However, it does not always make sense to take the self-description of the business at face value. However, given the astounding speed and scale of Amazon’s growth, it is reasonable to think that its “first day” mentality has something to do with its success. Since its inception in 1994, Amazon has become one of the most valuable companies in the world, with a market capitalization of just over $ 1 billion at the time of writing.
And the Covid-19 epidemic hasn’t slowed Amazon down. Quite the contrary: even if other companies have downsized or closed their doors, Amazon has proven to be remarkably well positioned to take advantage of these new circumstances, with customers spending around $ 11,000 (£ 8,845) per second on its products. and services. As lock orders have trapped people inside, many are turning to home deliveries through Amazon, reinforcing the importance of a company that has already conquered nearly 50% of the US e-commerce market. To meet increased customer demand, the company plans to hire 100,000 new workers. Despite being a business entity, Amazon is becoming more and more like a public service. It has even partnered with the Canadian government to distribute medical supplies and with the British government to deliver home test kits. Indeed, it may be one of the few retailers to come out of this pandemic stronger than before.
But despite outside success, Amazon’s adoption of a relentless invention comes at a price. In the absence of a strong code of ethics, the ruthlessness that makes Amazon success for its shareholders can become indistinguishable from cruelty to those who are not taken into account in its measures of success. Amazon itself can flourish during the coronavirus pandemic, but not all Amazonians benefit from it.
As customers turn to delivery services such as Amazon for fear of contracting the virus, the risks simply seem to have been passed on to workers. A New York state warehouse worker held a walkout last month to protest what he claimed to be the company’s inadequate security measures, including his lack of paid sick leave, and was licensed; a leaked memo indicated that Amazon’s general counsel wanted to describe him as “unintelligent or articulate” in his public relations strategy (the executive who made the remark later released a statement that said, “I let my emotions write my words and take over me ”).
Amazon’s mistreatment of frontline workers – both during and before this crisis – illustrates the dark side of the “first day” mentality. Amazon’s continued efforts to improve productivity can be beneficial to shareholders, but it also results in working conditions so physical that warehouses stock vending machines for pain medication, in tacit recognition of the physical toll. For Amazon, collateral damage seems immaterial as long as there is a constant flow of workers passing through the doors every morning.
The fact that Amazon is obviously not responsible to its workers should raise the question of who Amazon East responsible to. The more Bezos’ empire integrates into the infrastructure of our lives, the more important it becomes to question its motivations. In the midst of a crisis with an easily identifiable villain – the virus – Amazon has the potential to rebuild itself as a corporate savior for our time, the company that kept everyone in stock with the necessary supplies, even when they couldn’t leave their homes. As other services have slowed down or stopped, Prime deliveries are one of the few continuities in the world that we leave behind. But make no mistake – Amazon is not just a benevolent or charitable force, similar to the Red Cross. It is, after all, a business enterprise, and its ownership structure is absurdly out of sync with the map of the people involved.
Most tech companies reserve much of the stock for founders, and Amazon is no exception. Bezos currently holds nearly 60 million shares, or 11% of the company, even after after winding up $ 12 billion in shares (Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie owns 4% as part of their divorce deal last year). Among the shares held by employees, ownership is highly concentrated among the first employees to occupy managerial positions. The workers most at risk during this pandemic are seriously underrepresented: warehouse workers, who previously received about a share a year, saw their wages adjusted in 2018 to remove even this paltry subsidy.
As this pandemic makes the world more dependent on Amazon, it is worth remembering who actually does the daily work that keeps the business running. It’s not Jeff Bezos who makes the deliveries or who makes the boxes, after all. For this, we must thank the front line workers, who are underpaid, overworked and often put themselves in danger.
The coronavirus crisis has basically worked as a resistance test of our entire socio-economic order, inadvertently throwing a harsh light on all the ways in which people are defeated by this system. The result could be a massive upheaval. Unemployment rates in the United States are higher than they have been in eight decades; millions of tenants skip their rent payments; policies which would have been considered anathema before the crisis are seriously debated. The structure can be changed – indeed, once we get out of this crisis, we can see that it has already changed. Our political imagination will need to be updated to reflect this new reality.
The more efficiently Amazon works as a utility, the more we should think about how to treat it that way. There are many avenues to explore: stronger anti-trust legislation; something that looks like nationalization; divide it into separate companies; stronger labor protections; increased worker control. Rather than an Amazon that sacrifices workers on the altar of shareholder value, we could have an Amazon that balances the needs of all relevant stakeholders.
These suggestions may seem incredibly radical, not least because current officials are unlikely to support measures to reduce their wealth and power. But maybe we can borrow a page from Amazon’s book to frame this discussion in a new way. After all, there is something quite appealing about the idea of ”first day,” with its overtones of disruption and reinvention. It’s just a shame that Amazon has devoted that energy exclusively to maximizing shareholder value.
Rather, imagine that this “first day” spirit is directed to the socio-economic system that subordinates these workers in the first place, so that the fruits of their labor are shared more equitably. Day two may not be so scary after all.
- Wendy Liu is a former computer programmer based in San Francisco. His first book, Abolish Silicon Valley, is now available