In an ideal world, products would be made to last as long as possible and companies would strive to keep their workers content because such workers are more productive and you want them to stay because training new people to do jobs is disruptive and inefficient. But with unbridled capitalism that demands rising revenues and cutting costs, such a model no longer works.
First came planned obsolescence. Instead of making things to last as long as possible, some items are now built to last for just a limited time so that people have to periodically go out and buy a new item. This is not only expensive, it is bad for the environment, using more raw materials than necessary and filling up landfills.
Then came the attack on workers. Companies realized that long time workers cost more because their wages had risen over time. It became to be seen that profitability could be increased by forcing out older workers and replacing them with entry level people. The temporary loss in efficiency and continuity could be compensated for in lower wage costs. It used to be that the older workers who were forced out were at the higher rungs of the work force, those earning much more than entry level workers, while the lower level workers were spared.
But no more. It turns out that Amazon, a prime agent for introducing inhumane work practices, has decided that even its lowest level warehouse workers need to to pushed out after a few years because the longer they stay, the more they expect from the company in terms of wages and benefits. and the company finds all manner of reasons, some utterly trivial or cruel, for terminating employees.
Not surprisingly, turnover is high.
But even before the pandemic, previously unreported data shows, Amazon was losing about 3 percent of its hourly associates each week — meaning its turnover was roughly 150 percent a year. At that rate, Amazon had to replace the equivalent of its entire work force roughly every eight months.
Some of the practices that most frustrate employees — the short-term-employment model, with little opportunity for advancement, and the use of technology to hire, monitor and manage workers — come from Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive.
He believed that an entrenched work force created a “march to mediocrity,” said David Niekerk, a former long-serving vice president who built the company’s original human resources operations in the warehouses.
Company data showed that most employees became less eager over time, he said, and Mr. Bezos believed that people were inherently lazy. “What he would say is that our nature as humans is to expend as little energy as possible to get what we want or need,” Mr. Niekerk said. That conviction was embedded throughout the business, from the ease of instant ordering to the pervasive use of data to get the most out of employees.
In his daily newsletter of June 14, 2021, New York Times reporter David Leonhardt describes the reasoning (no link unfortunately).
In his drive to create the world’s most efficient company, Jeff Bezos discovered what he thought was another inefficiency worth eliminating: hourly employees who spent years working for the same company.
Longtime employees expected to receive raises. They also became less enthusiastic about the work, Amazon’s data suggested. And they were a potential source of internal discontent.
Bezos came to believe that an entrenched blue-collar work force represented “a march to mediocrity,” as David Niekerk, a former Amazon executive who built the company’s warehouse human resources operations, told The Times, as part of an investigative project being published this morning. “What he would say is that our nature as humans is to expend as little energy as possible to get what we want or need.”
In response, Amazon encouraged employee turnover. After three years on the job, hourly workers no longer received automatic raises, and the company offered bonuses to people who quit. It also offered limited upward mobility for hourly workers, preferring to hire managers from the outside.
As is often the case with one of Amazon’s business strategies, it worked.
The constant churning of workers has helped keep efficiency high and wages fairly low. Profits have soared, and the company is on pace to overtake Walmart as the nation’s largest private employer. Bezos has become one of the world’s richest people.
Many people want to believe that being a generous employer is crucial to being a successful company. But that isn’t always true.
Companies can continue to squeeze their workers more and more because of the power imbalance due to the lack of strong unions. Is it any wonder that Amazon employs the most vicious anti-union practices?
consciousness razor says
The narrative here is a bit odd. It shouldn’t really sound like a sequence of recent events, happening one after another. This realization did not take a significant length of time, and workers have been under attack in one way or another for ages. (That’s a much older phenomenon than the “planned obsolescence” which resulted from industrialization, mass production, consumerism, etc.)
From what I can tell, whenever they call it an “entry level” job, that basically just means they’re barely paying you. They still tend to expect years of experience and/or education though.
And yes, you may still be squeezed out soon enough anyway. It’s definitely not just an Amazon thing … at least not until it swallows up our entire economy.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But it is still kind of hilarious to hear “my slaves don’t want to work harder than they need to!!!11!!“ from the guy who is absolutely convinced that he actually has a paying job just because he owns a thing.
Here’s hoping that Amazon suffers viciously from the current US “worker shortage”, meaning that 1) a lot of workers died over the past year, 2) many more became disabled from long-term virus effects, and 3) workers had the time to realize how dreadful their jobs were and aren’t going back.
Heidi Nemeth says
It’s not a lack of unions which is the problem in the USA. It is the lack of reasonable and enforced federal labor laws. Unions often help their membership but ignore ineligible part-time, salaried and contract workers. Federal law makes hiring part-time and contract workers advantageous (no requirement to offer benefits like health care, holidays or even paid vacations, and employers can pay part time workers much less per hour than a full timer). Salaried workers often feel they must work well beyond the 40 hour work week to keep their jobs. Virtual work has only intensified that feeling for employees and expectation of employers Checking emails every evening and all weekend is, after all, work. There are many part time positions where the employee has no fixed schedule but is expected to be available 24/7 when the schedule is drawn up for the following month, week, or day. This happens in restaurants and nursing homes, parks and factories. Federal labor laws have really not advanced much since the Great Depression. They need to be overhauled to suit today’s workforce.
John Morales says
Well, if you want to get down to the basics, it’s more that the socio-economic reality is such that there is a surfeit of people for whom such work is better than the alternative.
I doubt many would do that sort of work under those conditions by choice.
So, take away those conditions, then one would not need such laws because people would pick a better alternative.
I suggest that job insecurity and intense competition suppress innovation.
Workers on the shop floor understand very clearly how the business processes work and how they could be improved -- perhaps better than anyone.
If they were to bring forward their suggestions for how efficiency could be improved, they risk not only the justified hostility of their fellow workers whose livelyhood is at risk, but also risk losing their own job.
If the consequence of the innovation was that the workers worked 5 fewer hours a week for the same pay, then innovation would be welcomed -- and the customers would benefit from the improved service.
The idea of hiring outside managers has been around since at least the 80’s when there was a belief system going around that management takes the same skills no matter what you’re managing. It’s a fairy tale of course. It was just a way for higher ups to become even more dependent upon the expertise of those farther down the pay scale while simultaneously dismissing that expertise. It helped complete the circle of ignorance around executives so they would be free to imagine whatever sort of nonsense they wished about the workfirce they were in charge of.
There are companies that buck this trend but it seems like the bigger the company the less informed the leadership gets about how the company functions outside of accounting summaries.
Pierce R. Butler says
Jeff Bezos has earned a reputation as a monster control freak, so keeping everybody else off balance comes naturally to him.