A Facebook friend sent this oldish-but-goodie my way from Mother Jones, titled “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave.” Author Mac McClelland writes about a stint with a company she refers to as Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc., a massive fulfillment company that ships all manner of Web-ordered product. (If the online chatter can be believed, Amalgamated is actually the Amazon Warehouse in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. —Ed.)

online shoppingMacClelland asks some good questions, the primary of which is this: humane labor costs money, while slave labor does not. How did you think they were swinging the free shipping? She begins with this explanatory anecdote:

“We don’t want to be so intense, the higher-up says. But our customers demand it. We are surrounded by signs that state our productivity goals. Other signs proclaim that a good customer experience, to which our goal-meeting is essential, is the key to growth, and growth is the key to lower prices, which leads to a better customer experience. There is no room for inefficiencies. The gal conducting our training reminds us again that we cannot miss any days our first week. There are NO exceptions to this policy. She says to take Brian, for example, who’s here with us in training today. Brian already went through this training, but then during his first week his lady had a baby, so he missed a day and he had to be fired. Having to start the application process over could cost a brand-new dad like Brian a couple of weeks’ worth of work and pay. Okay? Everybody turn around and look at Brian. Welcome back, Brian. Don’t end up like Brian.”

The rest of the article documents McClellands’ descent into the prison-camp work environment at this lowest-end job: lateness of even one minute has a points penalty; accrue a certain amount of points and you are fired automatically. Get used to bending, running, reaching and crouching; and if you have the misfortune to work in books, the chronic zaps of static electricity every time you touch something, which finally sends the author over the edge. Make your quota, and it will be raised. Say that you can’t meet it, and you’ll be fired. Say that you’ll try, McClelland is advised. Always say you will try. McClelland tries hard not to take it personally:

“A supervisor who is a genuinely nice person comes by with a clipboard listing my numbers. Like the rest of the supervisors, she tries to create a friendly work environment and doesn’t want to enforce the policies that make this job so unpleasant. But her hands are tied. She needs this job, too, so she has no choice but to tell me something I have never been told in 19 years of school or at any of some dozen workplaces.’You’re doing really bad,’ she says.”

The friend who posted the link was horrified by what McClelland reported, but also torn—he’s in the comic book industry and buys hundreds of books and DVDs per year. So he does price-compare, because on that scale, he can’t afford not to. But at the same time, he feels horrible that his one-click shopping is supporting the type of business model profiled in the article.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel—many of the commenters to this article point out that the big companies like Amazon are more and more moving into automation of some of these processes. And yes, that will mean lost jobs—but these are jobs people simply aren’t physically equipped to safely and humanely perform.

I’d rather take the money these pickers will spend for health care for the carpal tunnel syndrome, achy joints, arthritic and knee issues and spend it instead on creating better jobs they can do long-term, with dignity and pride.


  1. “She needs this job…” Yes, that’s the rub. The bigger Amazon grows, the fewer other jobs are available. People like her get stuck with what they can get. That’s one reason why I found Obama’s remarks on Tuesday so disgusting. Our president wants to trap people in jobs they hate, perhaps because he intends to turn that hatred onto Republicans.

    Here’s the problem. We’ve exported a lot of manufacturing jobs to China because they’ll work cheaper there. The huge container ships to bring those goods here don’t employ many people. Retailing is already done online by computers. (We read customer reviews rather than talk to a sales person.) What is coming, using robots to handle the goods in a warehouse, means that delivering those goods to our homes is almost the only job in the raw material to our home chain that employs many people.

    Put into numbers, that means that a $100 DVD player we buy may generate perhaps $5 in domestic employment in the U.S. We can’t run an economy when $100 in expenses generates only $5 in income to make our next purchase. That’s precisely what creates blighted regions.

    And yes, it’s not that bad yet. Our farmers, our oil industry, and our high-tech do generate large incomes and we still make millions of cars in the SE US. But in our obsession with efficiency at any price we’re certainly not moving in a healthy direction.

  2. Sorry, it’s supposed to be a free market. If you don’t want to work in a low/no skill job, get an education or more advanced skills that lead to a better job. If Amazon was hurting for employees, they would have to improve pay/working conditions. Clearly there are thousands of people who need the job, any job. It’s called paying your dues.

    There have to be entry-level jobs, people have to start somewhere. As you gain skills and experience, you generally can move into jobs with not just better pay, but better work conditions.

    I remember working retail, fast food, banks, and a state job, all of which require you to clock in and out, follow strict break schedules, little flexibility, and most didn’t have sick or vacation time. Decades later, I work in IT in a small office where we wear jeans to work, determine our own start times, only work in the office twice a week, take time for appointments any time we need to, have 4 weeks of vacation, sick time I rarely have to use (because I work from home), and full benefits. Plus a very generous salary.

    Amazon is not obligated to pay more than minimal skills are worth. If you don’t like it, work somewhere else.

  3. I agree with Common Sense on this one. And I think it’s worth pointing out that there are some jobs which will always need a live person. We’re going on vacation next week, and sure, we can book at hotels.com without ever talking to a person, but somebody is doing the backend IT for that, and getting paid more than a warehouse slave to do it. And at the end of the day, we’re going to arrive in a different city and need to eat and sleep and get around; there is no way to outsource that!

    I think the solution is not to find a way to keep humans involved in this particular supply chain, it’s to try and automate them out of it so they can do better things with their lives. I live in an area with a ton of immigrants and many of them work in the service industry. At the low end are the crap retail jobs, but then you get into childcare and personal support worker and things like that; it’s not six figures, but it’s leagues better than warehouse slavery, and there are paths to be supervisors and administrators if you show skill, or to work for a family—I know several people who chose that path because the families they worked for were sympathetic to their situations and more likely than a supervisor at a facility was to give them flexibility for part-time study or second jobs or other means they wished to avail themselves of to improve their situations. There are better jobs out there than this one!

  4. Common Sense and Joanna, really guys? Are you justifying the inhuman treatment these people are getting only because these are no-skill jobs? Are you justifying the abuse they are getting?

    Joanna, you say you hope that they automate as much as possible this warehouse jobs, so “so they can do better things with their lives”, however following your reasoning, they still should get an education or keep their shitty jobs and stfu.

    If at least your comments were about justifying the low pay they get, but this way you just come out as monsters.

  5. I am not justifying anything. I am saying that these jobs are by their very design so awful that nobody should have them. Given the physical demands of this work, there really isn’t much they can do to make it better. These people should be trained for better jobs.

  6. The solution is to automate every job that is tedious and “inhuman”. That’s how the auto industry manages to build cars with a handful of people today instead of hundreds. And that’s how the unemployment rate rises over time and the participation rate in the labour force — the total percent of folks working (or looking for work) in the entire population — declines. So which is it you want: entry jobs or unemployment with automation?

    There ought to be sensible regulation and rules regarding employment standards (which, generally speaking, depending on where you live, there are), and then let the business system do what it does best — find efficiencies and profits to build more business.

    Food production — aka farming – is back breaking work. If no one did it, we’d all starve to death.

  7. Take a peek through the back door of an Amazon fulfillment warehouse. Adjoining is a busy world of book manufacture that powers books on demand. The facilities can produce a book and stream it to the zip code rams in as little as two hours. Ebooks are a product of the head-end pre-press department.

    The relevance here is an exciting, challenging production environment where, on a given day, hundreds of interesting people work interactively in the labor-intensive industry of modern book manufacture. Every minute is exciting but this scene is not apparent if you look only at an Amazon warehouse.

  8. A job can be intrinsically hard on people’s body (farming, mining, house building, product-picking from warehouses), this is unavoidable. What is avoidable however, is how these people are treated, there is no justification to this other than the will to take advantage of people in desperate need of a job.

    If this approach is accepted as normal (as it is now), there is no amount of automation that will at a certain point leave only the dignifying jobs.

  9. People want things to cost less. The low price takes its toll on low skill workers like shipping warehouse labor or Walmart clerks. Most people are OK with this.

    Not everybody can escape low wage jobs. Nor is telling people to get an education the universal solution.

    But this is, really, an old story. H.G. Wells wrote about it in The Time Machine.

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