An inside look at the awful working conditions in ‘fulfillment center’ warehouses

A recent episode of the radio show Radiolab had a story from seven years ago by an award winning writer and investigative reporter Gabriel Mac who managed to get hired at an internet retailer warehouse. The show is careful not to mention the name of the company where he was a ‘picker’ and worked in a giant warehouse that was the size of about 17 football fields, referring to it by the generic name of Amalgamated. He said that at the beginning of the day they are given these scanner devices that tell them where to locate an item on the shelves to put it in a plastic bag and place it on a conveyor belt. The items seem on the surface to be placed on the shelves at random with the same item scattered all over the warehouse and placed in bins with other unrelated items. But the seeming randomness is misleading. The computer knows where things are and they have been placed so as to make collecting the items ordered by customers quicker.

As soon as they find one, it then immediately gives them the next item to find. But the device also tells them how much time they have to find each item, say 15 seconds, and the device counts down with beeps and a red light flashes if they fail to get it done one time and tells them how many seconds they were behind. It also continually keeps track of the percentage of times they meet the deadlines and during and at the end of the day the manager tells them if they need to shape up. There is an elaborate point system to keep track of your performance. The pressure is unrelenting, with needing to pick up as many as 170 items per hour. The pace is grueling, the minimum shift length is 10.5 hours, and he had to walk about twelve miles a day. They get 29 minutes and 59 seconds for lunch. Go one second over and you get docked points and if you get docked enough points you get fired. If you miss a day for any reason at all during the training period, you get fired and have to start over.

You can read Mac’s original article about his warehouse experience that he wrote for Mother Jones back in 2012 where he describes in detail what the hiring, training, and work experience was like. He says that his experience has made him try to avoid ordering things on the internet, a practice that I also try to follow. If I have to order something via the internet, I try to order directly from a small retail store and not a giant conglomerate

He recounts what a fellow worker told him just after he had been hired.

“They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they’re gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they’re gonna increase the goals. But they’ll be yelling at you all the time. It’s like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they’re going to tell you, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,’ to make you work harder. Don’t say, ‘This is the best I can do.’ Say, ‘I’ll try,’ even if you know you can’t do it. Because if you say, ‘This is the best I can do,’ they’ll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You’ll see people dropping all around you. But don’t take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you.”

“Well, what if I do start crying?” I ask the woman who warns me to keep it together no matter how awfully I’m treated. “Are they really going to fire me for that?”

“Yes,” she says. “There’s 16 other people who want your job. Why would they keep a person who gets emotional, especially in this economy?”

When I start toward the door, she repeats her “No. 1 rule of survival” one more time.

“Leave your pride and your personal life at the door.” If there’s any way I’m going to last, she says, tomorrow I have to start pretending like I don’t have either.

Mac says that the only way to describe the way the system treats people is mean.

What Mac describes is brutal and it makes you wonder how it can be that the labor laws allow it. How is it that in the 21st century, we are returning to Dickensian working conditions? We already have debtors’ prisons where people people are jailed for the inability to pay small fines and the costs associated with the legal system? Is child labor next?

While these giant corporations that use modern technology to squeeze the very last amounts of labor out of people are guilty of reprehensible practices, we are also part of the problem. The system is partly this way because we, the people, for some reason have decided that we want to get things really fast and as cheaply as possible, even if there is no urgency at all, merely to gratify our desires as quickly as possible. Do we really need paper towels delivered to us the same or the next day?

As if Amalgamated couldn’t bear to lose a fraction of a percent of profits by employing a few more than the absolute minimum of bodies they have to, or by storing the merchandise at halfway ergonomic heights and angles. But that would cost space, and space costs money, and money is not a thing customers could possibly be expected to hand over for this service without huffily taking their business elsewhere. Charging for shipping does cause high abandonment rates of online orders, though it’s not clear whether people wouldn’t pay a few bucks for shipping, or a bit more for the products, if they were guaranteed that no low-income workers would be tortured or exploited in the handling of their purchases.

[M]ost people really don’t know how most internet goods get to them. The e-commerce specialist didn’t even know, and she was in charge of choosing the 3PL for her midsize online-retail company. “These decisions are made at a business level and are based on cost,” she says. “I never, ever thought about what they’re like and how they treat people. Fulfillment centers want to keep clients blissfully ignorant of their conditions.” If you called major clothing retailers, she ventured, and asked them “what it was like at the warehouse that ships their sweaters, no one at company headquarters would have any fucking clue.”

“A standard has to be created. Like fair trade or organic certification, where social good is built into the cost. There is a segment of the population”—like the consumers of her company’s higher-end product, she felt—”that cares and will pay for it.”

At today’s pickers’ meeting, we are reminded that customers are waiting. We cannot move at a “comfortable pace,” because if we are comfortable, we will never make our numbers, and customers are not willing to wait.

Ignorance of what is going on behind the scenes is part of the problem. But we can’t depend on consumers to drive change because enough people will be willing to shift their business to companies that offer speedier delivery and cheaper prices and correspondingly worse working conditions. There have to be federal laws that protect all workers from these conditions so that the cost of creating humane working conditions is built into the product for every supplier so that there can be no race to the bottom.

The Radiolab segment dealing with Mac’s story begins at the 16:00 mark. It originally aired seven years ago and at the 34:30 minute mark, the show’s host Jad Abumrad talked with Mac recently and it turns out that 3.5 years ago Mac transitioned to a man and they discussed what it means to the career of a successful writer and reporter with a long public paper (and voice) trail to transition, and how he dealt with it. The segment ends at the 42:00 mark.

It is well worth listening to.


  1. garnetstar says

    I’ve never been a fan of “speedy” delivery either. What is *that* urgent? If you need something so quickly, how about just running down to the local store?

    And yeah, if they provide the convenience of shipping something to your door, you should expect to pay more for not having to get up off the couch and going to get it and bringing it home yourself.

    I mean, if you get groceries delivered from the local supermarket, there’s a delivery fee and a tip for the driver. Why not with things that are shipped, instead of hand-delivered?

    Unions are everything. I know that they tried to form one, and that the immense power of the company trained its guns on them, but eventually it will have to happen.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    “eventually it will have to happen.”

    I predict successful union formation single digit days before every picker is fired and replaced by robots.

  3. mailliw says

    I think of buying products that treat their workers fairly is a form of insurance.

    If you buy things from exploiters you are implicitly giving your own employer the right to exploit you.

    I think about Marx’s thoughts about automation as a way to free people from meaningless machine like work enabling them to devote their time to fulfilling activities. Instead machines are used to force people to work harder.

    Note also the limits of automation, despite the constant hype about robotics and AI nobody has managed to build a robot yet that can handle the stock picking.

  4. says

    US corporations have long admire Chinese corporations and their “996 workweek”: 9am to 9pm, 6 days per week. At wages paid to 955 workers (Mon-Fri, 9-5).

    Forbes actively tried to rationalize, justify and encourage it. “Why China’s 996 Work Culture Makes Sense Right Now”

    China’s 996 workweek has been killing people for years, making business owners rich with no legal consequences for deaths caused on the job (re: foxconn suicides).

  5. sonofrojblake says

    @mailliw, 3: the word “yet” is doing a lot of lifting in that last sentence.

  6. anat says

    garnetstar @1: The stuff I buy online is stuff I can’t easily find in shops in my area. I don’t particularly care about speed of delivery, just getting the item at all without having to look through multiple shops all over the place.

  7. bmiller says

    anat @6: Have to confess I don’t understand the need for buying so much “stuff” anyway that I would ever spend time driving from store to store. I think of the George Carlin monologs about “buying shoes with lights in them”.

  8. mailliw says

    @5 sonofrojblake

    The claims of silicon valley about AI and robotics should be viewed with considerable scepticism. I recommend Rodney Brooks’ blog Brooks is emeritus professor of robotics at MIT and runs a company building industrial robots.

    Of particular interest on this topic is his predictions scorecard

    Dexterous robot hands generally available.
    BY 2040 (I hope!) Despite some impressive lab demonstrations we have not actually seen any improvement in widely deployed robotic hands or end effectors in the last 40 years.

  9. mailliw says

    @6 anat

    There are plenty of online providers apart from “Amalgamated”.

    You don’t need to go to multiple shops. Small retailers have web sites nowadays and you can order everything on line directly with them instead of feeding the corporate beast.

    It is at least fifteen years since I last ordered anything from “Amalgamated”.

  10. mailliw says

    @4 Intransitive

    So the People’s Republic still hasn’t managed to fulfill Marx’s vision of automation freeing people from dehumanising work conditions.

  11. anat says

    bmiller, I don’t buy a lot of stuff. But some items are not commonly found. (And when I buy at physical shops I often walk to them, unless it’s the weekly grocery shopping at Costco. I consider anything within 2 miles to be walking distance, and with the pandemic habits I occasionally do 3 miles each way.)

  12. anat says

    mailliw, I understand that robotic phlebotomists are getting better than human ones?

  13. says

    mailliw (#10) --

    Of course they have. People property of the state, disposable for the “best interests of the party”. What happens to individuals doesn’t matter (e.g. killing then for organs).

  14. mailliw says

    @13 Intransitive

    Highgate Cemetary has someone on permanent duty patting down the earth from poor old Karl spinning in his grave because of what some people have done in his name.

  15. bmiller says

    Anat: I was being a bit snarky. Still… some people seem to be constantly buying stuff from the Luciferian Overlord.

  16. lorn says

    Money is allocated to labor, owners, investors or it is used to run or reinvested into the business. It is a zero-sum game. Prioritization and allocations are arbitrary. Demanding more from labor is simply a way of asking less of the other three players.

    These are simple systems and the hardship is a result of a conscious decision to pay the owners and investors more at the expense of labor. Pay investors and owners a small amount less and they could lighten up on labor. Or they could simply automate the whole thing.

    My assumption is that they feel they can screw labor, and maximize profits for the shareholders, while waiting for automation and robotics to catch up. Once that corner is turned they can gain absolution by firing everyone and expressing “regrets” for any harm. That and a few thousand in a severance package will smooth any ruffled feathers.

    No, boycotting Amazon won’t work. Go down the list of the smaller retailers and you can see how each wants to become Amazon. And doing it all at the expense of labor. Not a dimes worth of difference between them. Sure, there will be head-fakes about improved conditions but labor is, and will remain the weakest player at the table so they are going to get screwed. Unions would have made a difference but labor simply isn’t angry or organized enough to step off together. As long as there are people willing to work in those conditions the beatings will continue.

    Short to Mid-term: Labor is going to take it on the chin with only minor, mostly inconsequential, concessions possible.

    Long term: labor will be replaced by automation and robotics. The labor problem will evaporate.

  17. bmiller says

    If the labor problem evaporates, who will buy the goods and services? The Owners class can’t keep the economy running. Even the Chinese are beginning to automate.

    But I think you are forgetting the REAL medium/long term situation: Massive climate change causes industrial civilization to collapse a la Mad Max or A Canticle for Leibowitz. Luckily, at 58, I will probably not live to see that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *