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OM in the News (and Video): Quality of Life at Amazon

December 3, 2013
Amazon's warehouse in Wales.

Amazon’s warehouse in Wales.

On its home territory, Amazon.com is routinely hailed as a jobs machine,” writes The New York Times (Dec.2, 2013).  Thanks to its warehouse building spree, it is hiring tens of thousands of workers, plus many more for the holidays. President Obama has called Amazon “a great example of what’s possible… the kind of approach that we need from America’s businesses.”

The recession might have cut deeper in Europe, making the question of new jobs even more crucial, but the attitude there is much cooler toward Amazon and its high-tech ways. In Germany, there is continuing labor strife. France is erecting barriers against the company’s aggressive discounting. And in Britain, the warehouses have been compared, in a story in The Financial Times, with a “slave camp.”

That shocking charge resurfaced in the latest investigation when a BBC reporter, Adam Littler, briefly went to work undercover at Amazon’s Wales warehouse. His report, broadcast last week on the show “Panorama,” (click here for the 1/2 hour video) showed him hustling to keep up with the demands of his hand-held scanner, which gave him only a few moments to find each product. In his 10-hour night shift, Littler said: “I managed to walk or hobble nearly 11 miles. We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves.”

Michael Marmot, a labor expert identified by the BBC as “one of Britain’s leading experts on stress at work,” told the TV show that with “the characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.” Amazon’s own expert disagrees, of course, and we have to question the shock value displayed in the video. The real question for your students is how are labor standards set–and whether they are fair to both the company and employees. For another view altogether of Amazon’s sophisticated warehouses in the US, watch this 3 minute video.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. How can labor standards for this job be set (see Chapter 10)?

2. What are the ergonomic issues addressed in the video?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. terry boardman permalink
    December 3, 2013 12:50 am

    I worked for wal mart for 90 days as an associate during a new store opening
    lifting boxes, stocking shelves etc at 50-60 hours a week
    and I was 66 years old

    Had the best physical with my doctor in 5 years, lost 15 pounds and had great numbers.

    exercise, in any form, doesn’t hurt

    terry boardman, CPA, MBA
    lecturer
    east carolina university

  2. December 3, 2013 1:01 am

    I have to agree with you, Terry. I would much rather be working at Amazon than being a janitor at Sears, scrubbing floors every night, which is what I did in Chicago at that age.

  3. December 13, 2013 11:35 pm

    As Terry suggested in an earlier post and having set a lot of labor standards myself, as well as having visited an Amazon fulfillment center, I should observe that the labor standard at Amazon seem most reasonable. Indeed a lot of retired people work regularly on a temporary during the Christmas rush. Perhaps the British commentator in the video should get a new pair of shoes and get out from behind the desk more frequently.

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