Newest Debate: Amazon, Enslaver or Savior?

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Expert: Jeffrey Silverman

I guess the answer to this depends on who you talk to, and what was their situation before getting hired at Amazon, even as a temporary — via an agency, and then being made full time. But Bernie Sanders and Sarah Silverman have made their positions known. They are arguing that there is something inherently wrong with having workers who are just able to get by while Jeff Bezos, their owner, is so filthy rich he is the richest man on earth — at 150 billion dollars.

Basically such rich and famous people do not pay their lower tier workers a living wage, and without overtime workers have to turn to public assistance to make ends meet.  Such unpaid and overworked workers have to use food stamps to properly feed their families.

Comedian Sarah Silverman was all too serious when she slammed billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for flaunting his Norway dog-sledding vacation online after it was revealed his employees live off food stamps and make less than $30,000 a year. Various media reports say that he has 560,000 employees in more than 50 countries, but they were paid a median salary of $28,445 in 2017.

There are many companies like Amazon and Walmart, who let the social safety net help their low paid workers catch up to what they should be having in real wages and benefits.  The only problem is that this is the situation with most jobs for working people in the United States. It used not to be like this, before the age of globalization and the shipping of not only jobs overseas, to lowly paid foreign workers, but the factories and machines to boot.

I know this only too well, as I once worked in the tobacco business and saw many tobacco processing factories loaded up and send to Brazil and several other countries. There went my job too, with the “synergies of operations” and “rationalization of expenses”, as my letter of termination read. 

Jeff Bezos is getting caught in the crossfire, and even Donald Trump is gunning for him, as to how he cooks the books for tax purposes, and how he underpays the Postal Service. Of all those who could  complain about such things, Deadbeat Trump is the last man who has any right to be holding the moral high ground. However, this plays well with his base of support, both workers and real estate developers.

There is less than a level playing field in many ways. The government is likely to institute a sales tax on internet e-commerce, and that might even make up for some of the lost tax revenues for Trump’s “Socialism for the Rich” tax cut.

Some states have already taken it on themselves to get a slice of the tax pie by instituting their own sales taxes on e-commerce.

But it is not only rank and file workers who agree with Trump, but those who own shopping malls and retail outlets. It is people in this category that are “sweating” the most. For the sake of the free market argument, we can respond by saying they just had it too-good-for-too-long, and

now they must either get competitive or go out of business, but hopefully not at the expense of already poorly paid workers.

Jobs are being created as well as lost in the retail sector —but what is the quality of those jobs and their working conditions?

I spoke to two respondents who have worked at Amazon, one doing his first job out of college and another who had had a better paying job, and also a higher degree. He had not been able to stand the forced overtime and level of his co-workers at the previous job.

That’s how he had ended up at Amazon, with normal hours but overtime so limited that he could not make ends meet.  Both later quit Amazon because of the working conditions and moved on. One became a teacher in training, and the other took a better paying job in logistics. 

The Amazon work was too physically demanding, and the pay was not what they had expected. The future teacher told how toilet breaks were allowed as needed, but to get to the location of the restroom was a run, as it was at the other end of the shipping facility.  With the overall physical demands of the job, and running to the toilet, he lost 20 pounds over a six week period.  It might be good to advertise such employment for overweight job seekers. 

However, many of those working there live at home with parents, and such a job in manna from heaven.  And having 14 dollars an hour wage is nothing to complain about, when starting out, especially for a college graduate with no experience while lots of other college graduates are looking for any job they can get. There are even some educational benefits with these jobs, either in paying for your education or helping pay off student debt.

But the bigger issue, the social problem facing America today, is not that Amazon pays less than it morally should but that the overall job market is keeping people in purely survival mood — it really sucks. Many with degrees and high school diplomas have no REAL marketable skills. That is a problem that needs to be addressed, and few are willing to go there. The education that most Americans are receiving is not the kind they will need to make a decent living.

As one of my respondents, who just happens to be my son, told me in a recent email:

It is a working-class job. Those of us who are working class are lucky to have jobs. Young people without student loans are fortunate to have such a job; there is an opportunity for growth. Don't expect entitlements you have not earned. You work for someone other than yourself, so you do what you have to do. If you’re so great, then get a better job. It is much better than wiping old people’s asses for the minimum wage, or working in some fast food place for the same. I was hired on the spot with benefits, and though I soon got pneumonia and went to the doctor, and missed 2 weeks (without pay) as I had not been on the job long enough to have sick days,  I still had a job to come back to.

As an interesting footnote to this last experience, as I was finishing this article this follow up came in — “Got a job offer making 19 dollars an hour.” My son has solved his problem, at least for now. But the larger problem is on hold, and things in the labor market may go sour in the not-too-distant future.

For some Amazon is just-for-now, for others it can become golden handcuffs, as with their skills, circumstances and the local job market there is nothing better to be had.  Yes, Jeff Bezos should share more of his good fortune, and perhaps set an example for others. However, in this political age, he should not be the scapegoat of the week.  There are more structural problems in the so-called free market economy that have made his business model a problem in the first place.

We are a system based on cheap and throwaway temporary labor. Some call it the gig economy.

We need not go there, but the issue is that living jobs for working-class folks are few-and-far-between, and what they pay is not enough to live a normal life. American workers and small business owners have to bear larger health insurance burdens than their counterparts in other developed countries.  They are not to be blamed for not being able to solve all such problems on their own.

Amazon raises minimum wage to $15 an hour

There are also some advantages, and based on recent fake news, you be the judge, as if Amazon just gave its US employees a raise to 15 dollars per hour. However, those working there say that this is not entirely true.

I work there. I think it works out okay if you're only going to be there for another 2 years. After that it could result in a lower wage, but they will have to consider other compensation there anyway. I just noticed how I caught NBC in a lie (because they didn't have all the facts). Also, notice how you can only tell when news is "fake," – especially if you are involved with the story.

Of course anyone working at Amazon “should” quit as soon as they get a better job. And get this — the company wants that! They “want” employees to leave for better work!

Their goal is to make the job there as miserable as possible in the hopes that it will force you to leave for something better.

But there are good things about Amazon... you get training. Other places expect you to get trained somewhere else, because they don't have the resources for training. So, Amazon is the first place to go for work, to get the training to work somewhere else. Training is one of Amazon's commodities, which no other company can do.

Also, it's like a job boot camp.


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