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The Human Price of Innovation at Amazon

David Callahan

Yesterday I criticized Arthur Brooks for arguing in the New York Times that more free enterprise is a key to greater happiness. Beyond the fact that the happiest people in the world tend to live in European nations that have tempered the market with strong government, here's another key point to consider: Often those companies which innovate to practice a purer form of free enterprise are absolutely miserable places to work. 

Big retail companies like Walmart and Target have been pioneers at offshoring production, discount pricing, and moving large volumes of merchandise. But they've also been pioneers in just-in-time scheduling of workers, a practice that keeps labor costs low by jerking around workers depending on the flow of customers in stores. (As Demos documented in a 2011 report.) Another common strategy has been to keep workers' hours from exceeding a threshold where they'd be considered full-time and qualify for various benefits and protections. Major retail companies have been repeatedly sued by workers for wage theft, sex discrimination, and other problems. 

Of course, also, the retail sector has been famous for its low wages. 

Now comes Amazon, another groundbreaking company that is reinventing commerce and advancing free enterprise. Surprise: It turns out to be a miserable place to work, with an archipelago of warehouses that grind down human beings in pursuit of pioneering efficiencies. 

The brutal life of Amazon workers has now been widely documented, but I'm writing about this today because German workers are standing up this week to Amazon by walking off the job at the peak holiday season. The union orchestrating the strike complains that  “The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts.”

Good for those Germans. Here's a country that obviously understands the importance of innovation and increased productivity -- as its export surplus shows -- but also understand that business advances shouldn't come at too high a human cost. We need more of that same balanced thinking here in the United States.