By attempting to increase company profit, Amazon has put the wellbeing of its employees at risk.
Amazon has secured a patent on wristbands that use vibration to guide warehouse workers’ hands to items needing to be processed. Though Amazon was granted the patent back in January, the company has yet to introduce the tech to their warehouse floors. The wristband’s design uses ultrasonic tracking to accurately locate where it is in position to the object targeted for processing. While the introduction of the wristbands into Amazon’s warehouse floors would ostensibly streamline the process of packaging, this streamlining would be undercut by exhausting, invasive supervisions of workers’ literal every move.
If a worker weren’t actively moving toward the targeted items within the picking floor, the area within the warehouse where packaging takes place, the wristband vibrates to guide them to the right direction, thereby cutting down on time between items being packaged. The use of ultrasonic tracking could be used to alert supervisors where a worker is, how quickly they’re packaging, and could be set off by any amount of minor dawdling.
The constant vibrations would ward off any slacking during work, perhaps to a dangerous degree. As is, Amazon workers are required to pack an item per 30 seconds and are reminded of their progress in the form of their “units per hour” tracked on a screen in front of their station. Workers are discouraged from sitting down, are subjected to timed restroom breaks and work long, arduous hours.
These descriptions of the working conditions within an Amazon warehouse come from Alan Selby, a reporter with UK publication “The Daily Mirror,” who spent five weeks undercover working the picking floor at the Tilbury warehouse in Essex. He recounts working ten-hour shifts and witnessing an ambulance being called to the warehouse on two separate occasions due to workers collapsing from exhaustion.
Previous upper and middle managers at Amazon have described similarly demanding, yet less physically intensive, working conditions in a 2015 “New York Times” article. Bo Olson, who used to be in book marketing for the company, shared that he’s seen “nearly every person [he has] worked with” cry at their desk at one point or another during his time at Amazon. The online retailer encourages its employees to tear apart each other’s ideas at meetings and work long nights at the office or through holidays. This type of office environment may have made Amazon the most valuable retailer in the United States, but it equally encourages internal politicking and cultivates a culture of employee dissatisfaction.
Though Amazon has become a pressure cooker all the way up its corporate ladder, the most pressure remains on those working on the picking floor. With a goal of 300 units packed per hour, it’s difficult to meet quotas. Though Selby usually was able to meet his quotas during his time at the picking floor, supervisors would regularly remind him that he could lose his job if he wasn’t able to keep up with company-set goals.
Amazon annually fires its underperforming employees and promptly replaces them with new recruits that may be able to keep better pace with the company’s exacting expectations. Pregnant workers or those suffering from a medical condition that the company let go have said that they felt they were unfairly treated and weren’t given the opportunity to get back on their feet before being given the chop.
The company can point to how many units per hour the employee has packed and use that as justification for letting someone go, so it becomes vital to employees to keep their numbers in the proper range. The constant rounds of firing also encourage employees to not use the restroom beyond the time limit or show any outward signs of slacking to their supervisors. In a company with such rapid employee turnover, everyone competes with everyone else to just maintain their livelihood.
The introduction of the patented wristbands into the warehouses would only compound the problems already present in the company. More militant tracking would push overworked employees even harder to not fall short of extreme demands. Moreover, supervisors could theoretically justify more firings per annual cull, increasing the already extreme pressure on those working in the picking floor.
Amazon is trying to squeeze all the labor possible from its workers, enough so to create wristbands that could shave off seconds between packing one item and retrieving the next. While it is the goal of a business to make as much profit as feasibly possible, Amazon is wringing labor from employees that are already overworked and overstressed. It’s as if Amazon is trying to mechanize even their workers to reach robotic levels of job performance, but because the technology is still too lacking to make machines into workers, the company flipped the script and is molding their workers into machines.
Beyond tyrannical business strategies, the wristbands could increase the number of workers injured on the job as they push themselves to meet ever-increasing expectations. During Selby’s brief stint at Amazon, a colleague confided to him that she pulled a hamstring during work but “just had to carry on.” The wristbands would not ameliorate these types of situations, but would likely only increase their frequency. This would include more people collapsing from exhaustion and working through injuries they can’t afford to take a few days off work to heal.
These wristbands were not patented to improve the quality of life of Amazon’s workforce but instead to bolster the company’s bottom line. If Amazon were to ever implement these vibrating wristbands, it would betray the already poorly hidden secret that Amazon sees its employees only as numbers — packing time per item, units per hour and, most important, dollars of revenue generated for the company.