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May/June 2019 issue.

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Amazon’s New Jungle

A review of Hired by James Bloodworth (Atlantic Books, 2018) and Seasonal Associate by Heike Geissler (Semiotext(e), 2018)

By Steven Pressman

Last February, Amazon reversed a prior decision to establish its new headquarters in Long Island City in Queens. New York offered Amazon $3 billion in subsidies; Amazon promised to create 25,000 jobs in exchange. The deal faltered following protests led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose Congressional district abuts Long Island City. Protestors feared a lower quality of life if Amazon had a greater presence there.

The books under review here provide two reasons why this might be so. These reasons come straight from Karl Marx’s writings on worker exploitation and alienation. Exploitation involves squeezing as much as possible from each worker. Alienation concerns how workers become separated from their true selves while working. Hired describes the exploitation of Amazon workers, Uber drivers, and home health aides; Seasonal Associate depicts the alienation of Amazon workers. Both books are in the tradition of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking reporting in his book The Jungle.

Bloodworth, a British journalist, went undercover at several low-paying firms in the United Kingdom, including in an Amazon warehouse. He reports on the many ways Amazon exploits their employees. Labor contracts let Amazon send workers home when they were no longer needed for their (full) shift; and Amazon provided only short-term contracts, letting them lay off workers before having to pay benefits (if workers stayed that long).

The workplace was reminiscent of a prison. Employees go through airport-like security when entering the warehouse area where the work of stocking shelves and filling orders takes place. Bathroom breaks might require walking from one end of the warehouse to the other, again going through security. Workers are continuously told what to do (put a particular book or doll in a box) and how many seconds they have to accomplish each task. They run through the warehouse all day trying to meet these mandates. Those not performing up to standards receive demerits, as do workers taking too long for bathroom breaks. Enough demerits leads to dismissal.

Mac McCelland’s 2012 Mother Jones article, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” makes clear that Amazon workers in the United States are treated similarly. In Seasonal Associate, Heike Geissler shows that things are not much different in Germany.

But Geissler adds something important. Bored working as secretary with little to do, she began writing a novel. Published in 2002, Rosa was critically acclaimed and made her a good sum of money, which was quickly spent. For extra cash (her bank account was overdrawn) Geissler went to work at Amazon for the 2010 Christmas rush. At the time she was living a working-class existence, with a boyfriend and two kids.

Geissler describes how Amazon employees are treated—scolded when not performing up to standards and frequently reminded that they can lose their job at any time. On Sundays she felt like a child dreading school the following day. The book is written in a stream of consciousness style, with somewhat annoying tangents that do however serve a purpose.

As only a novelist can do, Geissler effectively communicates the alienation experienced by Amazon employees. Her book is a letter to her other self, the one that will not be working at Amazon after Christmas. Monitored and controlled every minute at work, she could only become herself at work during lunch and bathroom breaks. She kept her sanity by writing to her other self on post-it notes. “It’s all about sheer endurance ... translating your time and effort into money.” These notes became her book.

Working at Amazon affected other aspects of her life. Family became “irritating background noise” when trying to recover from a commute and 10-hour-plus work day. I wanted to hear more about her life, her boyfriend, and his contributions to the household. Such details, provided by the pre-Amazon self, would have enriched her woeful story of alienation.

Both books remind us how bad things are for workers, and how Amazon brings a virulent form of capitalism wherever it goes. Shareholders become richer; workers, small retail outlets, and even governments, lose. Low wages require more social benefits for workers; lower tax revenue from Amazon requires spending cutbacks. No wonder workers around the world are angry and seem ready to embrace anything that looks like a solution. Bloodworth and Geissler give us one target. But they also give hope that people can oppose large corporations as word gets out about their sweatshop conditions. And kudos to Queens for taking on a corporate behemoth and alienating Amazon.

teaches economics at Colorado State University and is the author of 50 Major Economists (Routledge, 2013).

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