Sweatshop Labor: Behind Amazon's Low Prices and Free Shipping

Sunnie Yi Ning '18 Staff Writer 

Amazon, the biggest online sales company, is probably not the right choice for you. For years, continuous complaints and reports about Amazon’s warehouse workers demonstrate that the company provides poor working conditions and demands for unreasonably high output. Amazon warehouses are sweatshops.

In the book “Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans” by Simon Head, a prestigious scholar on workers’ conditions and capitalism’s influence, the author reports that in order to increase the speed for sorting and packing, “Amazon achieves their goal with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older employees will begin to fail.” Often, Amazon management without explanation or warning, declares higher output targets, and if not met, workers are often warned and then fired.

Employers track their warehouse workers minute by minute with a monitoring device that includes information such as their movements between loading and unloading. Alongside the machine monitors, there are also “functional foremen,” who record, among many other things, how many times a worker goes to the bathroom and ensure that the workers are working at full speed, sometimes without time to catch their breath.

Two years ago, an investigative article by The Morning Call newspaper in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley reported poor working conditions in an Amazon warehouse in the state, including instances where it stationed paramedics to take heat-stressed workers to the emergency room. Amazon says it has addressed the problem by installing air-conditioning in all of its facilities.

These situations occur outside of the United States as well. In 2013, workers in an Amazon warehouse in Germany protested because it had opposed the right of the workers to form unions. Amazon only allowed them to form labor council, which are legally forbidden from getting involved in wage deals. Essentially, the workers in these warehouses have no legal say in their wage and working conditions. In the United Kingdom, workers have voiced similar complaints. The Financial Times reports that documented Amazon warehouse workers were issued cheap, ill-fitting footwear and being required to walk between seven and 15 miles per day.

What shocks me is that although labor conditions have been improved in general, the 19th-century production style that Amazon adopted has still escaped public attention. What shocks me further is how companies like Amazon are often celebrated as giants of innovation and job creation without consideration of the fact that achievements are based on the poor treatment of warehouse workers.

Perhaps we need to be more careful and investigative about the cheap prices that companies like Walmart and Amazon offer. As a student, the convenience and price provided by Amazon is huge; however, an extra bus ride to local stores will assure that we are not indirectly supporting these types of practices that deprive workers of rights and dignity. As customers, we have the ethical responsibility to demonstrate our disapproval for companies using sweatshop labor.