Like a lot of predictable liberals, I’ve long imagined Amazon to be a terrible place to work. I’d read articles like “Amazon warehouse workers strike to protest inhumane conditions,” or “Amazon Working Conditions: Urinating in Trash Cans, Shamed to Work Injured, List of Employee Complaints,” or “Amazon workers ‘forced to urinate in plastic bottles because they cannot go to toilet on shift,’” and feel anger and despair, thinking about the enormously rich company, its extremely wealthy founder, and its treatment of the workers who have allowed it to flourish. But yesterday, Amazon PR tweeted a link to an article called “Tourist Journalism Versus the Working Class,” and now I know the proper attitude I should feel toward Amazon: deference!
The piece, which appeared on Quillette, an essay website with a focus on skull shapes, is by Kevin Mims, a writer and part-time Amazon warehouse worker. Mims, who works at a “sortation center,” where already-packaged items are sorted for delivery, has found himself frustrated with Amazon’s many critics, in particular “tourist journalists” like the English reporter James Bloodworth, author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, who work for a stint at an Amazon warehouse and write exposés of its working conditions.
“What did these intrepid reporters uncover?” Mims asks. “A whole lot of nothing, if you ask me.” His hope is to push back on the experiential, anecdotal reporting of reporters like Bloodworth and the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr by relating his own anecdotal experience. Working at Amazon, Mims assures us, is really not so bad. He addresses various complaints methodically:
Complaint: Amazon closely tracks employee “offenses” through a point system.
Counterpoint: “A lot of offenses (such as punching out in the middle of a shift without management approval) will cost an employee only half a point.”
Complaint: Employees are pressured to not take sick days.
Counterpoint: “My father always told me, ‘Never take a sick day during your first year of employment with any company, no matter what.’ My wife and I have literally gone years between sick days.”
Complaint: Warehouse work is dangerous and physically exhausting.
Counterpoint: “Our managers are obsessed with keeping us properly hydrated. Free bottled waters and electrolyte-enriched popsicles are located in ice chests all over the facility.”
Complaint: Workers “were encouraged to chant Prime Day slogans during our morning stretch.”
Counterpoint: “A bit of company spirit is downright American.”
“To university-educated media professionals like Carole Cadwalladr, James Bloodworth, and John Oliver, an Amazon warehouse must seem like the Black Hole of Calcutta,” Mims writes. He might be right. There is something sort of preposterous about the sheer number of reporters who have now undertaken undercover exposés of low-wage Amazon work (to the extent that Cadwalladr and the BBC’s Adam Littler apparently went undercover in the same warehouse). But you don’t need to listen to undercover reporters to get a picture of working conditions in Amazon warehouses — you can listen to Amazon employees themselves, like the workers in Shakopee, Minnesota, who went on strike on Prime Day over inhumane workloads, high turnover, and unfair write-ups, or in the English town of Doncaster, where employees have been protesting similar conditions, or in Staten Island, or in Chicago. Bloodworth and Cadwalladr may or may not be “tourists” — but they’re also not saying anything different from what longer-term workers do.
So what is the problem with their articles? Mims notes early on that “just about every job in my sortation center could probably be done by a robot. In fact, it amazes me that Amazon hasn’t simply automated the entire facility.” This is a theme he returns to: “If Amazon is going to be castigated publicly every time one of its 650,000 employees has a bad day, it may well decide to automate as many positions as possible and do away with most of its human workforce.” In other words, journalists need to be more forgiving of Amazon, because otherwise Amazon will put thousands of people out of a job. As Mims puts it at the end of his essay, “if John Oliver and his ilk keep harping away at how inhumanely Amazon treats its workers, Bezos might decide to completely automate his operation and people like me will be out of a job.”
As far as Mims is concerned, his job exists thanks to the magnanimity of Jeff Bezos (“Thanks to Jeff Bezos’s generosity, I may soon be able to give up my second job altogether,” he writes at one point) and we wouldn’t want to do anything to upset Jeff. I have no doubt he arrived at this opinion honestly and forthrightly and has been given plenty of reason to believe it; after all, Amazon PR proudly tweeted (and later deleted) a link to this piece, so clearly some people at Amazon agree with his assessment. So maybe fewer headlines about peeing in bottles, and more about how good that electrolyte water tastes.