Just before a team of Wall Street analysts came to tour Amazon.com's distribution center in Seattle last summer, weird stuff happened. According to workers present


On the line at Amazon.com

Blue-collar labor in a high-tech company.

Just before a team of Wall Street analysts came to tour Amazon.com's distribution center in Seattle last summer, weird stuff happened. According to workers present at the time, supervisors temporarily removed workplace signs containing anything remotely hinting at possible problems. Signs such as "Problem-Solving Area," "Missing Books," and "Extra Books" disappeared. The removals prompted packaging workers—mostly temps—to joke, "There are no problems here today." The statistics board showing how many book orders had been processed that day was also removed.

Bill Curry, an Amazon spokes-man, says that the statistics on the board are normally erased "when outsiders come in, because it's proprietary data." But he was unaware the other signs had ever been removed.

According to Mark Bigelow, a temp worker at the warehouse at the time, all the signs were put back soon after the analysts were done with their tour. Bigelow, who worked on a packaging line in July and August 1998, recounts that workers were instructed by supervisors not to offer any information to the Wall Street analysts touring the distribution center. One supervisor told him: If someone asks you about your job, say that it's good.

According to three former temp workers, conditions are anything but good in Amazon's warehouse. Two of them complain of verbal abuse and all three say they were worked past the point of exhaustion.

An average of around 100 people work in overlapping shifts at Amazon.com's "bundler lines" and "bander lines" at the company's distribution center on Dawson Street near Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood. It's essentially factory line work: sorting, packaging, and preparing book orders in steps along a conveyor belt to prepare them for mailing.

Bigelow claims conditions are extremely hot in the summer. Last summer, line workers sometimes passed out or vomited, he recalls. Bigelow says there were so few fans that groups of workers would squabble over them. He describes the summertime temperature in the break room, located in the attic of the building, as resembling a sauna—a condition that caused workers to take shorter breaks.

Bigelow says the large majority of the line workers are temps. This became apparent to him one day when the computerized mailing-label system went down and all temps were ordered to go home. As a result, "almost everybody left. A lot of people didn't realize there were so many temps before then. After that, everyone realized it." But with high employee turnover, such observations are soon forgotten.

The other workers in the distribution center, numbering also around 100, have less physically demanding jobs and tend to be permanently employed "associates."

Amazon spokesman Curry could not comment on the exact number of workers at the warehouse or on the proportion of temps. "We generally don't discuss how we're doing our hiring and running our business," he said. "We prefer not to draw a road map for competitors."

Adam Griffin, who worked on the line in August of last year, says that line supervisors "periodically crack the whip throughout the day," taunting workers to work harder and faster, and applying such threats and punishments as public humiliation and moving workers to more difficult positions on the line.

Sage Wilson, who worked at the warehouse for four months until last October, recalls workers often being openly called "pathetic" or being insulted in other ways by the supervisors.

For this, temps currently earn $8.50 an hour.

Temps have been divided into higher-status "temp-to-hires," who eventually have a shot at permanent status, and lower-status "temp temps." Wilson notes that roughly 15 to 20 new temps are brought in each week to replace those who are fired or quit. Periodically, large numbers of temp-to-hires have been fired—part of a winnowing procedure in which only the most gung-ho line workers are kept on as associates.

Bigelow, Griffin, and Wilson all note that the temps who are chosen to be associates are not only gung-ho, but also tend to cultivate a rebel image, at least in appearance. This fits with other superficial off-beatness at the Amazon distribution center, they say. For instance, the beginnings and ends of breaks are announced not by a bell or buzzer, but by a turkey-gobble sound effect.

Spokesman Bill Curry explains that many such idiosyncratic practices date from the early days of Amazon, "when people could do things how they wanted to because the company hadn't been around 100 years."

Bigelow offers a different version of the Amazon ethos: "We don't have bells because we're different at Amazon. We have piercings and tattoos and turkey gobbles. We're too cool to do bells." Once a month, line workers attend a meeting, called a "powwow," which Wilson describes sarcastically as "an orgy of wacky high jinks—a lot like being at a high school pep rally."

Another factor adding a bit of surrealism to Amazon line work is the prevalence of sex books. Every Amazon worker interviewed for this article remarked that a large proportion of the books they packaged were about sex. Titles such as 101 Nights of Grrrreat Sex and Anal Pleasure & Health repeatedly float past workers on the packaging line.

Curry responds: "To say that [sex books] are an outsize percent of sales would be an exaggeration."

All books, including ones about sex, soon may no longer run down the line in Seattle. The opening of similar operations by Amazon near Reno, Nevada, and in Germany have prompted suspicion among local workers that the Seattle operation may be phased out in the near future.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow