What is the meaning of Christmas? For many, it’s about feasting, making family and napping while watching cricket.
But for e-commerce giants like Amazon, Christmas is the most lucrative time of the year. During the 2020 holiday season, Amazon achieved more than A $ 6.6 billion in sales.
And for the warehouse and shipping workers who actually get those purchases to their destination, the run-up to Christmas means long hours and more demanding work, often in poor conditions and with little job security.
In our research project on ‘automated precariousness’, we try to learn more about the experiences of workers to understand whether conditions in Australian e-commerce warehouses are comparable to those documented abroad.
The Christmas rush
This year, nearly four in five Australian households are expected to buy Christmas gifts online.
The frenzy really begins with the fabricated Black Friday “shopping vacation”, which follows the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States but has become a global event. One day was not enough, so now we also have Cyber Monday, explicitly focused on consumer spending on e-commerce platforms.
E-commerce and Christmas have become so intertwined that Dave Clark, a senior manager at Amazon, calls his company’s warehouses “Santa’s workshops”.
Read more: Black Friday for Amazon workers: The human costs of consumer comfort
It’s the hiring and firing season
We want to understand how events like seasonal business events and the promise of warehouse automation are shaping the conditions for the growing number of logistics workers employed in e-commerce.
In Australia, Amazon relies heavily on temporary workers recruited through recruitment agencies. Amazon Australia alone will mobilize over 1,000 seasonal workers ahead of the Christmas rush.
This temporary workforce often experiences some of the most intense working conditions. In addition to the lack of job security, many workers would be required to work at an accelerated pace for incredibly long hours, with the added hope that they will be available on call for the duration of the shopping season. .
Read more: 3 Ways “Algorithmic Management” Makes Work More Stressful and Less Satisfying
Burnout by design?
Traditional thinking in worker management suggests that there are benefits to retaining workers that enhance their skills and retain employers.
But in the United States, Amazon is spinning workers at an alarming rate. Its annual staff turnover rate of 150%, nearly double the industry average, has even led some managers to worry about “running out of workers”.
The urgency of seasonal purchases means Amazon can push workers to the limit, forcing them to work long hours on physically demanding tasks at breakneck speeds.
Managers don’t necessarily need to fire people at the end of the rush – instead, research and reports suggest workers leave of their own accord, as their bodies simply can’t take the pressure anymore. .
In a recent article, Canadian researcher and worker rights advocate Mostafa Henaway describes his experiences working at an Amazon fulfillment center:
Amazon doesn’t openly kick people out. He leaves the work to be done on its own.
These findings are supported by reports on working conditions at Amazon in different countries where the company operates, such as the UK and Italy.
Whatever the intention, burning workers at a rapid rate is a consequence of the way work and conditions are designed.
Amazon employees in the US report that the app they use to manage their schedules even has a handy “submit voluntary resignation” button to make the process convenient and automated.
Internal documents would show that Amazon executives are “closely monitoring” and setting goals for a metric called “unrepentant attrition rate,” which is the percentage of workers the company is happy to see leave each year. This applies to Amazon employees, rather than the temporary workforce, but could suggest that the mixing of workers is an intentional management strategy.
In addition to synchronizing labor needs with seasonal demands, the rapid turnover of workers makes organizing and unionizing less likely. Against the backdrop of an ongoing struggle by Amazon workers to organize, short-term workers are less likely to have the opportunity to join a union and lobby for better terms.
We asked Amazon Australia if “burnout by design” was a deliberate strategy. COO Craig Fuller said:
These allegations are unfounded. We pride ourselves on providing a safe, enjoyable and supportive work environment for our distribution center team members throughout the year. As with all retailers, the holiday season is our busiest time of year, and we work hard to make sure everyone who works in our buildings is supported and has a positive experience at work.
This year, we hired approximately 1,000 additional seasonal workers across Australia to support our existing workforce during the holiday season. Although they are hired to work during the holidays, these seasonal opportunities can also present a path to employment and a longer term career at Amazon and we have many examples of seasonal workers who have chosen to stay and build. their career with Amazon Australia.
We continue to place high value and focus on the well-being and safety of our team.
Will automation fix it?
Online retailers are investing heavily in automation.
Amazon aims to complete a new A $ 500 million warehouse in western Sydney by Christmas. It will be the largest in Australia, equipped with swarms of robots carrying objects over approximately 200,000 square meters of ground space.
Growing automation and reports of impending massive job losses can make workers feel threatened by the risk of being made obsolete by technology.
Read more: Coles and Woolworths move to robot warehouses and on-demand labor as home deliveries soar
But this highly robotic workplace will still have a lot of human workers. There are a lot of things that even the most advanced warehouse robots are still not good at, or that humans can do cheaply.
Workplace automation is arguably less about replacing workers and more about pushing them to keep pace with machines and algorithms. The speed increase is wreaking havoc: Amazon’s warehouses in the United States are said to have an injury rate 80% higher than the industry standard.
Holidays are here to stay
We can expect companies to extend shopping vacations further, following in the footsteps of Amazon’s “Prime Day” in June, which boosted revenue by mid-year. The exhausting and precarious conditions of seasonal work are likely to extend into the rest of the year.
We fear that convenient online shopping may come at the cost of burnout, burnout and precarious jobs. This situation can become permanent without improved labor rights and stricter company regulations.