This past Tuesday, Quartz published an essay asserting that the blame for Amazon.com’s stressful working conditions lays solely on the consumer demand for free same day shipping and cheap products.
Author Annalisa Merelli states:
It’s appalling, but point your fingers away from evil bosses: Terrible work conditions at Amazon exist first and foremost because we like—we really, really like—to get things cheap.
We want it all and we want to pay the least amount of money for it. It’s not different from fast fashion or food production: Cheap always comes at a cost. In the service industry (online and off), employees often pay the price we’re not willing to: Amazon’s defense is right—the company isn’t the outlier, this is the standard.
Shaming bad bosses is fine. Demanding accountability is good. But—sorry, everyone—we need to be ready to pay more for things that are too cheap to be good. Our outrage is hypocritical: This is the system we buy into, the one that we want.
Unless we change that.
What if we were willing to pay 40 cents a day, each year for Amazon Prime ($149 a year), with the specific assurance that the extra goes toward a better life for those who make it such an excellent service? How about, cynical as it may sound, companies start making fair treatment of their employees an added benefit, and we all just pay for it?
That’s actual innovation—if you’re ready to embrace it.
Merelli attempts to deflect blame from CEO Jeff Bezos, Amazon, and our economic system, giving all the guilt to the supposed systematic problem with consumer demand for cheap goods. I don’t buy it.
As a publicly traded company, Amazon operates the way it does to maximize profit, perceived value, and growth potential. There is no motive behind Amazon’s executive’s decisions beyond that. This is why corporate activism is merely an advertising tool. If over 50% of Americans were still homophobic, you can bet tech companies wouldn’t be flying branded rainbow merchandise at pride parades. Starbucks will proudly display that their new cups save the environment by using 50% less paper, conveniently costing them 50% less to make. You can bet they wouldn’t print that eco-friendly label if it angered more climate deniers than it makes others feel warm about the company. Expensive products only use socially conscious labor if it’s part of the brand, causing higher sales. A more expensive TV is likely produced in a similar factory as a cheaper one, with no material difference in the treatment of workers. While a grocery co-op selling fair trade food might cost more than a national grocery giant, simply giving the giant more money will have no effect on how much the growers and grocers receive.
Amazon’s workers are an expense to be minimized.
Amazon determined, no doubt through a laborious process, that low prices to increase sales volume and the premium Prime member shipping service to incentivize returning customers would result in greater profit than getting more profit from each individual sale. They also figured that the increase in productivity from a stressful work environment beats out the losses of public controversy and a high worker turnover rate (of course not considering the personal interests and health of the employees, because this is “just business”). Amazon’s workers are on the same level as any other expense to be reduced. They’re not where increased profits flow. If Amazon’s middle and lower class work could be run entirely autonomously, you can bet it would. Humanity doesn’t need to get together and ask to pay Amazon more money, and believing we do is absolutely neoliberal bullshit. Consumers are not the problem, but rather the profit motive behind capitalism.
Costco, one retailer noted for a good working environment and reasonable pay, finds the benefits of happier employees and a feeling of social consciousness in customers outweigh the upfront costs, ultimately resulting in more money. It’s cold math, still “just business”, and not an example of how capitalism can choose to not be exploitative.
Amazon’s high turnover rate and the strong demand for tech workers across the industry effectively curtails any unionization efforts that could use collective bargaining to improve conditions. Like any company, a unionized Amazon would still be run on the profit motive, but the additional consideration of losing their entire workforce at once from a strike would force Amazon’s executives to treat employees better.
While workers rights laws have had a strong positive effect in the past, they’re not enough. Through loopholes and offering only part-time positions, the effect of regulations will always be minimized by the corporations they apply to. Simply regulating doesn’t change the power dynamic and hierarchy of the company. The motive at play is inherently unethical.
We don’t bear responsibility for corporate actions, but we do have a responsibility to support fixing the root problem. Recent “right to work” laws that paralyze unions are moving us in the exact opposite direction.
While buying homemade gifts is a lovely thing to do, thinking of it as a social good is problematic. Like locavorism and “eco consumerism,” it’s part of a troubling trend for neoliberal “all change begins with your personal choices” ideology. This ideology is attractive: Buy something nice, do something good. But it doesn’t work, at least not very well.
When it comes to complex issues, “vote with your wallet” campaigns have never been particularly effective in driving consumer change. In the 1970s, musical “look for the union label” TV ads were so ubiquitous they earned a parody on “Saturday Night Live.” But they didn’t halt the decline of unions. Around the same time, cars sported “Buy American: The Job You Save May Be Your Own” bumper stickers. Did it stop people from buying Toyotas? Hardly.
A vast majority of people will continue to buy what they buy for one reason: It’s a good value. Very few of us will order a $50 handmade scarf on Etsy when one is available for $5 at Target. We can’t expect most consumers to avoid items made in sweatshops or by otherwise exploited workers. We need regulations for that. When “buy handmade” is couched as a solution to exploitative labor conditions, it’s easy to forget structural change-making.
Image by blu-news.org (Amazon) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons