What Did You Think About the Amazon Episode of Last Week Tonight?

The recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has been on my mind a lot over the last few days, so I’m going to share some thoughts, and I’m interested in hearing yours.

The segment is about fulfillment centers, specifically those owned and operated by Amazon. Employees at these centers each have a gadget that receives orders, tells the employee where to find the products in the order, and tells them how much time they have to find the products.

On some levels, it’s an impressive system. Employees have clear direction about what to do throughout the day, they’re encouraged to work with little to no supervision, and they’re paid $15/hour, which is a living wage in most US cities.

However, the system doesn’t appear to be based on rewarding success; rather, it’s based on punishing employees for failing to live up to Amazon’s standards. The result is that employees try not to take bathroom breaks and are exhausted at the end of the day.

Also, remarkably, despite all of the technology that makes this system possible, it seems that the devices often send employees to opposite sides of the warehouse with the clock ticking. That baffles me, as a lose-lose situation: It isn’t efficient for Amazon, and it’s probably a part of the reason why the people there are so tired at the end of the day.

While Amazon is responsible for this system and how they treat employees, John Oliver points out that every Amazon Prime member–like me–has a responsibility to shoulder as well. There are over 100 million of us, and we’re the ones who are ordering from Amazon with free one-day shipping.

I was left wondering what I should do. One obvious option is to simply stop ordering from Amazon. But I must admit that it’s one of my preferred online marketplaces. Amazon claims to be “obsessed with customers,” and I honestly feel that way when I’m shopping for something there.

John Oliver mentions another option, and I wish he had ended the show on this, because I actually think it might make a difference if more people considered and acted on this (as I plan to do): What if I simply stopped requesting one-day shipping when I order on Amazon? It’s the default option, but there are other, slower options as well. It seems that a lot of the issues with Amazon’s system stem from the urgency of meeting the promise of one-day shipping; maybe I can relieve that pressure a bit.

Of course, I’m just one of many millions of people who order from Amazon–changing my behavior will have an infinitesimally small impact on Amazon’s employees (if any). But just like when I vote in an election, even though my vote is a drop in the bucket, at least I made the choice to represent myself and what I believe.

What do you think? Did watching this video inspire you to do anything?


8 Responses to “What Did You Think About the Amazon Episode of Last Week Tonight?”

  1. I already knew they’re evil. I really hope they won’t come to New Zealand.

  2. norkle says:

    Sadly, can’t view the video outside USA. So I guess there is now a conspiracy that YouTube is helping protect Amazon’s practises from block scrutiny?

  3. Joseph E. Pilkus III says:

    Jamey,

    I just saw that episode, and had a similar epiphany. Now, for the past few years, I’ve almost always selected a later date option as I don’t need my toilet paper, napkins, or paper towels RIGHT NOW or else I have some very bad planning behaviors. Also, Amazon does incentivize selecting a later option by offering a $1 or so to their Marketplace or other items. So, for me the choice is easy…show restraint when buying and patience when I do.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  4. I actually question whether ordering slower shipping speed will make much of a difference. Yes, there is pressure for Amazon to get an order out quickly for short shipping deadlines. But the pressure is really about cost. Every minute that an employee works costs Amazon 25 cents. The less time it takes to fulfill an order, the less that order costs. So if you order a slower pace, they will still pack the order just as fast. They would just prioritize faster shipments before your order. But your order will have the same deadline so the employee can get back to other orders quickly. They will just ship it to you using a slower method, which costs them less.

    The only thing you can really do is consolidate your orders into fewer shipments, so your orders will only cause misery once. 🙂

  5. I apologize in advance for the long-winded response-

    I come from a background of warehouse management and consulting, and from my first-hand experiences, I definitely understand the concerns here and can hopefully share some context. While nothing in the segment was untrue, John Oliver certainly cherry-picks the worst experiences to share as anecdotes. There are some things I think are worth highlighting- the experience of the workers, the role of automation, and our roles as customers/clients.

    Warehouse picking is a very physically demanding job. It is very common for pickers on foot to walk 10+ miles per day. Companies like Amazon do their best to avoid sending pickers from one end of the warehouse to the other (since it’s obviously inefficient for the operation), but they still happen, mostly due to the emphasis on customer experience. Those moves are not particularly relevant anyway- if a picker is paid to work 8 hours a day, that picker will likely be on their feet for that entire time (minus lunch/breaks). The job requires quite a bit of physical conditioning, and it’s not for everyone. I’ve seen pickers aged 60+ that have done it for over 20 years, and I’ve seen pickers in their mid-20s that burn out after a few months. It’s not a particularly fulfilling job, but I also don’t see it as substantially worse than any other physical job.

    There are, however, a broad range of experiences depending on the employer. There are certainly fulfillment centers that are generous with breaks, allow downtime for staff, and so on. There are also companies that push their workers to the limit, trying to squeeze as much productivity for each labor dollar they spend. The reality is, the second option is more efficient for the company, and in any competitive market, companies have a strong incentive to move in that direction. Outside of other influences, conditions will tend to become more demanding in that industry. At the end of the day, workers are allowed to quit and find other work at any time (and based on turnover metrics and hiring issues, this does happen). If you lean right politically, that may be enough; if you lean left, you may believe that regulatory bodies like OSHA and legislature have a responsibility to set minimal standards.

    Automation does play a key role here. Many tasks within a fulfillment center are ripe for automation. Amazon has invested heavily in Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, which eliminate most of the walking, and many competitors are starting doing the same. Other forms of automation, like label application, smart conveyors, robotic palletization, etc, eliminate repetitive or heavy-lift tasks, which are the most prone to injury. This can be encouraged through tax incentives, or through higher wages/safety standards (if labor is more expensive, a robot might look cheaper in comparison)

    So, what can we do to improve conditions? A grassroots movement is one option, but I don’t believe the one you describe would be effective. Just opting for slower shipping would not impact anything, even if a large number of people do the same. The customer preference for fast service has definitely contributed to the growth of eCommerce companies like Amazon. But, the trade-off for those companies now is between operational cost and employee treatment. Since slower shipping does not substantially impact this trade-off, I do not believe it will influence the result. Influencing their actions would require either a strong grassroots movement (i.e., many people boycotting companies with sub-standard work conditions) or government intervention. And since this is the point where this issue becomes a political one, I will stop short and let folks reach their own conclusions.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      I really appreciate your detailed response! I should also add that John Oliver and his staff decided not to visit an Amazon warehouse for the segment (at least, according to Amazon), which seems odd to me. I don’t know if the segment would have changed, but at least then they could have seen the fulfillment center firsthand.

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