Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Amazon.com: Profit is not Everything

One would assume these are good days for Amazon.com. They continue to report growing profits even after massive long-term investment to sustain and propel their growth. The Kindle, already a bestseller, has repositioned to include a considerably cheaper tablet and even a challenger to the iPad at half the price. The company personifies, in many ways, how a business should be run, building on one success to fuel another.

Hot is the theme at Amazon.com these days.

What Amazon doesn’t need is to personify the negative aspects of big business. Last month, allegations spread across the Internet and into the newspapers that the workers in Amazon’s warehouses were subjected to extreme temperature conditions and mandatory overtime.

One ex-employee, Elmer Goris, who worked for ten years at the Lehigh Valley warehouse packing and shipping books, CDs and other products, quit because he had enough of the conditions.

During the heat wave this summer, the temperature rose to above 100 degrees. Workers passed out and paramedics were wheeling them out of the building.

“I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one,” Goris said. “They can do that because there aren’t any jobs in the area.”

Amazon.com management clearly knew there was a problem as they parked ambulances from a local company, Cetronia Ambulance Corps, outside the plant with paramedics ready to immediately respond to workers in physical distress, with heat stress and dehydration being the most common. Many workers took a few moments to recover and returned to work. Others were sent home or to the local hospital.

Production wasn’t effected, apparently, because there was a line of people ready to take their places. In a recession-hit town, a job, even a temporary for $11-$12/hr lugging merchandize in a hot warehouse, is still a precious job. Amazon outsources their hiring to a temporary employment firm ironically called Integrity Staffing Solutions, who are quick and efficient at replacing workers.

Federal Regulators were brought in after an ER doctor reported an “unsafe environment” having seen so many patients in a short spell of time from the Amazon.com warehouse. 

Workers reported that production rate was everything and they were constantly warned that termination was the consequence of not keeping up. Such workers were escorted from the building in full view of their co-workers, a clear warning that this was no idle threat.

Amazon.com have apparently refused to have management interviewed. They issued a statement  on their website and while admitting to “multiple” temperature problems at the warehouse, which included “low temperature events” as well as “high temperature events,” they were working quickly to address the problems.

Amazon even showed how their warehouses are safer than comparable environments including car assembly plants, general warehouses and department stores, using data from the Bureau of Labor statistics.

I truly hope that Amazon.com are addressing the working conditions in their warehouses. Many of us, though too few, are turning away from companies that manufacture in third world countries where they are free of oversight and can employ child labor in sweatshop conditions. This should be a bigger and more prevalent campaign, but certainly such conditions, which can only take hold in an economic recession, cannot be tolerated.

Amazon.com should be congratulated on their economic growth, especially during a recession. Their innovation is cutting edge, and their commitment to long-term investment should be applauded. However, many of their customers, myself included, will not stay loyal just because the price is right. Jeff Bezoz might want to give the Walton family a call over at Walmart.

And while you are listening, Jeff, I wrote you a letter a while back, with what I thought was a pretty good idea.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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