Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Managerial "Bezos-ism": The Basis For How Amazon Wrings Productivity From Workers - And The Template Is Spreading

 Heike Geissler's book (Seasonal Associate) laid out the brutal conditions she had to endure working in an Amazon fulfillment center in Leipzig, Germany.   In one particular harsh day she writes (p. 100):

"You replace the Band Aids on your hands. Your thumbs, forefingers, middle fingers  on both hands now have long hangnails from all the reaching into totes and boxes and from cutting and folding cardboard. Harmless irritations but they make every movement harder."

Heike didn't elaborate on the need (or any use) for 'Depends' -but the logical inference is she likely did use these adult diapers, as many Amazon workers have to.    This is because the automated  timing system used by Amazon  (to ensure workers "made rate") never allows enough time to use the rest room and get back to all the tote and consignment areas without incurring demerits.   

Highly educated and a freelance writer, the last thing she wanted to do was join the Amazon drone brigade, but had few options.  There simply was no other way to get money and pay off her debts at the time, so she decided to become a seasonal associate.

As she related the situation: (p. 5) "You do get child benefits for the two boys, you can pay your bills, but unfortunately they don't get paid on have to take the first job that comes up and get money in the bank."

She had the option of  applying for  welfare, of course, but like here in the U.S. there were way too many bureaucratic hoops to jump through and besides - as a proud German- she had her pride. So it was "Amazon or bust". 

 In the Afterword to Ms. Geissler's eye-opening book,  Kenneth Vennemann writes:

"Heike plays with these insidious euphemisms, the barefaced lies of 'flat hierarchies' and 'special handling'.  Hence the ugly title, SEASONAL ASSOCIATE, the word associate here so far removed from the idea of partnership and sharing that it makes me snort with cynical laughter."

Of course,  there are hundreds of variations on the theme of 'working for Amazon' which anyone can find by Googling. Sob stories galore, and many of which do elicit sympathy for the those who found themselves in this capitalist behemoth's grip. But as Vennemann observes -  "there have been a few undercover pieces on Amazon by journalists, but they went into far less detail."

Indeed, reading Heike's account you are right there with her as she has to work at the receiving end, unpacking boxes and entering products into the system.  Also, consuming half of her lunch break time just getting to and from the company cafeteria. Sounds like a piece of cake? Well it wasn't. It was sheer numbing hell for the 8- odd weeks she spent during one holiday season.   But what of workers who are locked into such algorithmic-driven  drudgery for years?

The WSJ's Christopher Mims examines  this robotic management style in his piece:  ('How Amazon Squeezes Performance Out Of Workers') Sept. 11-12).  He writes, for example, on the travails of one recent Amazon employee:

"On the job, no one ever stood behind Mr. Morreale and barked at him to work faster. They didn’t have to. Twice a day at a stand-up meeting, his shift managers told the group how everyone was doing. They knew because Amazon’s software, and an assortment of sensors in the warehouse, tracked workers’ every move. “Those numbers are always in the back of your head somewhere,” he said.

Mr. Morreale’s story represented pretty much the median experience of the Amazon fulfillment center workers I’ve interviewed. On one end of the spectrum, there were those who found the work intolerable, and lasted less than two weeks. At the other end were those with an appetite for the work."

But the latter are doped up on energy drinks and caffeine.  The only "generous" concessions the managers make to the working stiffs.  You can't sit down while you're on the job, but you can gulp more coffee and have a few aspirin if you're aching.  Impossible to imagine infecting other working venues, corporations?  Don't be so sure.

 At this very moment, Mims writes, Bezosism is "diffusing through the world of work, rewriting the source code of the global industrial machine. If it proves as popular and durable as the systems of organization on which it builds—from Fordism to the Toyota Production System—it could be, along with the e-commerce and space companies he built, Mr. Bezos’ most important legacy."

Don't laugh or reject this as hyperbole. We  already know (WSJ, Sept. 11-12, p. C3)  corporate bosses across the nation have insisted on remote employees installing "bossware" or "tattle ware".  This allows distant supervisors to monitor home workers every move: logging webcam screenshots, keystrokes and browsing history. 

Meanwhile, in Amazon’s fulfillment centers, human productivity is measured by an overall "stow rate",  calculated for each worker at a robot-fed pick-and-stow station. Amazon's egregious managerial error is in applying aggregate 'stow rates' and 'flow rates' to all employees.

The overall rate at which workers must complete a task in an Amazon warehouse, whether it’s putting items on shelves, taking them off, or putting them in boxes, is calculated based on the aggregate performance of everyone doing that task in a given facility.  This according to an Amazon spokeswoman who spoke to Mims. This floating rate, Amazon argues, shows that "none of its employees is being pushed beyond what’s reasonable, because that rate is something like an average of what everyone in a warehouse is already doing."

Yeah, right, except that if every other worker is trying to outdo peers to 'get ahead' the floating rate increases, to the detriment of those workers (maybe older) who are unable to keep up. And Mims points out "anyone can have a bad week" or maybe they're developing one of the repetitive injuries so common in the workforce (which is why aspirin dispensers abound along with coffee stations. )  In Heike Geissler's case it was getting sick and exhausted to the point of getting flu - along with back problems.  But why expect otherwise when workers have to perform the same task for an entire 10-hour shift, with only a half-hour for lunch and two 15-minute rest breaks?  

And yet Bezos wrote in an April letter to shareholders:

We don’t set unreasonable performance goals,”  

If you don’t make rate you’ll get a warning, triggered by an algorithm, and if it happens often enough your job is in danger, can be a powerful psychological spur to work harder, and possibly to exceed your physical limits, as Mr. Morreale discovered.

One day at the fulfillment center, he pushed himself too hard. Lightheaded and clammy, he sank to his knees, a no-no that Amazon’s performance algorithm treats as “time off task.” Associates aren’t allowed to sit down while on the job, unless it’s lunchtime or one of their 15-minute breaks.  

Amazon's solution to the relentless pace is to provide free aspirin vending machines, as well as free coffee machines. Caffeine and NSAID pain killer are supposed to be the solution for the bulk of associates, but they aren't.  Many, like Morreale, still break down and ultimately must leave.  

For the associates like Heike Geissler the only solution was to cut corners, a technique she described on page 105 of her book:

"You receive inbound units and enter them into the system.  You could hide products. Perhaps not forever, but at least for a few days you could hide products from others and thus remove them from the commodities cycle.  You could damage products and pretend they arrived already damaged. …"

And so on.  Anything  to slow down or halt the relentless, soul killing "commodities cycle" - which like the assembly line of old is remorseless in its mechanical demand for human compliance and attention.

Amazon, we learn, is trying to change its ways to lessen the injury rate - currently at 5.6 injuries per 100 workers.  To that end it's introduced a "Working Well" initiative.  But perhaps a more effective solution might be to be less demanding in terms of the physical demands.  An Amazon worker, for example, could be forgiven for being dubious after reading that "Current and former Amazon executives describe the management philosophy as performance drive and hard charging - built on the idea that everyone should be pushed to the limit.  And underperformers cut."

But workers, associates are not machines. They are not designed to work relentlessly at an inhuman pace for 10 hours - nonstop with only a 1/2 hr. and two 15 minute breaks.  And NO worker - male or female -  should have to wear Depends to get through a shift!

Thinking of working at Amazon? Be sure you have a solid health insurance policy as backup after you're cut for not making rate. With the relative higher risk of injury you will surely need it!

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