Convenience Is Destroying Us

A woman works in a delivery truck at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island. Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

Why would a delivery driver pee in a bottle, or shit in a bag? Amazon drivers have already answered the question: Speed is everything, one recently told Vice, saying they’re “pressured” to finish their routes by nightfall and a bathroom break is time they can’t afford to take. There is a cost to next-day shipping, and it looks like a water bottle full of piss; it feels like the physical distress of a warehouse worker who can’t take “time off task” to find a bathroom. That’s the truth behind Amazon’s famous arrow smile, the reality its $15 minimum wage is meant to disguise. Until Amazon can staff its warehouses with robots, or purchase self-driving cars for deliveries, it must force human beings to behave as much like automatons as possible. Human needs get in the way of next-day shipping.

Convenience is a perk of modern life and it is also a curse. Someone has to pay for speed, and it will either be the customer or the worker. Amazon, like most companies, decided to shift the cost to workers. Like Darryl Richardson, a pro-union Amazon worker in Bessemer, Alabama, they must weigh their need for a job against their need for a bathroom or a drink of water. They aren’t health-care workers, struggling to save lives from a deadly pandemic; they’re shipping toiletries and home goods. How badly do any of us need a pack of shaving gel tomorrow?

There are times, obviously, when convenience is not a luxury but a need. In the early days of the pandemic, I so feared what the virus could do to my compromised immune system that I relied on Amazon to ship me toiletry items. There didn’t seem to be a good way to balance my new limitations with my principles; I could and did send my fiancé to the store, but each trip carried its own risk. (Despite our caution we still got sick last March, with a respiratory illness that was either COVID or something we have been calling “super bronchitis.”) Now that I’m vaccinated, I rely on Amazon less, and now plan to avoid it as much as I can. But I don’t delude myself, either. My decision won’t prevent a driver from having to pee in a bottle — any more than the reduction of my carbon footprint will prevent the Earth from becoming an overheated hellscape. An individual decision can’t do much against a problem the size of the world.

Nobody can boycott capitalism. It’s more useful to ask a question: What do Amazon, and companies like it, ask us to accept in the name of convenience? Amazon offers cheap delivery fees in exchange for horrendous working conditions. At McDonald’s, it’s cheap fast food for low wages. Go to Kroger and the bargain is similar: cheap groceries for exploitation. The grocery chain closed Los Angeles–area stores rather than obey a local law requiring it to give hazard pay to workers. The services or goods they offer all make our days easier, maybe they even make our days possible. But we’re sacrificing something in return, namely a shared sense of responsibility to others.

The conditions reported by Amazon workers in the U.S. and across the world stain our collective conscience. The situation must be made as public as possible — invisibility is a form of power, it hides what must be uncovered. “Everyone needs to be made aware of the fact that Amazon drivers are forced to work in unconscionable conditions, and that the company will lie about this and cover it up,” Nathan Robinson recently wrote in Current Affairs, and this is true. But knowledge is only half of it. What do we do once we know?

If we decide, as we should, that we no longer wish to pay the secret moral cost of our Amazon delivery, then we have other choices to make. Humane conditions carry their own costs, as corporations themselves are only too pleased to point out. If a McDonald’s worker gets a union and $15 an hour, a Big Mac might cost a little more than $6.49 a meal. If Kroger keeps hazard pay for its frontline workers, maybe our groceries cost a little more, too. And our Amazon deliveries might slow down. Maybe Prime next-day shipping disappears. Maybe that pack of shaving gel shows up a day or two later than normal. Convenience isn’t much good to a destroyed planet or a destroyed human species.

Corporations can absorb the costs, too. Amazon posted its largest-ever annual profit during the pandemic. A billion-dollar company can afford a union, and more bathroom breaks for its staff. Jeff Bezos has a lot of cushion in his status as the world’s wealthiest man and he’ll be fine. The pandemic boosted profits for Kroger, too. The chain can afford to continue what it once called “Hero Pay” for its workers, without hiking grocery prices. As for McDonald’s, and other fast-food chains, they aren’t hurting either. In January, the burger chain reported a fourth-quarter profit of $5.31 billion. It too can afford a union, along with the $15 wage its workers have demanded. These corporations force workers into unbearable conditions because they can, not because they must.

A common struggle links Amazon consumer to Amazon worker. Some working conditions are more humane than others, but in the absence of a union, a welfare state that functions, or robust legal protections for workers, we are all vulnerable: to our bosses, to a national obsession with work as the only thing that stands between us and the abyss.

“Why is America so crazy?” the writer Emily Guendelsberger asked in her book, On the Clock. “It’s the inescapable chronic stress built into the way we work and live. It’s the insane idea that an honest day’s work means suppressing your humanity, dignity, family and other nonwork priorities in exchange for low wages that make home life constantly stressful, too.” A better world is possible. Achieving it requires more from corporations than consumers. But perhaps we can begin by understanding convenience for what it’s become — a way for abusive companies to lull us into complacency. There are worse fates than slower deliveries.

Convenience Is Destroying Us