Inside a South Carolina Amazon fulfillment center. Images: YouTube screenshot.
Amazon announced its intention to build a fleet of delivery drones, and the media eagerly dove in: was the effort actually feasible? Or just PR bluster? How would a system of delivery drones work? Yet there was a hulking, warmer-blooded elephant in the room that seemed to get left out of the discussion altogether: the people whose jobs would eventually be replaced by the hovering e-commerce bots. If the age of autonomous consumerism is in fact on its way—if a drone is going to grab your new Kindle right off the shelf and fly it to your doorstep—then, as Amazon sees it, the age of decently-paid warehouse, factory, and delivery workers is on its way out.
Maybe that's why Amazon is already treating its backend employees like they're delivery drones. And subsequently, it's why hundreds of Amazon "pickers"—those who do the back-breaking work of finding and transporting products through the company's vast warehouses and readying them for shipment, all while being monitored for efficiency—have been protesting poor wages, harsh working conditions, and unrealistic efficiency expectations in Germany since November. The group's labor organizer complains that the "workers are treated more as robots than human."
The dispute has remained at a standstill for weeks now, so the Amazon employees are bringing the fight to the e-commerce company's headquarters in Seattle. They'll be protesting outside of Amazon's office today, and hope to receive support from American sympathizers. The New York Times reports on the impetus of the demonstration:
On the surface, the dispute is about money. The German labor union Ver.di wants Amazon workers classified as retail employees, but Amazon says they are logistics workers who should be paid less. Underneath this is a bigger question of whether the warehouse workers should have any control over their workplace … Amazon warehouses are marvels of engineering and efficiency, but picking is still hard physical labor. There is constant monitoring and little job security.
Recent years have brought a number of exposés, both from Amazon pickers themselves and journalists who went undercover to document conditions in the company's so-called fulfillment centers. The conclusions are pretty uniform: It's uncompromising, physically tough labor, with little flexibility and poor benefits. And the workers there do in fact get treated like robots.
One Amazon worker details the superhuman, "unrealistic" expectations from managers in a letter to Gawker: "They expect an incredible pace. I was in good shape when I got there, but I was NOT prepared for the miles of walking on concrete every day. My feet hurt so bad, I would have trouble going to sleep, I was in so much pain."
Of course, robots don't need breaks. "They say you get two 15 minute breaks and a half hour break, but you are not allowed to leave the floor early. So with 5 minute walk time......... In a ten hour day, you get to sit down for 2 FIVE minute breaks and one 20 minute break."
Other workers complain about the scant 45-minute training new employees receive for new assignments, and the harsh punishments they suffer if things go awry—a robot, meanwhile, could upload instructions for its task in seconds. Many note the freezing temperatures they're forced to work in; robots don't need climate control. Many compare working in an Amazon fulfillment center to being in prison—with its cold efficiency and gridlike design—but it might as well be a circuitboard.
An Amazon-owned Zappos fulfillment center. Image: Wikimedia
And yet: "Negotiating would impede efficiency and innovation, Dave Clark, the company’s vice president of worldwide operations and customer service, told The Times."
Obviously, workers have been treated like drones, or robots, for ages. The term 'robot', a derivative of 'robotnik,' or 'slave,' was expressly invented as a vehicle for solidarity with the exploited working class during the Industrial Revolution. But there's something unsettling about the literalization of the worker drone, of Amazon triumphantly unveiling its human-replacing delivery mechanism while simultaneously fighting off workers demanding fair treatment.
That's exactly what the firm is doing, of course. That's why the protesters are desperate to rouse our sympathies in Seattle today—and perhaps the issue feels especially urgent, seeing as how delivery drones are already flying in Germany. Amazon may in fact be years and years away from employing actual delivery drones—the legal framework alone would be a monster to tackle—but it is building out its meatspace interface with a supreme compatibility in mind. What may seem like a PR stunt or a joke to us is in fact a simple logical extension of Amazon's assumptions.
Of course Amazon wishes it could replace staff with actual drones—what profit-maximizing corporation wouldn't? But the fact that such a robotnik dream may be within reach means its time to think long, hard, and fast about the state of labor in the mechanizing world of commercial consumption.