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Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing.
Amazon, like General Electric and Walmart, prides itself as a self-consciously ideological corporation, with Jeff Bezos and his senior executives proclaiming an “Amazon Way” that can illuminate the path forward for less innovative businesses.
Amazon is now a leading global seller not only of books but also of music and movie DVDs, video games, gift cards, cell phones, and magazine subscriptions.
Like Walmart itself, Amazon combines state-of-the-art CBSs with human resource practices reminiscent of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An anonymous German student who worked as a temporary packer at Amazon’s depot in Augsburg, southern Germany, has given a revealing account of work on the line at Amazon.
Her account appeared in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the stern upholder of German financial orthodoxy and not a publication usually given to accounts of workplace abuse by large and powerful corporations.
On the packing lines there were six such foremen, one known in Amazonspeak as a “coworker” and above him five “leads,” whose collective task was to make sure that the line kept moving.
Workers would be reprimanded for speaking to one another or for pausing to catch their breath (The functional foreman would record how often the packers went to the bathroom and, if they had not gone to the bathroom nearest the line, why not.
He is French born, and he still speaks with the rather faded insouciance of Maurice Chevalier and “Gay Paree,” and he makes much of this in his lecture.
But there was nothing gay (in the traditional sense) or insouciant about the Amazon workplace that Onetto described for UVA’s MBA candidates.
This was treated with derision on the union side, but at all Amazon’s centers, and especially those in the United States and the United Kingdom, the cult of the customer is a serious matter and provides the rationale for the extreme variant of scientific management whose purpose, as at Walmart, is to keep pushing up employee productivity while keeping hourly wages at or near poverty levels.
As at Walmart, Amazon achieves this with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail.
With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.