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February 23, 2014 7:02 PM Your bummer read of the day: how Amazon’s labor policies are worse than Walmart’s

By Kathleen Geier

Today, Salon published an excerpt from a new book by writer Simon Head about Amazon’s appalling labor practices. Head has reported on workplace policies at both Walmart and Amazon. While previously he believed that Walmart was “the most egregiously ruthless corporation in America,” he now claims that Amazon is “a strong challenger for this dubious distinction.”

According to Head, the companies have much in common: state-of-the-art inventory systems, an ambitious global reach, a creepy corporate culture, and most disturbingly of all, cutthroat Taylorism and relentless employee surveillance. The piece contains several terrible stories of Amazon’s brutal mistreatment of workers. This episode, which took place in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2011, is one of the worst:

The series revealed the lengths Amazon was prepared to go to keep costs down and output high and yielded a singular image of Amazon’s ruthlessness—ambulances stationed on hot days at the Amazon center to take employees suffering from heat stroke to the hospital. Despite the summer weather, there was no air-conditioning in the depot, and Amazon refused to let fresh air circulate by opening loading doors at either end of the depot—for fear of theft. Inside the plant there was no slackening of the pace, even as temperatures rose to more than 100 degrees.
On June 2, 2011, a warehouse employee contacted the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report that the heat index had reached 102 degrees in the warehouse and that fifteen workers had collapsed. On June 10 OSHA received a message on its complaints hotline from an emergency room doctor at the Lehigh Valley Hospital: “I’d like to report an unsafe environment with an Amazon facility in Fogelsville… . Several patients have come in the last couple of days with heat related injuries.”
On July 25, with temperatures in the depot reaching 110 degrees, a security guard reported to OSHA that Amazon was refusing to open garage doors to help air circulate and that he had seen two pregnant women taken to a nursing station. Calls to the local ambulance service became so frequent that for five hot days in June and July, ambulances and paramedics were stationed all day at the depot. Commenting on these developments, Vickie Mortimer, general manager of the warehouse, insisted that “the safety and welfare of our employees is our number-one priority at Amazon, and as general manager I take that responsibility seriously.” To this end, “Amazon brought 2,000 cooling bandannas which were given to every employee, and those in the dock/trailer yard received cooling vests.”

It’s fair to say that there are many progressives out there who would never dream of darkening the door of a Walmart, and yet also never give their Amazon Prime membership a second thought. I’m not necessarily advocating boycotting either place, but I am pointing out how strange it is that while Walmart has a deservedly terrible reputation among most progressives, no such infamy clings to Amazon. Yet it, too, is one of the worst employers in America.

It’s highly likely that one reason why Walmart’s bad reputation sticks and Amazon’s doesn’t is the respective class signifiers of these two brands. Walmart is a downscale retailer for poor and working class folks, while Amazon has always been pitched to a more upscale demographic and was originally associated with a classy product (books), although of course it now sells everything.

At any rate, Amazon’s heinous labor practices should be far better known, and it’s something people should at least think about when making the decision to shop there.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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