Amazon finally realizes it has a labor problem

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Today, let’s talk about the new tone Jeff Bezos is taking when he talks about Amazon – and whether we can expect it to have a practical effect on the company after he transfers the position of CEO to his successor, Andy Jassy.

A recurring theme in this column is Amazon’s general indifference to public perception. Last month it picked a losing battle with Congress on the union efforts at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. A year ago, The Wall Street Journal disclosed that the company had lied to lawmakers about whether it has used data from third-party vendors to inform product development. It was implemented a few years before that a mock search for a second ‘head office’ that angered politicians across the country.

The company has seen record growth every year anyway, and it was the most loved of all the major tech companies, even before the pandemic made people more dependent on it. (Amazon answered 50 million new Prime subscribers in 2020, up about a third in just 12 months.)

Given Amazon’s tendency to ignore most of the criticism, you might have expected Bezos’s final letter to shareholders to look like an extended victory lap. It would certainly be justified: Amazon is one of the most extraordinary companies ever built.

But that’s not really Bezos’s style. His religious commitment to “Day 1– the idea that companies should remain as paranoid and action-oriented as they were when they were first born, or they will be defeated by entropy – rules out such a long walk into the sunset.

And so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that he took up labor issues directly at the company. Sure, Bezos has mentioned them before – his letter last year also devoted many paragraphs to Amazon’s support for the $ 15 minimum wage, employee retraining, and so on – but I’m not sure he’s ever faced critics so directly. Bezos wrote:

Is your chairman comforting the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No he does not. I think we should do better for our employees. Although the voting results were skewed and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it is clear to me that we need a better one vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.

If you read some news reports, you may think we don’t care for employees. In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated like robots. That is not true. They are sophisticated and considerate people who have options for work. When we polled fulfillment center employees, 94% said they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a workplace.

Bezos knows that more efforts will be made to unite at Amazon’s fulfillment centers, and future ones may not be that easy to beat. And so he sets two huge goals for the Amazon of the future. The company should be Earth’s Best Employer, he writes, and Earth’s Safest Place to Work. And he plans to work on these projects personally:

In my upcoming role as Executive Chair, I will focus on new initiatives. I am an inventor. That’s what I enjoy the most and can do the best. This is where I create the most value. I am delighted to partner with the large team of passionate people we have in Ops and help invent Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work in this arena. When it comes to details, we are always flexible at Amazon, but when it comes to vision, we are stubborn and relentless. We have never failed when we set our sights on something, and we will not fail in this either.

Is it just me, or does this sound like a man who finally got the message?

It has taken long enough. From all over the company, the company’s claims to be a friend of the working man come from Republican Senator Marco Rubio to Democrats like President Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren. And despite Bezos’s comment that 94 percent of employees say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work, it’s the company’s own employees who keep uncovering troubling information about their job boards. (Im still try to make it invisible the pictures of urine bottles that employees used in the absence of bathroom breaks to which they were subject Vice

Last year, employees have filed at least 37 complaints to the National Labor Relations Board alleged interference in the right of workers to organize, more than three times as many as in the previous year. Amazon launched an anti-union campaign that included the firing of organizers on feeble pretenses

If employees at Amazon were as happy as Bezos says, you wonder why all that was necessary. And maybe – finally – he too.

There are technological ways to improve Amazon as a workplace, he says. For example, the company can rotate employees who perform repetitive tasks to reduce the strain on their bodies through ‘sophisticated algorithms’. It will spend $ 66 million “to create technology that helps prevent forklift collisions.” It will make up more of these things under Bezos in his new role.

No tech giant deserves much credit for announcing a simple intention to do better. Amazon’s business requires sanctioning physical labor along with relentless search for new efficiencies that erode employee dignity. The company is also at the forefront of using automation technologies that will make the jobs of those same workers increasingly precarious. It’s hard to imagine how such a system could be viewed as “Earth’s Best Employer,” no matter how good Amazon’s forklift management software ever gets.

But part of the unusual strength that the founder-led tech giants have is how their creators can amass internal goodwill, along with their boundless finances, to make investments that others won’t.

Bezos’ pledge to become “Earth’s Best Employer” is insane on one level, as it instantly becomes a bat that will allow lawmakers, the press and the public to defeat Amazon every time another employment issue is discovered. (I predict that “Earth’s Best Employer” will become to Amazon what “don’t be evil” became to Google, or “act fast and break things” to Facebook: a mission that eventually became more useful to critics than to the company itself .)

The thing is, Bezos is smart. Like world historically smart. He knows he is setting the bar well above the current position, and he knows he will be accountable for it. Bezos’s version of the world’s best employer probably looks very different from mine, but I also imagine that this could lead to higher wages, safer working conditions and better job training programs, at least for the employees who are not are replaced by robots. . Hopefully it will also lead to less union breakdown and bottle-wetting.

In the days following the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal, Facebook executives looked just as deaf as Amazon has been lately in response to its employment issues. But eventually they realized that their tone had to change – and their business practices, too. We can argue about how effective the 30,000 people hired to bolster the platform’s security have been, but there’s no denying that Facebook transformed its approach to integrity between late 2016 and today. And it all started with a belated acknowledgment that the company had a problem.

Maybe the cursed @ AmazonNews account will sneak up to another member of Congress tomorrow in the next few days, and all of the above will seem moot. Or maybe Amazon has really made it their own that it’s time to shut up and listen.

For now, it looks like Jeff Bezos is. And I can’t say I saw it coming.


This column is in conjunction with Platform game, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and Democracy.