When I first did research on Walmart’s workplace practices in the early 2000s, I came away convinced that Walmart was the most egregiously ruthless corporation in America. However, ten years later, there is a strong challenger for this dubious distinction—Amazon Corporation. Within the corporate world, Amazon now ranks with Apple as among the United States’ most esteemed businesses. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, came in second in the Harvard Business Review’s 2012 world rankings of admired CEOs, and Amazon was third in CNN’s 2012 list of the world’s most admired companies. Amazon is now a leading global seller not only of books but also of music and movie DVDs, video games, gift cards, cell phones, and magazine subscriptions. Like Walmart itself, Amazon combines state-of-the-art CBSs with human resource practices reminiscent of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.
Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing. With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.
Amazon is also a truly global corporation in a way that Walmart has never been, and this globalism provides insights into how Amazon responds to workplaces beyond the United States that can follow different rules. In the past three years, the harsh side of Amazon has come to light in the United Kingdom and Germany as well as the United States, and Amazon’s contrasting conduct in America and Britain, on one side, and in Germany, on the other, reveals how the political economy of Germany is employee friendly in a way that those of the other two countries no longer are.
Amazon, like General Electric and Walmart, prides itself as a self-consciously ideological corporation, with Jeff Bezos and his senior executives proclaiming an “Amazon Way” that can illuminate the path forward for less innovative businesses. In December 2009 Mark Onetto, chief of operations and customer relations at Amazon and a close collaborator of Bezos, gave an hourlong lecture on the Amazon Way to master’s of business administration students at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Onetto is a disconcerting figure, because once he starts talking, style and substance are in sharp contrast. He is French born, and he still speaks with the rather faded insouciance of Maurice Chevalier and “Gay Paree,” and he makes much of this in his lecture. But there was nothing gay (in the traditional sense) or insouciant about the Amazon workplace that Onetto described for UVA’s MBA candidates.
Like most such corporate mission statements, Onetto’s uses a coded language that hides the harshness of his underlying message, which needs translation along with a hefty reality check. As with Walmart so at Amazon, there is a quasi-religious cult of the customer as an object of “trust” and “care”; Amazon “cares about the customer,” and “everything is driven” for him or her. Early in the lecture, Onetto quotes Bezos himself as saying, “I am not selling stuff. I am facilitating for my customers to buy what they need.”
Amazon’s larding of its customer cult with the moral language of “care” and “trust” comes with a strong dose of humbug because Amazon’s customers are principally valued by the corporation as mainstays of the bottom line, and not as vehicles for the fulfillment of personal relationships. There is still more humbug in the air because Amazon treats a second significant grouping of men and women with whom it has dealings—its employees—with the very opposite of care and trust. Amazon’s employees are almost completely absent from Onetto’s lecture, and they make their one major appearance when they too are wheeled in as devotees of the cult of the customer: “We make sure that every associate at Amazon is really a customercentric person, that cares about the customer.”
But as so often in Amazon’s recent history, it has been in Germany that this humbug has been stripped away and the true role of the “cult of the customer” has become clear. In its US and UK fulfillment centers, Amazon management is hegemonic. There is no independent employee voice to contest management’s demands for increased output unmatched by increases in real wages. But in Germany Amazon has to deal with work councils (Betriebsrat); a powerful union, the United Services Union (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, or Ver.Di), with 2.2 million members; and high officials of the federal and state governments more closely aligned with labor than their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom.
When in December 2012 the Ver.Di representatives in Leipzig called on the management of Amazon’s local center to open negotiations on wage rates and an improvement of working conditions, and especially for temporary workers who are badly exploited at Amazon, management refused on the grounds that employees should be “thinking about their customers” and not about their own selfish interests. This was treated with derision on the union side, but at all Amazon’s centers, and especially those in the United States and the United Kingdom, the cult of the customer is a serious matter and provides the rationale for the extreme variant of scientific management whose purpose, as at Walmart, is to keep pushing up employee productivity while keeping hourly wages at or near poverty levels.
As at Walmart, Amazon achieves this with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. As at Walmart, there is a pervasive “three strikes and you’re out” culture, and when these marginal employees acquire too many demerits (“points”), they are fired.
Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.
All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.
Whereas some Amazon employees are in constant motion across the floors of its enormous centers—the biggest, in Arizona, is the size of twenty-eight football fields—others work on assembly lines packing goods for shipping. An anonymous German student who worked as a temporary packer at Amazon’s depot in Augsburg, southern Germany, has given a revealing account of work on the line at Amazon. Her account appeared in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the stern upholder of German financial orthodoxy and not a publication usually given to accounts of workplace abuse by large and powerful corporations. There were six packing lines at Amazon’s Augsburg center, each with two conveyor belts feeding tables where the packers stood and did the packing. The first conveyor belt fed the table with goods stored in boxes, and the second carried the goods away in sealed packages ready for distribution by UPS, FedEx, and their German counterparts.
Machines measured whether the packers were meeting their targets for output per hour and whether the finished packages met their targets for weight and so had been packed “the one best way.” But alongside these digital controls there was a team of Taylor’s “functional foremen,” overseers in the full nineteenth-century sense of the term, watching the employees every second to ensure that there was no “time theft,” in the language of Walmart. On the packing lines there were six such foremen, one known in Amazonspeak as a “coworker” and above him five “leads,” whose collective task was to make sure that the line kept moving. Workers would be reprimanded for speaking to one another or for pausing to catch their breath (Verschnaufpause) after an especially tough packing job.
The functional foreman would record how often the packers went to the bathroom and, if they had not gone to the bathroom nearest the line, why not. The student packer also noticed how, in the manner of Jeremy Bentham’s nineteenth-century panopticon, the architecture of the depot was geared to make surveillance easier, with a bridge positioned at the end of the workstation where an overseer could stand and look down on his wards. However, the task of the depot managers and supervisors was not simply to fight time theft and keep the line moving but also to find ways of making it move still faster. Sometimes this was done using the classic methods of Scientific Management, but at other times higher targets for output were simply proclaimed by management, in the manner of the Soviet workplace during the Stalin era.
Onetto in his lecture describes in detail how Amazon’s present-day scientific managers go about achieving speedup. They observe the line, create a detailed “process map” of its workings, and then return to the line to look for evidence of waste, or Muda, in the language of the Toyota system. They then draw up a new process map, along with a new and faster “time and motion” regime for the employees. Amazon even brings in veterans of lean production from Toyota itself, whom Onetto describes with some relish as “insultants,” not consultants: “They are really not nice. . . . [T]hey’re samurais, the real last samurais, the guys from the Toyota plants.” But as often as not, higher output targets are declared by Amazon management without explanation or warning, and employees who cannot make the cut are fired. At Amazon’s Allentown depot, Mark Zweifel, twenty-two, worked on the receiving line, “unloading inventory boxes, scanning bar codes and loading products into totes.” After working six months at Amazon, he was told, without warning or explanation, that his target rates for packages had doubled from 250 units per hour to 500.