NYT: Europe v Amazon
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Tags: Cost Externalization, Efficiency, Employment, Health, Labor Force, Living Standards, Markets, Productivity
Europe vs. Amazon: Anger Rising
On its home territory, Amazon.com is routinely hailed as a jobs machine. Thanks to its warehouse building spree, it is hiring tens of thousands of workers, plus many more for the holidays. President Obama, speaking at the retailer’s Chattanooga, Tenn., warehouse in July, called Amazon “a great example of what’s possible.”
Referring to an Amazon program that offers tuition assistance to hourly workers, Mr. Obama said, “That’s the kind of approach that we need from America’s businesses.” He also celebrated the company’s achievement in general, saying, “I look at this amazing facility and you guys, you don’t miss a beat.”
The recession might have cut deeper in Europe, making the question of new jobs even more crucial, but the attitude there is much cooler toward Amazon and its high-tech ways. In Germany, there is continuing labor strife. France is erecting barriers against the company’s aggressive discounting. And in Britain, the warehouses that so impressed President Obama have been compared, in a February story in The Financial Times, with a “slave camp.”
That shocking charge resurfaced in the latest investigation, when a BBC reporter, Adam Littler, went to work briefly at Amazon’s Swansea warehouse. His report, broadcast this week on the show “Panorama,” showed him hustling to keep up with the demands of his hand-held scanner, which gave him only a few moments to find each product.
In his ten-and-a-half-hour night shift, Mr. Littler said: “I managed to walk or hobble nearly 11 miles, just short of 11 miles last night. I’m absolutely shattered.” He added, “We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves.”
Michael Marmot, a labor expert identified by the BBC as “one of Britain’s leading experts on stress at work,” told the show that with “the characteristics of this type of job, the evidence shows increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”
Mr. Marmot went on to say that: “There are always going to be menial jobs, but we can make them better or worse. And it seems to me the demands of efficiency at the cost of individual’s health and well-being — it’s got to be balanced.”
Amazon replied in a statement that, “We strongly refute the charge that Amazon exploits its employees in any way. ” It also said it had retained “an independent expert,” who concluded that the job of picking products “does not increase the risk of mental and physical illness.”
Underneath the statement was a video clip of a BBC interview with an Amazon employee named Michael Crisp. It was somewhat mysterious because Mr. Crisp is identified as being on break from an Amazon warehouse in South Carolina but he used British locutions like “whinging” and referred to kilos. Still, his defense of Amazon as a reasonable place to work was clear. “I certainly haven’t come across anybody yet with any mental problems,” he said.