Bezos’ behaviour makes the 19th century industrialists look saintly

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos in Beverly Hills, California. They have finalised their divorce. Picture: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

In Amazon’s warehouses in the UK, ambulances were called, not 60 times, but 600 times, writes Terry Prone

Never mind his sex life, although, truth be told, it’s quite difficult to ignore his sex life, since it’s just cost him several billion dollars.

You will remember that Jeff Bezos announced his own marital infidelity the day before American supermarket tabloid National Enquirer did it. Thus ensuring that particular edition of what Donald Trump might truthfully call a failing publication positively leaped off the shelves that particular week. Not that Trump would ever say anything bad about the Enquirer. He may describe The New York Times as “failing”, but he’s not going to draw attention to the declining fortunes of the product of one of his pals, especially when that pal buys up stinker stories about the president in order to kill them dead.

But back to Bezos, who’s up there with The Donald when it comes to respect for women. As in, he has none. Particularly for his wife, mother of his children, career partner, who got a double whammy of his public confession plus the scummy details of it, including the transmitted photographs of his genitalia, which seem almost de rigueur among sexual scumbags these days. Bezos handed over a goodly portion of their shared fortune to his wife and moved on.

It’s what he moved on TO that should drive us all nuts, but so far hasn’t. He moved on to paying his warehouse workers $15 an hour, although at the same time he cut benefits so that some of them ended up worse off. That had to be rectified. Once it was, within an indecently short time, he was — believe it or not — up on the high moral ground, pipsqeaking away, demanding that his competitors do likewise.

“Today I challenge our top retail competitors (you know who you are!) to match our employee benefits and our $15 minimum wage,” Bezos wrote in his annual report to Amazon shareholders.

“Do it! Better yet, go to $16 and throw the gauntlet back at us. It’s a kind of competition that will benefit everyone.”

Of course it will. It might move people who work on the front line of corporations such as Walmart from relying on foodstamps to stay alive to actually managing to stay above starvation on their own. One of the great leaps forward for humanity, that would be, you have to agree. Although maybe not for Walmart as a corporate entity. Walmart is already under competitive pressure from Amazon. Now, it’s coming under moral pressure. When Greek meets Greek…

It is, however, especially ludicrous for Amazon, qua employer, to lecture any other company about employee benefits, and not just because, until recently, according to a study by an advocacy group in the US, their warehouse people were paid 15% less, on average, than their peers in businesses requiring warehouses.

When Bezos decided to split his corporation’s headquarters between two American cities and trailed his coat at New York, those who talk of people like him “creating” jobs might have expected the NY borough involved to practically take Bezos’ arm off at the elbow, so enthusiastic might they have been at the prospect of such a company landing in their midst. That didn’t happen. While the business development people in the local administration were prepared to find literally billions in tax incentives to bring him to their neighbourhood, all sorts of other people — vocal folk from all sides of the social spectrum — told him where to stick it. At the time, one writer described the possibility of Amazon settling in New York as akin to offering a diabetic a bonus dose of influenza.

In particular, trade unions were less than enthusiastic about Amazon jobs. Which might, of course, have been because this was before Bezos announced that the company was going to pay minimum wage to those it employs. But it’s much more likely to have resulted from Amazon’s woeful global record as an employer responsible for stressful, ghastly conditions in warehouses. Last year, someone gave Bezos an award for something in Berlin, which resulted in the unusual spectacle of protesters against him receiving it, those protesters mostly made up of members of his German workforce, with a trade union spokesman not putting a tooth in how his members saw our friend Jeff.

“We have an American boss who wants to Americanise work relationships and take us back to the 19th century,” was how he put it.

Before any Examiner reader decides this is a clear exaggeration worthy of dismissal, they might consider other evidence of Amazon the employer, courtesy, this time, not of an advocacy group, but of a bit of record-keeping by another trade union, this time a British one. Just 10 months ago, they reported on a metric nobody up to now has suggested might be a good way to measure the employee-centredness of an employer: Ambulance call-outs.

Some companies take noisy pride in the fact that they rarely if ever have to summon an ambulance. They even put it up on signs readable by visitors, announcing that, in the past X days, they have had nary an accident on site. The visitors feel better and safer. The employees feel better and safer.

The bosses feel deservedly smug. It’s a win/win. A win/win that doesn’t seem to apply in Amazon’s warehouses in the United Kingdom, where, over the course of three years, ambulances were called, not sixty times, but six hundred times.

The BBC noted that one Staffordshire warehouse, in a town named Rugeley, generated 115 of those ambulance calls for major trauma, pregnancy-related issues, strokes, and electric shocks. Two out of those four are directly workplace-related and pregnancy isn’t made easier by having to stand for 10 hours.

Local union officials condemn Rugeley as “one of the most dangerous places to work in Britain.” Yet, bizarrely, when you go on their website, it offers tours of the place and does a “tsk tsk” at being called a warehouse at all. It’s a fulfillment centre.

Not surprisingly, as soon as any better job comes up, Amazon warehouse employees scarper, giving it one of the worst talent-retention records around. Some of those employees, before they get scarpering-rights, end up living on the side of the road. Literally. In tents. In Scotland. Their homes are 50km away. Amazon provides a bus. But the bus has a cost attached and, for some desperate workers, the best option is a tent on the side of a highway.

“Maybe Bezos reckons that eventually Amazon will operate without human beings, at least in its warehouses, so there is no sense in treating them well today,” suggests Dan Lyons, who, in his best-selling book, Lab Rats, pulls together some of the international examples of Amazon treating its employees like muck.

Frequent online buyers of anything from books to dresses might try to avoid purchases that would reach them courtesy of Amazon. Because billionaire Bezos makes some nineteenth century industrialists look positively saintly by comparison with him.

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