A Former Amazon Employee Sheds Light on the Company's Dark Side
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because next-day shipping has hidden costs.
By Sarah O'Connor
When Jeff Bezos started Amazon in the mid-1990s in the converted garage of his Seattle home, he built the company’s first desks out of cheap doors he bought at Home Depot. It was a moment that would come to carry “almost biblical significance” at the e-commerce giant, “like Noah building the ark,” according to Brad Stone, who charted Amazon’s breathtaking ascendancy in his book The Everything Store.
Two decades later and half a world away, when the protagonist of Heike Geissler’s book, Seasonal Associate, goes to a selection day for a Christmas temp job at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, in eastern Germany, the first thing she notices in the lobby is a desk made of a door on trestles. It fits with the shabby feel of the place: the layer of dust on the leaves of a potted plant; the gray patina on the wall above the chairs where countless heads have rested. Later, her enthusiastic Amazon trainer Robert explains that the door-desk is an homage to Bezos and a reminder that “the customer is king.”
“Is it important to the customer that I have a mahogany desk or that he gets what he wants for a good price?” Robert asks the rows of new recruits. “Does the customer want us to be sitting here on comfy sofas? Does the customer want to pay for smart offices for us? Exactly.”
This is one of the themes of the book: how it feels to work in a job that has no use for your sparks of humanity, and will certainly be done by a robot as soon as it makes financial sense.
Bezos likes to say Amazon is a “missionary, not a mercenary” — its mission being to delight customers in ways no one else dreams possible. That has meant innovating and taking risks few others would take. It has also meant an unrelenting insistence on frugality and efficiency, to be cheaper and faster than everyone else. Never is that more true than at Christmas. During the 2017 holiday season, staff in 10 Amazon warehouses across North America and Europe picked, packed and shipped more than 1 million packages in a single day. The final order through Amazon’s superfast “Prime Now” service was delivered to the customer in 58 minutes and arrived at 11:58 pm on Christmas Eve. One of Bezos’ early ideas for the company’s name was “Relentless,” and typing Relentless.com still takes you to Amazon’s homepage.
If Stone’s 2013 book was about how Bezos was changing our world as consumers, Geissler’s feels like a timely coda: a story about the mirror-image disruption to our world as workers. In a narrow sense, it is a story about working in an Amazon warehouse over Christmas. In its broadest sense, it is a meditation on the psychological impact of precarious modern work, of how it can settle inside your bones and hollow out the things that make you human.
Geissler is a writer who found herself, one bitter winter in Leipzig, with a hole in her bank account and a family to support. She applied to work at the Amazon warehouse on the edge of the city. While it felt like “the beginning or the evidence of a slide down the social ladder,” she tried to tell herself it would be an “adventure” and scribbled surreptitious notes on Post-it notes as she worked. The resulting book, which has been translated into English by Katy Derbyshire, is neither journalistic nor purely autobiographical. Geissler plays with the second person to put the reader in her shoes — or perhaps to split herself, the writer, from herself, the temp worker. “You have a job interview,” she writes. “You set out and I’ll accompany you and tell you what it’s all like and what’s happening to you.”
The book’s protagonist is feisty, pointedly disobeying the sign on the stairs that says “Use the handrail!” on her interview day. “You don’t like taking orders.” Yet gradually she grows too weary to resist such small indignities. She wants to complain that she and her colleagues were not paid for their compulsory training day but knows it would be futile. “Anything you could possibly want from this company, you’d have to tell the company’s customers and make them understand … but just you try getting hold of them,” she writes, adding: “Anyway, 75 percent of the customers would probably respond to your request … Why? I didn’t get paid for my training day either.”
Geissler does not labor this point, but the subtext runs quietly throughout the book: Most of us are both customers and workers, but for the former to be treated like kings, must the latter be made to bow and scrape? For Henry Ford, the fact that workers were also consumers was a reason to double his employees’ pay in 1914, so they could afford the cars they were making. Today, for jobs at the bottom of the economy, it feels like that process has shuddered into reverse. People aren’t earning much, so goods and services must be cheaper, so no one can be paid or treated well.
Geissler’s descriptions of the job are by turns vividly evocative and mundanely detailed. She writes about the wind that whips across her workstation from the broken warehouse door and how, when the snow settles over the skylights, it feels like being inside a “giant igloo.” The process of logging inbound products to the warehouse, following a computer’s instructions, is meticulously recorded. When Geissler’s protagonist asks a reasonable question of her team leader, he calls her “Little Miss Professor” and explains: “You don’t have to understand it, by the way, you just have to know it.”
This is one of the themes of the book: how it feels to work in a job that has no use for your sparks of humanity and will certainly be done by a robot as soon as it makes financial sense. The feeling seems to rub off on how people treat one another. Toward the end of her stint at Amazon, Geissler’s protagonist wants to hug a new colleague, Melly, who says hello and offers her name. “Until that moment, no one working near you has ever introduced themselves.” The same day, a woman in a green security vest appears and rummages in the recycling box, checking that her colleagues haven’t hidden anything there to smuggle out. She doesn’t even look at them.
The book’s focus sometimes wanders from Amazon into reflective musings that feel disconnected, and perhaps a little self-indulgent. There are also some numbingly boring stretches about the ins and outs of the job, although that might, of course, be by design.
Seasonal Associate is most interesting when it explores the psychological impact of the work. One morning, heavy snowfall leads to the cancellation of all trams to the warehouse. “You feel your employer’s breath blowing coldly around your neck beneath your scarf, murmuring: How dare you just sit around and not set out and think of a way to get to work on time?” Geissler writes. “You wonder how it can be that your employer, your invisible employer, is messing around inside your head.” And so Geissler’s protagonist sets off in search of a replacement bus. She arrives five minutes late; her pay is docked 15 minutes.
The focus on these subtle effects of the job is a reminder of the value of hearing directly from people at the sharp end of the modern economy. An investigative journalist can get a job in an Amazon warehouse, and plenty have. But working in a place for a few days before returning to “real life” is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the experience of someone for whom this is life.
It has been more than 40 years since Studs Terkel published his classic oral history Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Reading that compilation of more than 100 interviews is a reminder of how little has changed in the world of work. Terkel writes about how his interviewees were searching for “a sort of life, rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” He spoke to a steelworker who knew his job could and would be replaced by a machine, who had to stop off at a tavern on the way home from work to blow off his frustration before putting on a smile for his wife and kids: “You want to release it there rather than do it at home. What does an actor do when he’s got a bad movie? I got a bad movie every day.”
Some readers of Seasonal Associate will think of those steelworkers of yesterday, or the Asian sweatshop workers of today, and roll their eyes at the travails of working in an Amazon warehouse. But that is to set low expectations for these jobs, which are proliferating rapidly through the economy as Amazon’s success forces other retailers to adopt a similar model.
Bezos, of course, has made a fortune by constantly raising the bar for customer expectations. There is a particular kind of crisis that happens in Amazon periodically, when a customer emails a complaint directly to Bezos, who forwards it to the relevant team with a single, ominous question mark. When teams receive a “question mark” email, they scramble. They have only a few hours to solve the problem and figure out how it happened. As Stone writes in The Everything Store, this is Bezos’ way to “ensure potential problems are addressed and that the customer’s voice is always heard inside Amazon.” He does not mention if the worker’s voice is ever heard.
“What you and I can’t do,” Geissler writes toward the end of Seasonal Associate, “is to compare these conditions to even worse, less favorable conditions, so as to say: It’s not all that bad. Other places are worse. It used to be worse. We don’t do that. You and I want the best and we’re not asking too much.”
Seasonal Associate, by Heike Geissler, translated by Katy Derbyshire, Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, $16.95, 240 pages
Read more: How Amazon reaped $2 billion in incentives for its new digs.
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