Basically, Every Online Retailer Is Terrible

Remember how Foxconn, the Chinese conglomerate that makes most Apple products, is so terrible? How they have horrible working conditions and pointless, militaristic rules? Well, if you guessed that companies right here in America are also treating their workers like shit, you're right! And you can't solve the problem by boycotting, because these companies ship pretty much all your stuff.

Mac McClelland (who's been the subject of controversy in the past) went undercover at a ginormous warehouse she calls "Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc." in an unnamed American city, and wrote about it for Mother Jones. Amalgamated basically contracts with online retailers to ship all manner of goods, from books to dildos, at lightning speed — which means its workers have to move really, really, really fast. The speed requirements mean workers can't help but get a variety of overuse injuries (one older worker advises McClelland "You need to take 800 milligrams of Advil a day") and the company won't make improvements like putting down mats so the workers don't get painful electric shocks, because that would cost money. Also, if workers fail to make their (according to McClelland, impossible) targets they're belittled, and if they cry or miss a day at the wrong time, even for a child's birth, they're fired. To make matters worse, many of them aren't even full-fledged employees:

From the temp agency, Amalgamated has ordered the exact number of humans it should take to fill this week's orders if we work at top capacity. Lots of retailers use temporary help in peak season, and online ones are no exception. But lots of warehousing and distribution centers like this also use temps year-round. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that more than 15 percent of pickers, packers, movers, and unloaders are temps. They make $3 less an hour on average than permanent workers. And they can be "temporary" for years. There are so many temps in this warehouse that the staffing agency has its own office here. Industry consultants describe the temp-staffing business as "very, very busy." "On fire." Maximizing profits means making sure no employee has a slow day, means having only as many employees as are necessary to get the job done, the number of which can be determined and ordered from a huge pool of on-demand labor literally by the day. Often, temp workers have to call in before shifts to see if they'll get work. Sometimes, they're paid piece rate, according to the number of units they fill or unload or move. Always, they can be let go in an instant, and replaced just as quickly.

Sounds awful! Tell us who Amalgamated really is so we can boycott every company that works with them! Except we'd have to do a lot of boycotting, because many, many companies work with many, many different awful third-party warehouse-and-shipping services, and mostly, the companies have no idea what those third-party services are up to. And those services and other temp-based companies have impacts that spread beyond online retail into food service, medical supply, and even hotels. To really be ethically pure you'd have to make all your stuff out of lentils.

Or, you could advocate for more disclosure and stronger labor laws. McClelland talks to an e-commerce specialist, who says there's no standard to determine which companies are using socially-responsible practices to get their shit to you. The specialist says, "A standard has to be created. Like fair trade or organic certification, where social good is built into the cost. There is a segment of the population that cares and will pay for it." That's certainly true, and it would be worthwhile to force companies to be more transparent about how they get you your dildos so damn fast. Ultimately, though, we need some sticks to keep them from treating their workers like shit — and from contracting with overseas companies that do. As everybody who deals with this knows, that (especially the second part) is a tall order. But until we're really committed to it, everything we buy has the potential to be tainted by somebody else's misery.

I guess for people who still have the money to buy stuff, the good news is that you don't have to worry that much about shunning any specific company. If you feel like every single place that makes stuff has some kind of horrible ethical problem with it, it's because it probably does. So rather than, say, buying a Droid instead of an iPhone and calling the problem solved, it's time to get angry at an entire system that lets corporations get away with everything short of murder. You could start by protesting against right-to-work laws (a misnomer) in your state. Or, at a minimum, voting. But do it with an actual ballot — voting with your wallet may not have as much impact as you think.

I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave [Mother Jones]

Image via Zurijeta/Shutterstock.com