As the world’s largest company, Amazon’s operations leave a huge environmental footprint. But in order to power Amazon’s business, it also relies on a large labor force – one that exploits workers throughout the supply chain. Globally, Amazon employees over 630,000 people.
High Stress from the Warehouse to the HQ
The median wage for American Amazon employees in 2018 was $35,096, an increase from the previous year in large part due to Amazon increasing its company minimum wage to $15/hour. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezo’s net worth is estimated around $165 billion, in large part of his share of Amazon stock. And while that net worth will decline temporarily by $38 billion owing to his divorce, it will increase again if Amazon stock continues its steady rise in value. By contrast, NPR notes that an Amazon employee making the minimum wage would need to work for 133 hours (or over three weeks) in order to afford one share of Amazon stock.
Reports depicting the grueling work conditions in Amazon warehouses, especially during seasonal sales, have continually dogged Amazon. Workers report long hours, timed bathroom breaks, surveillance of work productivity/speed, intense isolation from others, physically demanding quotas, and other difficult conditions to work under. These working conditions take a physical and mental toll on the workers, who are often treated more as a data set or a robot than as humans.
Amazon’s troubling labor abuses aren’t limited to their warehouses either. Amazon’s corporate offices have their share of toxic workplace cultures too. A 2015 expose on Amazon’s offices described an office that prioritized productivity and efficacy over all else, pushing their employees to physical, mental, and emotional limits. One employee was sent on a business trip the day after a miscarriage; another was put on a “performance improvement plan” while struggling with breast cancer. Employees shared experiences such has having their personal and working lives monitored, demanding work schedules, and a competitive workplace culture where employees were encouraged to sacrifice themselves – and their coworkers – in order to advance.
Amazon Electronics: The High Cost of Convenience
While Amazon primarily sells other company’s goods, it also sells its own line of Amazon electronic products, such as the Echo and Kindle. Yet Amazon is not transparent about how workers throughout its global supply chain are treated. This lack of transparency makes it hard for consumers and activists to conduct due diligence on Amazon’s claims of treating its employees well.
Leaders in electronics have begun publishing lists of factories that they source from. They also engage in other transparency initiatives such as publishing manufacturing restricted substances lists (MRSLs), which limit/ban what chemicals can be used during the manufacturing process, and restricted substances lists (RSLs), which limit/ban what chemicals can be found in the final consumer. RSLs help protect consumer safety, while MRSLs help protect workers from dangerous chemical exposures.
Although Amazon has an RSL for cleaning, beauty, and self-care products, it has not applied that to electronics. Furthermore, it does not have an MRSL, which would protect its workers that regularly come in contact with chemicals in its supply chains.
Meanwhile, a report from China Labor Watch in 2018 details labor abuses in a Chinese factory that produces Amazon Eco Dots, Kindles, and tablets. China Labor Watch’s investigation found pay discrepancies between full-time and dispatch workers. Dispatch workers are hired through an agency. Dispatch workers for Amazon were making less than their full-time counterparts and did not receive adequate safety training. Both full-time and dispatch worker on average make less than the monthly average wage in the city. During peak season, workers have to put in 100 hours of overtime monthly – which is significantly more than the legal cutoff of 36 hours. China Labor Watch also discovered that the factory didn’t have adequate fire safety, protective equipment, or a functioning labor union.
More recently, a Guardian article, Schoolchildren in China work overnight to produce Amazon Alexa Devices, documented how schoolchildren, aged 16-18, in China are listed as "interns" at Foxconn factories and required to work late night and overnight shifts in violation of Chinese law. The interns are paid significantly less than adult dispatch workers. Foxconn pays schools for each intern they supply. A student said that when she raised concerns about the long hours, her school told her that refusing the work would affect her graduation and scholarship applications. Foxconn admitted that the children were employed illegally and states that it will be taking action.
It’s clear that both abroad and at home, Amazon has to do more to protect its workers.