Between September 2010 and September 2011, I spent $1,042 on books from Amazon.com. This does not count many books I encouraged others to buy, Amazon links I included on various web columns and more. From October 2011 onward, I have spent $0 there. I will spend $0 at Amazon buying friends books over the holidays as well.
This change in buying behavior has nothing to do with a dissatisfying shopping experience. Rather, it has to do with Amazon’s behavior in other realms. As I think about where I spend my money, I want to buy from companies that honor the values I profess to hold. At this moment, Amazon’s political bullying over sales taxes, and more importantly its treatment of its own workers, makes me believe I should shop someplace else.
These are obviously hard questions here. It’s hard to know what really goes into a new sweater or laptop. We live in a complex global economy. Reasonable and fair wages and environmental and safety regulations in Mexico don’t—and shouldn’t—match conditions here in the United States.
There are also elemental realities in the low-wage labor market. I feel badly for the guy flipping burgers for $10 an hour at McDonald’s, but it’s not clear that there’s a viable market model to pay him appreciably more. If we want that guy to have more money and better benefits, an activist government must provide some implicit or explicit subsidy. Simply demanding that low-wage employers provide better jobs won’t get it done.
Still, one can take refuge in economic complexity to evade moral responsibility. It’s easy to conclude that whatever wages and working conditions clear the market are, by definition, fair. But that’s an all-too-convenient stance in an economy that is in some ways designed to provide maximum value to consumers at the expense of others along the way, including workers who take jobs that are more arduous, less safe and less remunerated than they deserve—jobs that are just lousier than they need to be.
I’ve held bad jobs like that myself. The worst was in the summer of my 15th year. My cousin found me an off-the-books job at a dry cleaner. We spent weeks inside a low concrete building where we would swab floors and run errands. We would scamper around high laundry racks retrieving orders for customers. It was very hot and thirsty work and not incredibly safe either. The dry cleaning generated unpleasant fumes. But I was young and nimble. I was happy to pocket some cash money and do what I was told.
I remember such tiring work as I read news accounts this fall of workers, some considerably older than I am now, doing hard shift work in a hot Amazon.com warehouse in rural Pennsylvania. These workers are not being treated well, but they need the job.
These stories are especially painful because I have been a loyal Amazon customer.
But then I found this terrific story by Spencer Soper describing the labor practices at Amazon’s Lehigh Valley warehouse, where books, CDs and other products are packed and shipped. Soper and his colleagues interviewed twenty current and former workers. It’s not a pretty story:
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.
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.
Many of these employees don’t technically work for Amazon. They are temporary workers hired by an outside agency with the usual boiler-room name, Integrity Staffing Solutions. Temporary workers hope to find better, permanent jobs with Amazon, but such positions are hard to secure.
Then there are touching anecdotes such as this one, about a temporary worker named Sharon Faust:
Then in June, the 57-year-old Breinigsville resident was diagnosed with breast cancer. She notified ISS that she needed surgery. They told her she would need a note from her doctor saying when she could return.
Faust had surgery July 20 and reported to the Amazon warehouse with a doctor’s note saying she could return to work Aug. 17. When she arrived to deliver the note within a week of her surgery, she found out the doctor’s note wasn’t necessary.
“They said my assignment with them is terminated….”
Like Walmart, Amazon pursues an unsentimental business plan that forces you to decide what you really believe about capitalism. Through a combination of innovation, name recognition and bargaining power, both Amazon and Walmart became hugely profitable. Much of this innovation comes through genuinely ingenious supply-chain management and through efforts to minimize labor costs. Both companies provide much value to the American consumer. Both have squeezed their suppliers and workers in ways that promote low prices, but that sometimes cross boundaries of good corporate citizenship and basic decency.
I’ve known about the company’s anti-union reputation. I’ve also known about Amazon’s hardball-battles with states in an effort to avoid paying sales taxes. Few public finance economists see much merit in Amazon’s arguments here. In a time when states and localities are laying off teachers and police officers, it’s a very bad idea to allow web-based venders to avoid paying taxes my local Barnes and Nobles must pay.
I didn’t know much about Amazon’s poor working conditions. Now I do. Moreover, Amazon is not some marginal lettuce grower or local restaurant that must squeeze its workers to survive. This is a thriving high-tech company with a commanding market position and booming sales. It doesn’t have to behave this way.
Of course, talk is cheap. There’s no particular reason for Amazon to care about my opinions. As Albert Hirshman noted long ago, one’s voice becomes more powerful when it’s accompanied by an “exit” option. That’s true of companies too. Walmart behaves noticeably better because it has faced some punishing public scrutiny. I hope that Amazon will too.
So this holiday season, I’ll spend hundreds of dollars at Powells, Barnes and Nobles and other bookstores. I won’t be shopping at Amazon.com. I’ll come back when Amazon demonstrates that it is treating its workers better. Until then, I prefer to take my business elsewhere. You should too.