A group of workers with their fists in solidarity holds a shaded sign: "We are not humans robots!" They and others at an Amazon store in Minnesota protested in March and July's Amazon Prime Days. They spoke against the daily dehumanizing reality in their workplace.
If the only interaction with Amazon is packets coming on the doorstep, it can be difficult to understand what workers are dissatisfied with, or why one described their fulfillment center as an "existential sh-thole" or why so many others shared stories of crying at work.
I am among them. I took a job in an Amazon center in Indiana in a matter of weeks – along with a call center in North Carolina and McDonald's in San Francisco ̵
I wasn't prepared for how exhausting work on Amazon would be. It took my body two weeks to adapt to the pain of going 15 miles a day and doing hundreds of tricks. But as the physical stress became more affordable, the mental stress of being held to the productivity standard of a robot became an even bigger problem.
Technology has made it possible for employers to enforce a task without allowing for inefficiency, squeezing every ounce of downtime without working days. The scan gun I used to do my job was also my own personal digital leader. Every single thing I did was monitored and timed. After completing a task, the scanning gun not only gave me a new one, but also started counting down the seconds I had left to do so.
It also alerted a leader if I had too many minutes "Time Off Task." At my warehouse, you were expected to be tasked for just 18 minutes per shift-min was 6:30 to 6 pm – which included using in the bathroom, have a drink with water or just go slower than the algorithm dictated, even though we had a 30-minute unpaid lunch. It created a constant buzz of low degree panic, and the isolation and monotony of the work made me feel as though I lost my mind. Imagine experiencing that month after the month.
I felt as though the company wanted us to be robots – never stop, and never let our thoughts wander off the task. I felt an incredible amount of pressure to suppress the human "failures" that made me less effective than a machine. (Amazon answers in response that this is not an "accurate depiction of work in our buildings" and that it is "proud of our safe jobs.")
Unless you have been working on low-wage jobs over the past decade nor is it difficult to understand how stressful widespread monitoring technology in the workplace has made the lives of the lower half of the labor market. The media tends to focus on precarious working conditions and low wages at fulfillment centers. Compared to companies offering other warehousing and unskilled jobs, dozens of current and former employees spoke of agreeing that Amazon was obsessed with security and generally had better pay and benefits, even before raising the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour.
Amazon is the apex predator of the modern economy; As with Walmart in the 90s, anyone who wants to compete with it will have to adopt their work practices. According to Amazon, its US workforce will reach 300,000 employees this year, many of whom work in blue collar work. Overall, low-wage jobs have been so seasoned and deskilled that "about 47% of total US employment is in danger" of being lost to automation, according to a 2013 Oxford study.
Human workers are still needed. We remain hugely superior to machines by conversation, creativity, visual recognition and fine engine management, and we are still a little cheaper. But we are not so good at very inflexible, repetitive tasks like machines and algorithms.
The more human an employee is, the less productive and desirable she is in the cold eyes of the market. And today's technology allows employers to force workers to suppress their humanity or risk losing their jobs. I will bet that most of you, even those with white collars, can already identify the same types of metric and surveillance technologies that creep into your daily life.
These Amazon workers will be treated like humans. Sounds reasonable to me.