Amazon’s quest for second HQ recalls questions about job quality

Sept. 28, 2017

Amazon’s effort to locate a second headquarters and potentially create 50,000 high-paying jobs brought to mind an article from The New York Times, August 15, 2015, titled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”

The two-year-old article suggested that the new jobs might not be that attractive after all. Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld wrote that employees who “hit the wall” were told to “climb the wall.”

They wrote, “At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they weren’t answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high’” An ex-employee reports seeing Amazon workers crying at their desks.

Whereas there is widespread fear that robots will take over people’s jobs, there is an equal fear that people are becoming robots, contend Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger in The Guardian. They write, “To what extent are we being turned into workers that resemble robots?”

Good question. As Kantor and Streitfeld in the Times quoted one employee as saying, “If you are a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot”—you become one with the system. They don’t mention “resistance is futile,” but the implication is clear.

Needless to say, the Times article did not reflect well on Amazon, with reports on people with health or family issues being treated badly. However, the specific instances cited in the Times article represented a small portion of Amazon’s workforce. That is by no means an excuse for horrid treatment of cancer patients or women who have miscarried that the Times article alleges, but such incidents can probably be found in any large organization and are not unique to Amazon.

Indeed, in a follow-up article in the Times, Kantor and Streitfeld reported that founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos deplored the original article’s description of “…a soulless dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter is heard.”

They reported, “He told his workers, ‘I don’t recognize this Amazon, and I very much hope you don’t either.’”

And in a letter to the editor, one employee wrote, “I found your portrayal of Amazon to be extremely one-sided. Yes, it is competitive; yes, the work demand is high…. But no—I don’t work 80 hours a week; I took four weeks of vacation last year and got promoted. No, I don’t cry at my desk every day.”

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