By Kevin Meyer
Take a look at the following quotes from an article on worker abuse. I've purposely redacted the company and location identifying information.
"As long as my body holds up, I will keep working. But the way it feels, I don't know how long that will be."
… a warehouse safety worker… instructed him to tell emergency workers that his hip injury was not work-related, even though he says it was.
… an investigation of… warehouse operations last year… also found indoor temperatures soared so high that… had ambulances parked outside to take workers to the hospital. [Sorry – I just have to add "ARE YOU FRIGGIN' KIDDING ME??" to this one.]
… pressure to manage injuries so they would not have to be reported, such as attributing workplace injuries to pre-existing conditions or treating wounds in a way that did not trigger reports.
A former warehouse safety official said in-house medical staff were asked to treat wounds, when possible, with bandages rather than refer workers to a doctor for stitches that could trigger reports. And warehouse officials tried to advise doctors on how to treat injured workers.
"This was just a brutal place to work."
"They would have meetings on how we could get rid of people who were hurt. It was horrible."
I could add several more, but I'll stop there. I'm betting most of you think I'm quoting from yet another report on Apple's Foxconn supplier in China, right? Or at least some other sweatshop operation deep in Asia or Latin America?
Nope. It's Amazon, in Campbellsville, Kentucky. Last time I checked that's in the USA.
How can we rant and rave against working conditions overseas when we allow the same here? Sure, there aren't suicide nets around the top of worker dormitories and 100 hour weeks probably don't happen. Still, the similarities are eerie, including that it's another high profile tech company.
It's unacceptable. And we wonder why unions still exist – once again it's because of pathetic management that gives the rest of us a really bad name. The rest of us that understand that there's a valuable brain attached to the supposedly costly pair of hands, and that it makes great business sense to take very good care of that brain.
One last quote from the article on the vicious cycle that begins once you start circling the drain of worker abuse:
But over time, said former workers at Campbellsville, production pressure from headquarters intensified amid constant turnover. "There would be phone conferences [with Seattle], and all this screaming, about production numbers. That was always the problem; the production numbers weren't high enough," said a former safety manager with oversight of the warehouse who spoke on condition of anonymity.
If you treat your "most valuable asset" (how much you want to bet that Amazon has that buried in a mission or vision statement somewhere…) like crap, they eventually leave, and you have to figure out how to make up the difference. Either by working the remaining poor souls harder or by finding even poorer souls willing to work in such a hell.
Of course Evolving Excellence readers know a better way. Leverage the power of their brains to improve processes which will improve quality and efficiency – value. And take care of those valuable brains.
Christopher Mahan says
I read that article a while back too. I still haven’t ordered a single thing from amazon yet since. I have a $100 amazon gift certificate a client of mine sent me for christmas. I’ll just let it sit there until it rots.
Tom Mac Dermott says
No system that relies on driving exhausted workers to produce more faster is going to be effective and efficient. Neither is a system that relies on high turnover (which is a strategy to keep a union from getting a toehold in the workforce).
As a former employer of workers in low to medium skill manual jobs, I know that an 8 hour day with at least one 30 min. meal break and two 10 to 15 min. rest breaks is the most effective way to operate efficiently.
If the conditions descried here and elsewhere (a NPR story a few weeks ago) are true, where are the unions? Why aren’t they trying to organize?
Right now, somewhere some bright young person or group is developing a computerized, automatic way to pick items in a warehouse that will make this kind of job obsolete.
Joe Montgomery says
Wow, that is just shocking… We just assume it happens all around the world but never here. I’m just amazed that the type of people that make these types of decisions are put in positions of power. Something is wrong with an organization that lets that happen.
John Hunter says
It is very disheartening the lack of respect for people Amazon and Apple have exhibited. Sadly far too many people at large companies fail to act on principles of respecting people.
I do think Amazon and Apple do many things very well. That they have practices that can be criticized I don’t think of as very amazing. It is not easy to run very large companies and not have some issues. I question however, the effort these companies have put into these areas in the last 5 years. Both of these companies have had well know issues in these areas and I do not think either has done enough. I actually think Apple’s behavior has been significantly better.
Amazon’s continued failure to respect workers is bad. The other big area Amazon is failing on is the respect for community principles Deming and Toyota (lean) emphasis with their heavy handed tactics to strong arm politicians into letting Amazon avoid doing their part to collect sales tax. I understand Amazon’s arguments which are decent for a tiny company, but lousy for a company like Amazon. I do agree a compromise to simplify the tax collection rules would be good.
Nelson R Nett says
I work in sight of Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, and have friends and neighbors that work within AMZN corporate HQ. From stories related to me by them, the lack of respect for people is not something that is unique to Amazon’s warehouses, but is endemic throughout the organization – high turnover and “brain drain” is an ongoing problem for the entire company. A fulfillment executive I know told me that the warehouse conditions “can’t really be helped,” and that attitude seems to be applied to the rest of the business as well.
The odd thing is – I kid you not – Amazon truly believes that they are a standard-bearer for lean today. I bet their internal lean seminars are fascinating…
Mark Welch says
Let’s do a little 5 Whys on why the abuse occurs.
Why are workers abused? Management wants higher production.
Why does management want higher production? Greed.
Hmmm… I guess it only took 2 whys.
Andy Walker says
I have no firsthand experience with large scale warehouse fulfillment, if a comment I make is off base please feel free to educate me. However I did spend my time bartending for tips and working as a flat-rate mechanic.
Would it be fair to pay employees per piece pulled? Possibly assigning each employee a “territory” and for each item they pull they get a flat rate. What if each item has a given rate for being pulled; an HDMI cable may pay a penny, whereas a large TV pays fifty cents. This would tie in with the ROWE strategy and be similar to piece work, waiting tables, or being a flat rate mechanic.
Are we overlooking the basics of supply and demand when it comes to labor? This is not forced labor. While Amazon may be the largest employer it is surely not the only building cutting paychecks within an hour drive. If Amazon cannot find people to work in their conditions for their wages, then they have to either improve conditions or wages. However it is likely that outsiders would relocate to fill the vacated positions at the same conditions and labor rate.
Possibly I am just young and naïve. But I believe a performance based pay system could make things more “fair” and if not the free market labor economy should. If things are truly that deplorable than the community should break out the pitch fork and lanterns, form a union, and revolt.
They don’t leave and they aren’t the “most valuable asset” to these companies. No, for these people, it isn’t a choice between working in a warehouse and going to Harvard. It’s a choice between working in a warehouse and working at McDonalds, which, is to say, it’s not much of a choice at all.
Employers know this. They know when they settle in in rural or southern locations (places with limited social mobility) that the lack of alternative, viable employment opportunities enhances their employees “loyalty” (or at least their productivity) and they act accordingly to maximize productivity while minimizing the expense of their human capital assets.