Beyond a Living Wage: Protecting Workers in the Era of Amazon

By: Kathy Johnson

Amazon recently unveiled a plan to tackle climate change. While discussing the plans, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, indicated that Amazon wanted to be a role model in the industry. This type of corporate initiative seems like a win for the environment, but the promise to protect the environment rings empty when one does not protect its people. Current laws that protect workers, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), guarantee a federal minimum wage and protect people against hazardous materials found on work sites. These laws focus on problems workers have faced in the past, and remain relevant today, but they fail to take into account new technology which may necessitate further protections for workers. Amazon fulfillment service workers work under the reins of this technology, working through inhumane conditions every day. The fact that Amazon has granted full time employees a $15 minimum wage is not enough to say that Amazon treats its workers fairly. If Amazon wants to be a leader, it must change the way it treats its workers, and if it does not, the law should step in to protect workers from inhumane practices.

A living wage and the protection of the environment are necessary for a good life, but they are insufficient to live a fulfilling life. We must not only give people a living wage but protect their human dignity as well. Amazon workers at fulfillment centers are allowed no inefficiency. A worker is given a scan gun which tells them which tasks to complete and how fast to complete them. One must work at a certain rate, indicated by the scanner, in order to stay afloat and not get a warning from a manager. Some scanners show a graph that turns green, yellow, or red to indicate how fast one works. This creates prolonged mental stress in workers, who must race the clock every second of their shift to feel secure in their jobs. On top of this, getting water and taking bathroom breaks are counted against your rate, so to keep up, one must avoid these activities or work twice as hard to catch up after getting water or using the bathroom. OSHA requires that companies provide bathrooms for their employees. People should also be able to use the bathroom when they need to use it, without fear that they will fail to meet the rate.

On Prime Day in July 2019, workers in Shakopee, Minnesota voiced their dissatisfaction with these inhumane conditions by striking. Workers held signs, one which said, “We’re Human NOT Robots.” Working like a robot is unsustainable, but by this past July, Amazon had an expected rate that everyone at the Shakopee fulfillment center would process an order every 10 to 20 seconds. To institute this type of rate, Amazon must view its workers as disposable and easily replaceable because humans cannot work at that rate for years on end, and physical harm may come from this pace, such as dehydration because workers do not want to waste time getting water or using the bathroom. Furthermore, Amazon’s commitment to a $15 minimum wage is not as powerful in conjunction with this inhumane treatment. Due to Amazon’s robotic rate, there is a high amount of turnover, so the $15 minimum wage seems more like a temporary respite instead of a promise of a living wage.

If Amazon wants to be an industry leader, it must look closer to home and go beyond a living wage for its workers. Protecting the environment is an important goal, but protecting the environment falls short when the people living in it face inhumane treatment. If Amazon cannot or will not make this fix on their own, then current labor laws should be amended to ensure that regular bodily needs such as using the bathroom or getting water do not count against someone’s efficiency level when this level is a major factor in monitoring the employee’s performance. Necessitating a rest period for workers may not be necessary, but the law should ensure that workers are not pushed beyond reasonable levels of efficiency that border on the robotic. Workers should be able to thrive, not just survive their lives, and this starts with humane conditions in the workplace.

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