From the archive: Amazon – Let’s be evil, apparently

Michael Harris /   August 18, 2015 at 6:00 PM 12,337 views


While the Labour Party turns inwards and bitter, the real world of capitalist commerce marches on. Perhaps today’s least surprising news is that Amazon is a less-than-pleasant place to work.

In a lengthy investigation, the New York Times reports that: “[Amazon] is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.”

A few excerpts, just to provide a flavour:

“At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.”

Just like it does to its customers, data is used to monitor employees relentlessly. It’s long been known that employees in Amazon’s warehouses are electronically monitored to make sure they are working sufficiently quickly. What the Times reveals is how its executives are similarly pressured:

“Amazon employees are held accountable for a staggering array of metrics, a process that unfolds in what can be anxiety-provoking sessions called business reviews, held weekly or monthly among various teams. …Because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year, it is in everyone’s interest to outperform everyone else. …“[P]urposeful Darwinism,” one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.”

For such a self-proclaimed great place to work, Amazon seems to have some strange practices:

“Even low-level employees sign a lengthy confidentiality agreement. …Amazon retains new workers in part by requiring them to repay a part of their signing bonus if they leave within a year, and a portion of their hefty relocation fees if they leave within two years. …In interviews, 40-year-old men were convinced Amazon would replace them with 30-year-olds who could put in more hours, and 30-year-olds were sure that the company preferred to hire 20-somethings who would outwork them. …A 2013 survey …put the median employee tenure at one year, among the briefest in the Fortune 500. …[Amazon claims that] [t]urnover is consistent with others in the technology industry …but declined to disclose any data.”

And for a company at the cutting-edge of capitalism, it’s bizarre (or perhaps not) how much like Maoism or some other oppressive cult this sounds:

“[M]any [employees] said the culture stoked their willingness to erode work-life boundaries, castigate themselves for shortcomings (being “vocally self-critical” is included in the description of the leadership principles) and try to impress a company that can often feel like an insatiable taskmaster. Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at [Amazon’s] campus can be extreme… [One employee] said they had internalized Amazon’s priorities.”

But why would we have expected anything different, given how the company treats the rest of the world:

It’s darkly ironic that Amazon is so obsessed with ‘transparency’ about how its employees and customers behave, but when it comes to understanding how the business actually works and what parts of it make money (and which lose millions as a result of its founder’s whims), it’s one of the least understandable businesses on the stock markets.

Is Amazon evil? What more would it have to do to suggest it is?

As the Times notes, last month Amazon passed Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the US with a market valuation of $250 billion. It reportedly aims to be the first trillion-dollar retailer; Jeff Bezos is already the fifth-richest person on earth. What’s perhaps even more worrying is that he seems to believe his company represents the future of the workplace.

Given that our politicians can’t or won’t do anything about such companies, the culture, and their impact on our economy and society, then of course it comes down to us.

Boycott Amazon.

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