Work according to Amazon

On 27 November, to coincide with Black Friday, workers at Amazon’s Castel San Giovanni warehouse in Piacenza province, Italy, downed tools to demand improved working conditions and a pay rise based on productivity bonuses.

In spite of the Italian media’s icy, if not openly hostile, response towards recent strike actions and trade unions, including during the latest transport strikes, this show of defiance by “poor” workers towards the multinational behemoth unleashed a wave of sympathy. The event also prompted the reopening of the debate on Amazon and working conditions in a key area of the capitalist economy: logistics.

Although Amazon appears and operates as an e-commerce enterprise and therefore as a retail distributor, the Seattle based group can be viewed as a major player in the logistics sector. In fact, Amazon does not manufacture the goods it sells but rather delivers the end product to the consumer’s doorstep. The transport of goods, in other words, logistics, is therefore Amazon’s core business.

Logistics can broadly be defined as a science that concerns itself with the entire cycle of moving goods from the producer to the consumer, including packaging, warehousing, stocktaking, storage, transport and even the security of the roads through which the goods transit.

In a book published in 2014 entitled The Deadly Life of Logistics, Deborah Cowen, associate professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, describes logistics as the science that allowed the main players of today’s capitalism and neo-colonial economic imperialism to gradually redraw the map of the world in the shape of trade routes.

Cowen retraces the origin of the scientific study of logistics to World War I, when the need arose to develop an efficient military apparatus to supply the frontlines. Following improvements brought on a global scale during World War II, the 1960s saw the science of logistics increasingly being implemented in corporate management, aimed specifically at reducing production costs by reducing the ratio between space and goods. In practical terms, the less time a product spends in a warehouse, the more its value increases.

In the current global context of easy relocation and falling transport costs, logistics appears to have become the main profit generating factor, exploiting the differences between production costs in the manufacturing countries and end prices in the destination markets.

The work that allows these goods to travel is part of the long journey leading from the place of production to the place of sale/consumption. Drivers, handlers, dockers, deliverers and warehousers are among the key players in the logistics sector. These are the workers that allow the goods to move and, therefore, to generate value.

Technology plays a fundamental part in setting the tasks and working conditions in these jobs. Technological innovations of the past have almost certainly streamlined a number of otherwise laborious tasks.

Nevertheless, recourse to technology, rather than benefitting workers, appears to have increased their workload, judging by the ever-decreasing turnaround times, which in logistics encompasses transportation, packaging, warehousing and the delivery of goods.

Technological improvements in the field of logistics have paved the way for the “just in time” production method, in other words leaner manufacturing processes aimed at reducing stock volumes and moving towards production geared towards specific demands related to already sold goods or immediate market requirements. If transportation and delivery can be done quickly, there is no need to have a product stuck in a warehouse and goods can be manufactured as and when required by the market, even in the form of a single consumer.

This philosophy has led to increased control over productivity data and increased pressure on production times. In the case of logistics, productivity refers to the time between the ordering of a product and its delivery, which must be as short as possible. The advantage for a company is that it cuts down on warehousing time and space.

The burden of increased productivity mainly weighs on working times and therefore the workers themselves, whose performance is constantly monitored in order to devise new solutions aimed at further reducing production times and costs.

The terms and the furious pace under which the tasks have to be carried out are among the main source of worker discontent at the Castel San Giovanni site.

Trade unionists speaking on behalf of the striking workers denounced the exhausting working days during which stock-takers are required to register at least 300 items per hour and ‘runners’ cover an estimated 20 kilometres a day, picking goods from the shelves of the warehouse.

The work pace is gruelling and is subjected to electronic surveillance via ID tags and CCTV. Individual productivity standards are calculated by means of algorithms that fail to take into account the physical differences between workers. Breaks are kept to a bare minimum (around 30 minutes for lunch, plus short toilet breaks which supervisors can refuse if considered excessive). Overtime and work on Sundays and public holidays are the norm.

Rotating shifts do not exist: employees hired to work on nightshifts – the site operates around the clock – always work nights. Such conditions naturally increase the risk of accidents and occupational illnesses linked to physical exertion.

Trade unionists also censure the company’s staff management methods: as soon as productivity levels drop beneath the set standards, letters and reminders are sent to workers calling into question their physical and emotional capabilities.

21st century Taylorism

A number of surveys carried out in Amazon warehouses in Italy and other countries have highlighted high levels of stress and proneness to physiological and psychological disorders among staff members – white and blue collar alike – that often force them to resign.

An interesting fact emerging from the testimonies of trade union representatives that took part in the Black Friday protest is that most of the employees at the Italian operation had signed permanent contracts. The productivity standards, however, set a time limit defined by the unionists themselves as “physiological”.

The average period a worker spends in a warehouse is three years, after which the body can no longer sustain the pace of work, leading to his or her resignation. Amazon’s workforce is therefore prone to permanent turnover.

In this sense, Amazon has updated the corporate management principles successfully introduced by Frederick Taylor at the dawn of the 20th century and laid out in his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management.

According to Taylor, maximising profit is conditional on rationalising the production process, which is achieved by breaking it down into different stages, each entrusted to a specific worker and subjected to standardised times.

The calculation of a standard production time rests on the study of the movements that have to be performed by the workers and that are minimised by the use of technology and maximal simplification of the machinery used.

As a result, the worker no longer requires any specialised knowledge and the learning process is speeded up. The worker thus becomes a readily interchangeable subject that can be replaced as the need arises.

Making use of the technology at hand, this is precisely how Amazon goes about its business: hiring workers, maximising their contribution to the production process and once the body gives way or productivity levels drop, replacing them with fresh hands, choosing at will from the vast pool of unemployed and precarious workers. By demanding better working conditions, employees at Amazon are challenging its corporate model.

This is what makes the immediate goal of the strike seem all the more illusory. It is little wonder that the company has responded to union demands by playing for time. After initially declaring it was ready to enter into negotiations, it backtracked, blaming “excessive pressure” from the unions which, in turn, reacted by launching a two-hour wildcat strike on 20 December 2017.

Furthermore, the success of such collective actions partly relies on the mobilisation of a temporary workforce that is not answerable to Amazon and, therefore, does not have an immediate interest in improving working conditions in the short run.

Job insecurity is not conducive to cultivating a union culture and tends to erode solidarity among workers. The hiring of temporary staff sharply increases during peak sales periods such as Black Friday or during the Christmas period, and frustrates any attempt at hitting the company hard by blocking production when it reaches its peak.

Wage demands put forward by the unions have been rejected by the management on the grounds that the company implements the terms of the collective bargaining agreements for both the logistics and commerce sectors, according to the tasks undertaken by the employees. Amazon, however, implements the minimum standards established under national law and refuses to engage in negotiations on a non-binding company agreement covering minimum sectoral standards including, for example, productivity bonuses.

It is therefore a union led battle that hinges on the balance of power between the company and the unions, which currently appears to be clearly tilted in favour of the stronger of the two; in other words, Amazon.

Trade union renewal

Unions defending Amazon workers are able to unite their own demands with those of other sectors linked with logistics. For instance, delivery drivers employed by cooperatives that provide logistical services in the Emilia-Romagna and Latium regions of Italy to leading multinationals like Ikea and Granarolo have for several years been fighting for improved working conditions and are undertaking sustained actions through grassroots unions – the union confederations having largely remained silent.

Similarly, retail sector workers – backed by sectoral unions affiliated to the national confederations – went on strike on 22 December to protest against the opening of hypermarkets and shopping malls on public holidays, Christmas and Boxing Day, and led an awareness raising campaign calling on consumers to reschedule shopping trips planned for public holidays. This should perhaps constitute the new starting point.

The Black Friday stoppage, the delivery drivers’ struggles and the retail workers’ protests have in common the narrow relationship between work and commodities.
The aim of these actions is to secure improved working conditions by blocking the flow of goods from the producer to the consumer. Although marginal in appearance, the work of logistics operators holds centre stage in the production/consumption process, being the mechanism that enables a manufacturing company to reach its customers and thus to sell its product.

The difficulties unions are experiencing in organising logistics workers are structural and can be attributed to the fragmentation of the supply chain, often made up of companies – and cooperatives – that operate on the basis of projects, as well as the precariousness of the contracts and the diversity of the workforce, mostly made up of temporary or immigrant workers. Within this context, the weaknesses of the trade unions are amplified, heightening the need to find fresh support beyond the circle of the workers represented.

Key support could come from solidarity actions led by the recipients of the goods themselves, in other words the consumers. Boycotting the purchase of goods in support of the collective actions undertaken by logistics workers would, for instance, provide an efficient means of challenging, in a broad yet targeted manner, the policies of certain companies, as well as the production and employment models they promote.

As stated earlier, aside from the dispute at Amazon, the Black Friday stoppage should lead us to reflect on the linkages between production and goods, consumption and working conditions. The unions need to head this initiative, tapping into the dual role of worker and consumer that applies to nearly each and every one of us.

Although the task of raising consumer’ awareness is by no means easy, trade unions will have to rise to the challenge by becoming fully fledged political actors, backing actions such as boycotts, that extend beyond the traditional scope of industrial relations, the contours of which are becoming increasingly blurred, owing to the radical changes in the world of work and production processes.

This story has been translated from French.

This article was first published in Italian on the Q Code Mag website. Sylvain Bianchi was responsible for the Italian to French translation.