“You’re Just Disposable”: New Accounts from Former Amazon Employees Raise Questions About Working Conditions

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February 14, 2020

In recent weeks, Amazon has stepped forward to promote the company as a force for good in the American economy, and tout its treatment of workers at the sprawling network of warehouses where millions of packages are prepared for delivery each year.

But in interviews for a new FRONTLINE documentary, former Amazon employees who worked in the company’s warehouses — which it calls “fulfillment centers” — describe a work environment in which they felt pressured to pick and pack items at productivity rates they say are “unrealistic.” Their stories echoed the more than 50 interviews FRONTLINE conducted with similar workers across the country.

“The part they don’t talk about is the safety rules that you have to ignore to make rate,” one former Amazon fulfillment center employee tells FRONTLINE producer and director James Jacoby in the above excerpt from Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos. “It’s not just that you go in and you do your job and that’s it … it’s incredibly hard to meet rate while following all the safety procedures.”

In the documentary, which was released Feb. 18 and is now streaming online, the former employees say the pressure they feel is heightened by Amazon’s use of technology to gather data on what’s happening — and how quickly — in its warehouses.

“We’re not treated as human beings, we’re not even treated as robots,” one former employee says in the above scene. “We’re treated as part of the data stream.”

Amazon has recently come under similar criticism from a group of 15 Democratic senators — including presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — who sent a letter to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos condemning what they said was the company’s “dismal” record on worker safety, and calling for change to its “profit-at-all costs culture.”

In the FRONTLINE documentary, Jeff Wilke, one of two CEOs under Bezos, strongly defends the company’s treatment of workers and its commitment to safety.

“From the moment I arrived 20 years ago, I made it very clear to our operations teams that we will not compromise the safety of our employees to do anything else,” Wilke says in the above clip. “So we have a culture that if we are asking people to do something that they have to do too fast to be safe, they can raise their hand and say, ‘this isn’t right,’ and we’ll fix it.”

Wilke stresses that the company has become an industry leader in training its workforce for career advancement, and says its hourly workers — for whom Amazon’s minimum wage is double the federal standard — are offered the same benefits Amazon executives receive. 

“These are great jobs,” he says.

For the full story, watch Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos: 

Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos premiered Tuesday, Feb. 18 on PBS stations. The full documentary is now streaming in this story, in FRONTLINE’s collection of more than 250 streaming films, on the PBS Video App, on YouTube and on-demand.

This story has been updated.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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