The video opens with a young man named Taylor introducing himself. He is sitting in a room with posters of video games papering the walls. A stuffed Pikachu doll is nestled in a corner next to his desk. Usually, Taylor reviews games on his YouTube channel, but today he has a different topic: “My Experience Working at Amazon || Week 1,” reads the title.
After describing the hiring process, Taylor turns to the particular characteristics of the job:
You’re not allowed to bring your phone into the facility because they’re afraid of stealing. You’re also not allowed to bring electronics, so you can’t listen to music—apparently, it’s a safety hazard. You also can’t sit on the floor while you’re stowing stuff away. There are shelves that are very low…and bending down to put items in the lower bins is very strenuous on my knees and on my back…. They’re supposed to have kneepads for us eventually, so that’ll be nice—to be able to not screw up my knees. Kneeling down on concrete is not good for your knees. Not being able to listen to music is a big issue for me. You’re mostly working alone for 10 hours…. It’s very monotonous, it’s very repetitive—it’s a little bit soul-crushing.
By the end of the 22-minute video, Taylor is visibly distressed. Though he speaks optimistically of his desire to become a trainer at the warehouse, he keeps returning to the mental strain of the work: “It’s just very repetitive, OK?… There’s nothing to keep my mind occupied, and it causes me to sort of go insane after 10 hours doing the same thing over and over and over again…. This job is the most mindless work you can possibly imagine.” It’s no surprise that the title of his next video, dated a little more than a month later, begins: “Why I left Amazon.”
Taylor’s video went viral and now has over 210,000 views. But it’s not uncommon on YouTube: The Amazon warehouse job is a popular genre. A person—or sometimes two—sits in front of the camera and discusses sore feet, aching backs, early mornings, or long overnight shifts. These people are, in the company’s terminology, “packers,” “stowers,” “problem solvers.” Watch enough of the videos and the accounts blend together. Many of these workers film them within the first week of the job, and there are many follow-up videos announcing their departure.
On one level, Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate is another of these, albeit in print: It is Geissler’s first-person account, originally scribbled on Post-it notes, of her time as a temporary worker at an Amazon fulfillment center in Leipzig, Germany. In the language of Amazon, she was a “seasonal associate,” one of those hired by the thousands to work during the extra-busy holiday season. But her book—the first two chapters of which were initially published in n+1—is much more than that, offering a portrait of self-estrangement, instability, and loneliness on the modern-day assembly line.
In some ways, Geissler is an atypical Amazon warehouse worker, at least culturally; she’s an accomplished writer in her native Germany. And yet, in the most important way, she is exactly like every other Amazon warehouse worker: After years of living hand-to-mouth on freelancer checks and translator assignments, and with children to raise, she was forced to take the job because she needed the money.
The focus on this tension—the clash between a worker’s individuality and the brute facts of life in the warehouse—is what drives the book. While several journalists have gone undercover at the e-commerce giant’s warehouses to expose its labor practices, Geissler’s account is about a person just trying to make ends meet. Seasonal Associate is also far more literary in style, as she turns to the likes of Gertrude Stein, Emil Cioran, and Mónica de la Torre to make sense of the tedium.
Katy Derbyshire, the book’s translator, notes that Geissler first sought to publish the book as a more straightforward journalistic account of conditions at the warehouse, but the fact that she ended up putting more of herself into the story helps to capture one of the central facets of working for Amazon. As with the other accounts, Geissler exposes many of the horrors of the job, but what her book reveals, above all else, is how working in a place like Amazon erodes one’s sense of self.
From the start, Geissler highlights this erosion, switching between the first and second person—a means of distancing herself from the events she chronicles. Although the self she describes is, in fact, her, it is also not, in the sense that, as a seasonal associate—a single temp worker subject to the immense power of a global corporation—Heike Geissler ceases to exist. As she writes in the book’s opening pages, “[You’ll] realize that your trouble and suffering are by no means specific to you, but astonishingly generic. Yes, you are generic.”
Unable to process this experience at first, Geissler responds to it by initially distancing herself from her waged work: references to playing a part, to her uniform as a disguise, and to the job as a “field trip” abound. But under the grinding pressure of the work, it becomes harder for Geissler to keep up the act. Eventually, while sorting books, she encounters one by a man she knows, “formerly a good friend of mine.” There, surrounded by crates of anonymous goods shipped by anonymous employees, she can no longer maintain the farce. “It was as if I were the chambermaid and he were the guest,” she observes. “It was as if we were showing our true faces.”
The relentless weight of ruthlessly measured time also begins to take its toll. When she first accepts the job, Geissler reassures herself that she is merely a journalist at work, “a book person…perfectly within your rights to be interested in the company for research purposes.” But just a few pages later, she knows better: “You’re at their disposal from the very beginning. You’re an item on a list.” Although she seems to believe at times that she or other people like her—the educated, the literary, the culturally bourgeois—are the only ones resistant to such a reduction of individuality, more often she recognizes that the imposition of such demeaning work is “essentially rotten,” something against whose effects no one can be immune. “It’s almost impossible not to be forced to your knees and into defiance by this job,” she writes.
Yet while Amazon may be new, the problem is centuries old. Marx termed this violence “alienation,” or “self-estrangement.” It was a condition inherent in commodity production, whereby “the worker becomes an ever-cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates.” As Geissler puts it, it is “work that leaves no space to be human.”
While many on the left have long discussed the loss that comes with alienating people from their labor, Geissler offers a detailed description of the alienation from the self that accompanies it. No longer free to live according to her preferred rhythms, she begins to eat faster, to walk faster, and to push and shove her colleagues as they rush to leave the warehouse. She counts the days until her contract’s expiration date: Christmas Eve. “It’s all about sheer endurance, about presence, about translating your time and energy into money,” she writes. And yet, though she’s only a seasonal associate, she quickly comes to feel that the end to her daily grind is “nonexistent”: “Work simply alters its own physical state, going from a solid to a gas and entering your body through your nose after the actual end of the work, circulating inside you.”
Reduced to a state of exhaustion, Geissler knows that the company sees her and her co-workers as temporary alternatives to robots, “nothing but a placeholder for machines that have already been invented but aren’t yet profitable enough to permanently replace you and your workmates, who are very low-cost.” Their minds become “counting machines”; their hands, covered in Band-Aids, exist only to sort products. “You’re a tool gifted with a voice no one wants to hear,” she writes. Later, as she breaks under the strains of her job, the formulation changes: “You’re not even a tool with a voice [anymore].”
Geissler also helps us keep track of how this process takes place. The account of her (unpaid, of course) training day, led by an American MBA named Robert—“a man who has exercised his body into a state of squat firmness”—is particularly sadistic, and no less so for the mundanity with which the job information is delivered. Robert begins by telling the assembled new hires, “Anyone who doesn’t stick to the rules has to do push-ups.” He repeats this whenever any of them is too slow to respond to a question. The assembled new employees laugh, but it doesn’t feel like a joke. After all, despite the professed “horizontalism” of the company, Robert is Amazon—at one point, he stands in front of the projector, and a “projection of the Amazon home page [lands] across his face, stretching down to the middle of his stomach.”
As Robert and his assistant, Sandy, go over the safety practices standardized across the company’s many warehouses, their affect is chillingly robotic. “A picture of a bleeding hand comes up,” Geissler writes. “This doesn’t look good, says Sandy, not turning round to the screen. This is an employee’s hand…. There was a lot of screaming.” Sandy follows the presentation with an astonishingly cold statement, a reflection of the company’s long-standing attempts to make its employees identify with it rather than each other: “Sick days harm Amazon.”
Geissler’s co-workers are constantly working while sick, pushed by economic necessity, the desire to become a “permanent” or year-round Amazonian, or, possibly—it’s unclear if the Leipzig warehouse she worked at operated under such a system—the company’s practice of docking workers for sick days under its points system, which can lead to their being fired. Sexual harassment is rampant: Male managers stand too close to Geissler, tell her to smile, and make suggestive comments. Phones are banned from the warehouse floor, with personal belongings relegated to a bin. Managers speak to the workers as though they were children; the constant condescension gnaws at Geissler’s sense of self, reminding her of how she speaks to her own children at home. All of this combines to create people without a sense of power or agency, so deeply affected by their work environment that they lose hope.
This constant self-denial, as well as the denial from above, leads Geissler to a pessimistic view of the possibilities for resistance. Though she sometimes daydreams about her co-workers banding together in protest and other times becomes quietly furious at the everyday indignities of the job, it never leads to collective action. The faceless immensity of Amazon leaves her with no one who might listen to her complaints; and, after all, she thinks, she and her co-workers would be quickly replaced should they go off script, their actions reduced to “a single sentence on the company website: Due to poor weather conditions, we currently anticipate delivery delays of up to three days. We apologize for any inconvenience.” And with the work so tiring that even the cries of her children can’t tear her away from the need to sleep, how, exactly, is she supposed to resist?
Geissler quotes the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han: “There’s no way to form a revolutionary mass out of exhausted, depressed, isolated individuals.” But while it’s true that the mechanization, surveillance, and sheer exhausting physicality of the job make organizing incredibly difficult, Amazon’s warehouse workers have fought back, and continue to do so—including going on strike at the Leipzig warehouse years after Geissler left. (She returns to visit the picket line.)
Geissler was a seasonal associate in 2010, but the release of this translation couldn’t come at a better time: In 2018, Amazon workers went on strike in multiple countries. During the most recent Prime Day, a “holiday” during which Amazon offers discounts to boost its sales, workers walked out in Germany, Spain, and Poland, while a consumer boycott spread throughout Europe and the United States. Though the company insists that few of its employees actually went on strike, the workers and their unions have claimed otherwise.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, thanks to his now-unparalleled wealth and the insistence of countless warehouse employees on exposing their working conditions, is in the spotlight, with every week seeming to bring new critical reporting and commentary on his fulfillment centers, both in the United States and abroad. With the increased visibility of a socialist left in the United States, it’s now common to hear condemnations of Bezos’s business model, with its exorbitant wealth built on the backs of workers who receive paltry pay and injury, or even death, in return. Workers are beginning to speak openly of the need to unionize Amazon, and in time that may well happen—indeed, there is now a public unionization campaign at Amazon’s Staten Island fulfillment center. Senator Bernie Sanders, the most prominent left-wing voice in Congress, recently went after the company with the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (or “Stop BEZOS”) Act, prompting Amazon to first try to counter his criticisms and then, under pressure, to announce that it would adopt a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Even so, this raise—which was coupled with an end to the performance bonuses and stock awards that had been given to employees—applies only to US workers; the employees in Amazon’s Leipzig fulfillment center will see no boost in pay.
It’s a fast-moving fight, one befitting a workplace where each second counts and is counted. Geissler’s book may be unusual stylistically—it’s unlikely that most future accounts, which are hopefully coming soon, will be filled with so many highbrow literary references—and the author may not be the average Amazon warehouse worker. But it’s for these reasons that Seasonal Associate offers a contribution unique in the growing body of writing about and from within the company’s fulfillment centers.
Given Amazon’s half-million employees worldwide, and with no signs of its growth slowing down, more and more people will find themselves living lives governed by Bezos’s wishes. We need all the material we can get to fight back. Geissler offers ammunition—and literature, too. And when it comes to a company that’s become a country unto itself, its valuation larger than the GDP of Turkey, well, it’s about time it received its own art—phrases hastily scribbled on Post-it notes, lists typed up at home after a long shift.