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Is Amazon a good place to work?

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An Amazon fulfillment center in Henderson, Nevada. Photo: iStock.com/4kodiak

A new report reveals warehouse workers are suffering under oppressive working conditions amid record company profits.

If you want to better understand working conditions at Amazon—one of the largest private employers in the U.S.—look no further than the giant warehouses where workers sort and package what people buy off the platform.

Physical exhaustion, work-related injuries, and mental health concerns are just some of the risks posed by these high-pressure environments. And a new Oxfam report reveals the brutal costs of Amazon’s sophisticated surveillance tactics that constantly track workers from when they come to work to when they leave.

“I left Amazon because my body couldn’t handle it anymore,” said Melissa Ojeda, a former warehouse worker.

At Oxfam, we fight inequality and have defended workers’ rights for years. So, we're going to share with you what it’s like to work at Amazon, what surveillance practices are used to keep tabs on workers, and what you can do about it.

How does Amazon treat its employees?

Amazon warehouse workers are anxious, depressed, and burned out. Nearly three quarters report feeling pressure to work faster. More than half report that the pace of work makes it hard for them to use the bathroom. In Amazon warehouses, production standards—not people—reign supreme.

Other findings from Oxfam’s report—which includes the largest collective survey of both Amazon and Walmart warehouse workers focused specifically on technology and surveillance in the U.S. to date—include:

  • 53 percent of Amazon warehouse workers “feel a sense of being watched or monitored in [their] work” always or most of the time. Importantly, the group that report feeling that they are watched always in the highest numbers was Black women (60 percent).

  • 56 percent of Amazon workers felt anxious or depressed at least several days over the previous two weeks.

  • Latinx women workers experienced the highest rates of exhaustion (64 percent), injury (49 percent), and heat stress (44 percent) out of any group.

Women—especially women of color—consistently reported experiencing more adverse effects than their male and white counterparts across various metrics related to pain, safety, and health outcomes.

“It's so bad I have to psych myself and pray to go to work,” said one Amazon warehouse worker in North Carolina. “I hate going in there because they treat and they talk to you like you’re not human, like you don’t matter.”

What surveillance practices track workers at Amazon?

Amazon uses sophisticated surveillance to track what workers do down to the finest detail. The company uses these systems to drive relentless productivity from their warehouse workers, under the guise that it’s making workers safer. But workers report feeling pressure to work at an unreasonably fast pace as a result.

The constant pressure to keep up with inhuman, unsustainable productivity standards places an oppressive ‘cognitive tax’ on workers who fear punishment for “time off task.” This metric tracks down to the second the time a worker spends not actively sorting, packing, or performing work while on the clock.

As a result, warehouse floors have become incubators of injury, sustained by automation, surveillance, and workplace cultures of intimidation.

“It's almost like you're treated like a criminal...” said another Amazon worker in North Carolina. “It's constant surveillance. And then when you leave out of the building, like you have to take your hat off, search through your bags, on and on and on.”

How can Amazon improve working conditions?

Amazon’s success does not have to come at the expense of its workers. Corporations can make profits while prioritizing long-term productivity and sustainability, and lawmakers can write new rules that establish fair and reasonable standards for how companies like Amazon treat their workers.

Oxfam urges Amazon to commit to concrete measures supporting worker health and safety, including:

  • Cease or significantly reform the use of electronic surveillance to enforce unreasonable and/or unsafe production demands (including but not limited to the use of so-called “Time Off Task” procedures).

  • Conduct a human rights impact assessment of working conditions inside U.S. warehouses that includes a gender and racial justice lens for all issues uncovered.

  • Publicly disclose the rate of worker injury claims and improve on-site medical care.

  • Maintain a neutral stance on union activity by workers and respect their rights to freedom of association.

Conclusion

Amazon’s unsustainable business model relies on labor exploitation to thrive, and workers are suffering as a result. The retail titan’s electronic regimes of measurement, surveillance, discipline, and data collection are stifling worker voice and significantly harm worker health, safety, and well-being.

Amazon and Walmart—the two largest private companies in the U.S.—are making record profits on the backs of their warehouse workers. It’s time they both prioritize the well-being of their workers and the health of their communities.

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