Amazon.com is running a sweat shop in Pennsylvania, Spencer Soper reports for The Morning Call. A two-month investigation revealed that, during the summer, the world’s largest online retailer subjected warehouse workers in Lehigh Valley, PA to sweltering temperatures and a punishing pace of work:
During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.
An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor’s report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.
Amazon’s warehouse is a microcosm of the new economy. The warehouse is strategically located to put its contents within a day’s drive of a third of the population of the U.S. and Canada. If you’ve ordered someting from Amazon on the East Coast, there’s a good chance your order passed through here. Competition is fierce for these jobs, which pay between $11 and $12/hr.
A carefully cultivated climate of insecurity is integral to Amazon’s business model. Temporary workers work side-by-side with Amazon employees. Employees have little job security and temps have none. High turnover makes labor organizing difficult:
Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.
Amazon swears that when the heat index rises dangerously high, workers can take unpaid time off without jeopardizing their jobs. “When the heat index exceeded 110, they’d give you voluntary time off,” former warehouse employee Robert Rivas recalled, “If you wanted to go home, they’d send you home. But if you didn’t have a doctor’s note saying you couldn’t work in the heat, you’d get points.” Some workers said the policy had since changed. However, workers flatly contradicted Amazon’s claim that it gave workers regular breaks when it was hot out.
With minimal job security, the theoretical option of taking unpaid time off doesn’t change the pressure that workers face to “make rate” despite the heat. Soper has plenty of examples of workers who pushed through even though they had illnesses, like hypertension and asthma, that made the heat especially dangerous for them. They could have gotten notes, but they needed the money, or hoped to get a permanent job.
Amazon is hailed as a business success story. The company generated over $34 billion in revenues in 2010 and CEO Jeff Bezos is the the 30th-richest man in the world.
Amazon revolutionized retail by making everything from books to lawnmowers available at low prices, with lightning fast shipping. Unfortunately, the human cost of these low prices is almost completely hidden from the public.
Kudos to Spencer Soper and The Morning Call for bringing Amazon’s exploitative practices to light.
[Photo credit: Katkamin, Creative Commons.]