jungle.
A large percentage of Amazon.com workers are paid close to minimum wage, and the latest technologies are being used not to improve overall productivity, but to squeeze ever more labour out of them for the same low wages. Think about this: “In 2016 alone, Bezos amassed $27.6bn, largely through the rise in the value of company shares. This amount is enough to pay each of Amazon’s worldwide employees a salary of $80,938, or a wage of roughly $39 per hour.”
In its warehouse in Tracy, CA, not far from San Francisco, wages start at $13.50 an hour, with a cap of $15 an hour. Presently the minimum wage in California is $10.50 and it is slated to rise to $15 by 2022. The national average for its wage workers is between $11-12 an hour. If you want to know how Amazon.com can afford to ship you everything for free in two days or less, this is certainly one of the main reasons why.
And Amazon.com’s cheap prices and free shipping have a spillover effect across the online sales industry and even retail stores, forcing everyone else to cut their prices to compete, which in turn demands depressed wages and bad working conditions to keep making a profit. This is the walmartisation of the online economy, and the consequences are as negative for workers in the “e-conomy” as they were for the workforce a generation ago, when Walmart became the Amazon.com of its day by undercutting competitors’ prices through ruthless efficiency and paying its workers so little they couldn’t afford to shop anywhere but Walmart.
Not surprisingly, today Amazon.com’s “sick brutality” is being described as worse than Walmart. Compare this to Henry Ford, who created an economic paradigm that lasted well over a half-century by paying his workers enough so they could afford his cars, thus helping create the very concept of a middle class and the American dream that came with it.
It’s worth noting that it’s not just Amazon.com’s warehouse workers who are suffering. At the white collar, corporate level, a 2015 investigation by the New York Times revealed “an intense, often cutthroat workplace where senior managers encourage their reports to attack one another’s ideas in meetings.”
Of course, Amazon.com is not alone in its workforce abuse problem. Media darling Tesla, which has made unmistakable contributions to the fight against global warming with its electric cars and now solar initiatives, still can’t manage to provide a work environment that doesn’t involve “long hours, low pay and unsafe conditions”. Facebook’s legions of “content moderators,” most of whom work on contract in developing countries, face similar conditions.
Uber might be under scrutiny for sexual harassment and a hyper-competitive corporate culture, but its drivers are suffering far worse than executives, with the company’s leasing programme for drivers locking many into predatory leases which, along with depressed wages (which are, in turn, lowering wages for taxi and other drivers) are literally driving people to homelessness.
The founders of Amazon.com, Uber, Facebook, Apple, Tesla and the rest of the new economy titans might well be 21st-century visionaries when it comes in product design and services. But a large share of their workforce is toiling in 19th-century conditions (the missing link that connects the two is, of course, the absence of strong unions to fight for the rights of wage workers today). If Jeff Bezos really wants to address an “urgent need and have lasting impact” he can start by paying his workers a living wage and ensuring safe work conditions.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the minumum wage in California is $15. It is actually $10.50.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern history at University of California, Irvine, and a distinguished visiting professor at Lund University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.