With one out of every 153 employed workers in the United States working for Amazon, the e-commerce juggernaut comes in as the second-largest employer in America. Many towns rely on their resident Amazon warehouses and fulfillment centers, and the company’s decision to offer a $15-an-hour minimum wage has had a strong impact on many local economies.
However, despite the fact that Amazon is such an integral part of the industry of so many towns — and the e-commerce market as a whole — the giant has been accused of various labor and workers’ rights violations. Recently, the “Great Resignation” and global supply chain issues have pointed a spotlight on workers’ struggles for better working conditions, a slower pace, built-in bathroom breaks and other concessions. Let’s be clear — Amazon is far from the only company to catch bad press in these areas, especially in recent years, as the global pandemic has magnified the effects of workers’ issues. Its dominant position in the e-commerce and fulfillment industry does, however, make it a target for criticism and an easy way to illustrate the following point.
I believe that the high degree of centralization in the workforce as a whole is a problem. When mega-corporations are allowed to grow and acquire subsidiaries without limit, this eliminates the necessary degree of competition that any healthy market has to have in order for workers to have measurable choices in terms of their employment. When workers can’t look around for better opportunities in their field because everything is owned solely by a small number of companies, this removes the element of true choice. These workers may find that they have few options aside from working for these companies that might be exploiting them. Companies, similarly, have no motivation to improve conditions, as their employees have nowhere else to go.
Recent victories such as the Staten Island union vote have offered new hope to workers whose workloads have only gotten more laborious in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, considering the pandemic has added over $200 billion to the e-commerce market so far, it’s unlikely that matters are going to become any easier to deal with anytime soon without further outside intervention.
It’s easy to point to a general decentralization as a catch-all solution to the current issues, but this in and of itself is complicated. Although trust-busting has definitely been an effective method in the past, lawmakers seem reluctant to continue the practice. Meanwhile, the advent of the gig economy — hailed as an excellent way for American workers to work for themselves — has created scenarios in which many independent contractors work longer than they might under a traditional employer-employee relationship and without any benefits. A bill to crack down on union-busting tactics and the misclassification of employees has passed the House as of the time of writing, but it remains to be seen whether it will make it through the Senate as well.
This isn’t to say, however, that the gig economy is automatically barred from being a solution. Indeed, with the rapid transformation of workplace norms over the last two years, as well as more and more employees restructuring their priorities toward flexible hours and work-from-home opportunities, gig economy-type work seems to be an inevitable revolution. In the e-commerce industry, I believe a reliable and fair infrastructure of gig work, alongside robust gig worker unions, could help put some of the power back in the hands of the people.
Imagine a world wherein people could commit themselves to the industry on a job-by-job basis or skip around different facilities for a set amount of time depending on their needs, life circumstances and which facilities are offering the most in terms of pay and benefits. These workers could have a sense of solidarity for one another, collectively bargaining for the best possible working conditions and making sure that excellent outcomes are achieved for all parties.
We’ve seen what happens when economic power is allowed to stagnate in too few hands for too long. The market is craving for democratization, and workers are eager to once again have the choice of where and how long to work. A one-size-fits-all solution has yet to present itself and may indeed turn out to be a pipe dream. This doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for looking for more fair, equitable and effective solutions. It just means that we need to continue to take a nuanced approach to these issues and keep an open mind toward new possibilities.
As the industry’s eyes open ever wider to the problems we currently face, it’s only a matter of time before we have no choice but to change — and hopefully for the better.