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December 2011, Week 4

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Tue, 27 Dec 2011 23:35:53 -0500
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The Nasty Truth About the Online Retailers You Probably
Used for Your Holiday Shopping
By Mac McClelland,
Mother Jones Online
Alternet.org
December 23, 2011
http://www.alternet.org/story/153556/

The following article first appeared in Mother Jones.
For more great content from Mother Jones, sign up for
free email updates here.

Since June, I've been ruining my friends'
online-shopping lives. Back then, I reported on a vast
warehouse in Ohio where goods bought from online
retailers are sorted, boxed, and shipped to consumers.
Unsurprisingly, this job does not pay well. A little
more surprisingly, this job seems designed to crush
employees' spirits. During my visit, two people got
fired within 10 minutes, one for talking to someone
while he was working--"Where are you from?" was the
offending comment--and one for going to the bathroom
too much. So occasionally, and now more that it's the
holidays, my friends and family will call to complain
that "Bleh, I want to order something from
Amazon/Walmart/Staples/whatever, but I feel guilty
about helping oppress workers."

Why would online retailers be so mean? Well, in the
case of many, they have helpfully outsourced
interaction with workers. When Walmart started selling
its merchandise on the internet, it turned to
third-party logistics contractors, or 3PLs, experts who
could handle the, uh, logistics, like warehousing and
transportation, of online sales. Take Exel, for
example, the largest 3PL in the country, and a
subsidiary of Deutsche Post DHL, one of the largest
companies in the world. Exel alone has 86 million
square feet of warehouse all over North America and
processes literally millions of goods every single day.
Other retailers directly perpetrate the oppression.
Amazon.com made headlines earlier this year when 20
current and former employees of its Breinigville,
Pennsylvania, warehouse told the local Morning Call
that workers were fainting in stifling heat and getting
yelled at for not meeting ridiculously high
productivity goals and generally being "treated like a
piece of crap." Employees who were sent home with heat
exhaustion were disciplined; a local ER doc eventually
called OSHA and reported "an unsafe environment."

Either way, many of the people actually loading and
unloading trucks, packing boxes, and pasting labels
work not for retailers, or for 3PLs, but for yet
another company: temporary staffing agencies. When an
online retailer (especially one that doesn't actually
make anything) wants to wring out the most profit
possible, it helps to have a labor pool that is on
demand, so it can order the exact number of humans it
needs to fill that day's number of orders if the humans
are working at top capacity. That way, workers can't
unionize or be legally entitled to decent benefits.
That way, the online retailer can give them outlandish
productivity goals, like hundreds of orders and
thousands of items per day apiece--and when workers
burn out, just replace them with the next temp, who can
join the rest of the ranks living in fear that they
won't make their numbers and might be incessantly
berated for it, or simply fired. Even if you meet the
outlandish goals, don't necessarily expect to be
rewarded by say, a real job. As with so many in the
industry, the warehouse in Ohio are mostly
"temps"--even though some of them have been working in
the same place for more than a year.

Lots of people are "temporary" pickers and sorters and
shippers year-round. Annual internet retail sales in
the United States are estimated to hit $197 billion at
year's end; they're projected to grow 10 percent every
year to $279 billion in 2015. And during the holidays a
lotmore people sign up--to handle the Christmas rush,
the biggest retail-shipping warehouses hire thousands
of extra employees each. That's each warehouse mind
you; Amazon for example had 52 in 2010, with plans to
complete another 17 by 2012. And because Christmas is a
deadline that consumers take very seriously,
peak-season temps have it a little bit worse. Often,
they can't request any time off during the holidays. If
they miss Thanksgiving, or Christmas Eve, they can be
fired. Overtime is generally mandatory, even if that
means five 12-hour days in a row. Doing anything for
five days of 12-hour shifts is tough, but particularly
when that thing is standing in one spot at a conveyor
belt repeatedly stuffing inflatable air pockets into
boxes, or running up to 15 miles a day around a vast
warehouse in order to retrieve the items for those
boxes, bending over to grab them off floor-level
shelves literally hundreds of times a day, while
supervisors meticulously keep track of how many items
every employee picks and let them know when they're not
moving fast enough, not good enough. Hurry up,
customers are waiting. Santa's special helpers can't be
permitted to take personal time off, or time to go to
the bathroom except during a couple of 15-minute
breaks, or to have enough off-work hours in their day
to get laundry done or eat dinner with their kids. It's
Christmas, goddammit.

So while I don't want to have to change out of my
pajamas to go shopping, either, and I fully expect the
goods I order off the internet to materialize at my
front door in about the amount of time it would take
them to be transported from the Starship Enterprise,
I'm just sayin'. Like I tell people who are unfortunate
enough to be friends with me: It's worth considering
how the hell those goods get to you, so fast, and for
free, when the company you bought them from is posting
profits in the millions, or even, in the case of
Amazon, billions. Chances are, it's via the people who
worked for the small businesses we ruined when we were
saving $4 by buying stuff off the internet, people
performing dangerously repetitive or otherwise
ergonomically unsound jobs in a cold, shitty,
emotionally abusive warehouse for very little money and
very few benefits, the kind of conditions people endure
only because it's their last resort. It's worth
considering, because one of the reasons those
conditions can so widely prevail is that no one ever
does.

Mac McClelland is Mother Jones' human rights reporter,
writer of The Rights Stuff, and the author of For Us
Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story From Burma's
Never-Ending War.

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