Design burnout? Warehouse and shipping workers pay the hidden costs of the holiday season

What does christmas mean? For many, it’s about feasting, family and napping while watching cricket.

But for e-commerce giants like Amazon, Christmas is the most lucrative time of the year. During the 2020 holiday season, Amazon processed more than AUD 6.6 billion in sales.

And for the warehouse and dispatch workers who actually get these purchases to their destination, the pre-Christmas period means long working hours and more demanding work, often under poor conditions and with little job security.

In our research project on “automated precariousness“Let’s try to learn more about the workers’ experiences to understand if conditions in Australian e-commerce warehouses are comparable to those overseas.

The Christmas rush

Almost this year four out of five Australian households are expected to buy Christmas gifts online.

The frenzy really starts with the man-made “shopping holiday” Black Friday, which follows the US Thanksgiving holiday but has become a global event. A single day wasn’t enough, so now there’s Cyber ​​Monday, which explicitly focuses on consumer spending from e-commerce platforms.

E-commerce and Christmas are so closely intertwined that Dave Clark, an Amazon executive, ran his company’s warehouses, “Santa’s workshops“.

Read more: Black Friday for Amazon Employees: The Human Cost Behind Consumer Convenience

‘It is the season of hire and firing

We want to understand how seasonal shopping events and the promise of warehouse automation shape the framework conditions for the growing number of logistics employees in e-commerce.

In Australia, Amazon has made extensive use of Temporary workers who are hired through recruiters. Amazon Australia alone will mobilize more than 1,000 Seasonal workers in the run-up to Christmas sales.

Amazon Australia alone hires more than 1,000 seasonal workers when the Christmas rush begins.
Awe / AAP

These temporary workers often experience some of the most intense working conditions. Aside from the lack of job security, there are reports that many are workers required to work incredibly long hours at an accelerated pace, with the additional expectation that they will be available on demand for the duration of the shopping season.

Read more: 3 Ways ‘Algorithmic Management’ Makes Work More Stressful And Less Satisfying

Design burnout?

Traditional thinking in employee management suggests that there are benefits to retaining workers who improve their skills and build loyalty to employers.

But in the United States, Amazon is pushing through workers at an alarming pace. The annual turnover rate of 150%, almost twice the industry average, has even reportedly worried some executives about “the workers go out“.

The urgency of seasonal shopping means Amazon can push workers to extremes, making them work long hours of physically demanding tasks at breakneck speed.

Executives don’t necessarily have to fire employees when the onslaught is over – instead research and reporting suggests that workers leave voluntarily because their bodies just can’t take the strain anymore.

In one new article, Canadian researcher and labor lawyer Mostafa Henaway, describes his experience working at an Amazon fulfillment center:

Amazon doesn’t openly push people out the door. It lets the work do this by itself.

Amazon makes it easy for warehouse workers to quit. In the US, the Work Management app from A to Z includes a handy button for submitting a voluntary resignation.
Screenshot via Reddit / suspici0uspackage

These conclusions are supported by reports on working conditions at Amazon in various countries in which the company operates, such as: the UK and Italy.

Regardless of intent, the quick burnout of workers is a consequence of the design of the work and the conditions.

Amazon employees in the US report The app they use to manage their schedules even has a handy “Submit Voluntary Termination” button to make the process convenient and automated.

Internal documents allegedly show that Amazon executives “follow closely” and set goals for a metric called “unrepentant turnover,” which represents the percentage of employees who happily leave the company each year. This is more true of Amazon employees than temporary workers, but it could suggest that employee churn is a deliberate management strategy.

In addition to synchronizing labor needs with seasonal demand, rapid employee turnover makes organizing and unionizing less likely. As part of a ongoing struggle for unions among Amazon workers, short-term workers are less likely to have the opportunity to join trade unions and push for better conditions.

We asked Amazon Australia if “Burnout by Design” is a conscious strategy. Operations Director Craig Fuller said:

These claims are unfounded. We pride ourselves on providing our employees in the fulfillment center with a safe, comfortable and supportive work environment all year round. As with all retailers, the holiday season is our busiest time of year and we work hard to make sure everyone who works in our buildings is supported and has a positive experience at work.

This year we have taken on around 1,000 additional seasonal workers across Australia to support our existing workforce over the Christmas season. While hired over the holidays, these seasonal opportunities can also be a path to employment and longer-term careers on Amazon. We have many examples of seasonal workers who have chosen to stay with Amazon Australia and build their careers.

We continue to place great emphasis and focus on the well-being and safety of our team.

Amazon’s new highly automated warehouse in Sydney will continue to require large human labor.
Dean Lewins / AAP

Will automation fix that?

Online retailers are investing heavily in automation.

Amazon plans to have a new warehouse worth A $ 500 million in west Sydney by Christmas. It will be the largest in Australia, equipped with swarms of robots that move objects over around 200,000 square meters.

Increasing automation and reports from there is a risk of massive job losses can make workers feel threatened by the threat of technology becoming obsolete.

Read more: Coles and Woolworths Move to Robotic Warehouses and On-Demand Workplaces As Home Deliveries Soar

But this highly robotic workplace will still have many human workers. There are many things that even the most advanced storage robots are not good at or that humans can do for cheaper.

Workplace automation is arguably less about replacing employees than about getting them to keep up with the pace of machines and algorithms. More speed takes its toll: Amazon warehouses in the US supposedly have an injury rate that is 80% above the industry standard.

The holidays are here to stay

We can assume that companies will continue to extend the shopping holidays and follow in the footsteps of Amazon’s sales-boosting “Prime Day” in mid-June. The stressful and precarious conditions of seasonal work are likely to spread to the rest of the year.

We fear that convenient online shopping will come at the cost of burnout, exhaustion and precarious jobs. This situation can become permanent without improved workers’ rights and stricter company regulations.

About Christine Geisler

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