The giant retailer Amazon represents the cutting edge of a materialistic consumer society. It changed the marketplace by facilitating the quest for ever greater, faster and cheaper gratification. The desire for “always more” instead of better often leads to consumer frustration and stress, not happiness.
However, Amazon also is changing the workplace. What happens on the fulfillment side of these instant orders is also revealing. When an order is registered on Amazon, workers must scramble to satisfy the consumer’s accelerated expectations. The order sets in motion a world of hi-tech gadgetry and automation. Linked to these machines are workers engaging in mind-numbing labor to get the packages out on time. The consumers’ quest for “always faster” leads to high worker turnover and burnout.
The Return to the Assembly Line
Many would like to believe that the old days of the assembly line workers engaged in tedious, repetitive work are over or mitigated. Robots occupy the places of such workers in many areas. More advanced industrialized nations also outsource such work to China or Third World countries. The old Industrial Revolution model calls to mind the quote attributed to Henry Ford: “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”
The new high-tech workplace is bringing back exhausting, tedious work. Amazon is at the forefront of the trend at its warehouse fulfillment centers. It recently announced plans to hire 125,000 new warehouse workers. It will also add 100 fulfillment centers to its current network of 930 facilities. With the tight labor market, it is offering higher wages and benefits.
The Amazon model is quickly spreading to other high-tech industries. However, it is also offering a new way of working. The main problem is this model’s tendency to treat workers like machines. And not just any machines, but customized machines driven by technology and algorithms designed to maximize worker performance.
Workers Treated Like Machines
There is nothing wrong with hard work with decent pay, especially in a time when people flee responsibility. Indeed, work should provide for the material needs of workers and their families. Wages and benefits are important considerations, but not the only ones.
Work should also help satisfy the spiritual needs of the individuals by providing opportunities for expressing talents, creativity and intelligence. The tasks involved should not be overwhelming, tedious and dehumanizing.
When workers are treated like machines, the machine is made their model, not another human being. In such a regime, the individual is reduced to a depersonalized “unit” to be inserted into the process. The human element with its organic spontaneity, creativity and ingenuity is lost.
Even human relationships start to reflect the machine’s constant, cold, and brutal action. Workers find it hard to keep pace and deal with their limitations. At the Amazon warehouse, this tendency is mind-boggling as the retail giant pulls out all the stops to get things to the consumer faster.
Grueling Schedules and Monitoring
Entry-level work at Amazon fulfillment centers offers decent pay and benefits. However, many new workers do not survive beyond two weeks. These employees are not necessarily lazy; they cannot take the grueling schedule and work routines.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, workers can expect exhausting ten-hour days spent standing on the warehouse floor. The routine is only broken by a half-hour lunch and two fifteen-minute breaks. Automated systems keep workers supplied with a steady stream of work.
However, the worst part of the job is not the tasks involved. There is constant pressure to perform according to the pace determined by software and algorithms monitoring the work. Thomas Hobbs once described modernity’s individualism as the “war of every man against every man.”
At Amazon’s fulfillment centers, workers compete with all the other workers to keep pace. It is a war of every worker against every other worker. The managers know how everyone is performing because the high-tech warehouse is full of sensors that track every move. The automated equipment can thus adjust to the pace.
Everyone’s evaluation is expressed by a number, and workers are warned to “make rate,” determined by the average aggregated performance of all employees. Twice a day, managers come by to discuss rates with the standing workers in this war of numbers. Those who can’t “make rate” do not survive.
The warehouse is a work engineer’s dream. Millions of images can be analyzed to determine the best way to do something. The company has all the data to turn the operation and the surviving workers into a mean, brutally efficient machine. They are constantly looking for ways to quicken the pace.
The warehouse required workers to get the materials off the shelves in former setups, often walking as much as ten miles a day. Now the materials come to the workers through automated robots. The result was not employee relief but a massive increase in orders to be processed to make rate.
A More Intense and Brutal Master
Past work management models relied on supervisors and bosses to motivate workers to produce more. Assembly lines made work yet faster by inserting people into processes that could not be easily stopped. However, the Amazon model is a much more intense and brutal master. This supercharged management system has at its command a vast array of surveillance instruments, digital tools, metrics and software analytics to monitor employee performance and suggest improvements. It can insert robotic helpers to speed up processes and keep up the pressure.
People are not machines. Their work should respect man’s God-given dignity and organic nature, which is full of vivacity, spontaneity and unpredictability. The mechanical model does not favor an atmosphere of courtesy, affection and respect that should reign in the workplace and society.
Thus, the problem is not only Amazon. It is a system that is based on the frenetic intemperance of a society without restraint. Everyone seeks happiness in a materialistic paradise that will never satisfy humanity’s spiritual desires regardless of the speed at which it is delivered.
By reducing everything to ever-faster gratification, this perception strips the universe of all metaphysical meaning and purpose. It casts doubt upon all past certainties and narratives and gives rise to cynical skepticism. The actual need for change must take place inside souls.