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Warehouse Woes: Amazon and the new “middle class”

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For a month now, thousands of workers have been applying to work at a new Amazon warehouse in Schertz. The City of Schertz paid $7.6 million in subsidies to the mega-corporation in order to secure the 1.26 million-square-foot warehouse that will bring “good job[s] in a durable, growing industry” according to a recent speech from President Obama, delivered at an Amazon fulfillment center (company lingo for ‘warehouse’) in Tennessee.

But what kind of jobs is Amazon really bringing? Horror stories from Amazon plants around the country have come to light. In a 2011 exposé on a local Amazon warehouse, Lehigh Valley, Penn.’s Morning Call revealed that the building was so hot in the summer that the company paid for ambulances to wait outside the building to treat workers. An emergency room doctor eventually called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” at the warehouse.

The Seattle Times reported last year on working conditions at an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky where workers were intimidated into not reporting injuries that might hurt Amazon’s safety record. A former human resources employee told the paper, “They would have meetings on how we could get rid of people who were hurt. It was horrible.” A former safety officer added, “This was just a brutal place to work.”

Reports of abuse by Amazon are not confined to the United States. Earlier this year, a German documentary revealed that Amazon hired a neo-Nazi-linked security firm named H.E.S.S. (an allusion to Nazi deputy-Führer Rudolf Hess) to watch workers at its warehouse in Southern Germany. The neo-Nazi security guards engaged in widespread abuse against the largely immigrant workforce brought in to handle the holiday rush.

Certainly not all the jobs offered by Amazon are nightmares. An Indiana worker interviewed for this article reported that she enjoyed her job, but it didn’t take long before she began to tell of coworkers who did not fare so well: a woman who had blisters on her feet so painful that she had to crawl into her house at night and an army veteran whose legs chafed so badly at work that they bled.

The jobs that Amazon offers largely consist of people filling bins at the warehouse (inbound) and people taking things out of those bins to pack in boxes (outbound). The pace of work is extremely fast and workers regularly walk 15 miles a day doing their job. The pay is low, averaging between $10.75 and $12.50 per hour for Amazon workers and less for the temps who make up the majority of the workforce. Amazon stresses flexibility, meaning that the hours are highly contingent upon mass hiring around high volume times like Christmas only to be followed by mass layoffs shortly after.

In an economy where people are just happy to have a job, the potential for exploitation is seemingly limitless. The woman working in Indiana ran her own business before it became a victim of the economic crisis, sending her into the arms of Amazon. She isn’t the only one; members of her family have also found it necessary to seek employment in the warehouse.

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