Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dispatch from the Irony-Free Zone

Recent post by Vik and Al on The Health Care Blog. I really like these guys, but I had to call bullshit on this one in the comments.
Kim il Bezos

"Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.
All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.

Whereas some Amazon employees are in constant motion across the floors of its enormous centers— the biggest, in Arizona, is the size of twenty-eight football fields— others work on assembly lines packing goods for shipping. An anonymous German student who worked as a temporary packer at Amazon’s depot in Augsburg, southern Germany, has given a revealing account of work on the line at Amazon. Her account appeared in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the stern upholder of German financial orthodoxy and not a publication usually given to accounts of workplace abuse by large and powerful corporations. There were six packing lines at Amazon’s Augsburg center, each with two conveyor belts feeding tables where the packers stood and did the packing. The first conveyor belt fed the table with goods stored in boxes, and the second carried the goods away in sealed packages ready for distribution by UPS, FedEx, and their German counterparts.

Machines measured whether the packers were meeting their targets for output per hour and whether the finished packages met their targets for weight and so had been packed “the one best way.” But alongside these digital controls there was a team of Taylor’s “functional foremen,” overseers in the full nineteenth-century sense of the term, watching the employees every second to ensure that there was no “time theft,” in the language of Walmart. On the packing lines there were six such foremen, one known in Amazonspeak as a “coworker” and above him five “leads,” whose collective task was to make sure that the line kept moving. Workers would be reprimanded for speaking to one another or for pausing to catch their breath (Verschnaufpause) after an especially tough packing job.
The functional foreman would record how often the packers went to the bathroom and, if they had not gone to the bathroom nearest the line, why not. The student packer also noticed how, in the manner of Jeremy Bentham’s nineteenth-century panopticon, the architecture of the depot was geared to make surveillance easier, with a bridge positioned at the end of the workstation where an overseer could stand and look down on his wards. 23 However, the task of the depot managers and supervisors was not simply to fight time theft and keep the line moving but also to find ways of making it move still faster. Sometimes this was done using the classic methods of Scientific Management, but at other times higher targets for output were simply proclaimed by management, in the manner of the Soviet workplace during the Stalin era.
Onetto in his lecture describes in detail how Amazon’s present-day scientific managers go about achieving speedup. They observe the line, create a detailed “process map” of its workings, and then return to the line to look for evidence of waste, or Muda, in the language of the Toyota system. They then draw up a new process map, along with a new and faster “time and motion” regime for the employees. Amazon even brings in veterans of lean production from Toyota itself, whom Onetto describes with some relish as “insultants,” not consultants: “They are really not nice. . . . [T]hey’re samurais, the real last samurais, the guys from the Toyota plants.” But as often as not, higher output targets are declared by Amazon management without explanation or warning, and employees who cannot make the cut are fired. At Amazon’s Allentown depot, Mark Zweifel, twenty-two, worked on the receiving line, “unloading inventory boxes, scanning bar codes and loading products into totes.” After working six months at Amazon, he was told, without warning or explanation, that his target rates for packages had doubled from 250 units per hour to 500.

Zweifel was able to make the pace, but he saw older workers who could not and were “getting written up a lot” and most of whom were fired. A temporary employee at the same warehouse, in his fifties, worked ten hours a day as a picker, taking items from bins and delivering them to the shelves. He would walk thirteen to fifteen miles daily. He was told he had to pick 1,200 items in a ten-hour shift, or 1 item every thirty seconds. He had to get down on his hands and knees 250 to 300 times a day to do this. He got written up for not working fast enough, and when he was fired only three of the one hundred temporary workers hired with him had survived.

At the Allentown warehouse, Stephen Dallal, also a “picker,” found that his output targets increased the longer he worked at the warehouse, doubling after six months. “It started with 75 pieces an hour, then 100 pieces an hour. Then 150 pieces an hour. They just got faster and faster.” He too was written up for not meeting his targets and was fired. At the Seattle warehouse where the writer Vanessa Veselka worked as an underground union organizer, an American Stakhnovism pervaded the depot. When she was on the line as a packer and her output slipped, the “lead” was on to her with “I need more from you today. We’re trying to hit 14,000 over these next few hours.”

Beyond this poisonous mixture of Taylorism and Stakhnovism, laced with twenty-first-century IT, there is, in Amazon’s treatment of its employees, a pervasive culture of meanness and mistrust that sits ill with its moralizing about care and trust— for customers, but not for the employees. So, for example, the company forces its employees to go through scanning checkpoints when both entering and leaving the depots, to guard against theft, and sets up checkpoints within the depot, which employees must stand in line to clear before entering the cafeteria, leading to what Amazon’s German employees call Pausenklau (break theft), shrinking the employee’s lunch break from thirty to twenty minutes, when they barely have time to eat their meal…”

Perhaps the biggest scandal in Amazon’s recent history took place at its Allentown, Pennsylvania, center during the summer of 2011. The scandal was the subject of a prizewinning series in the Allentown newspaper, the Morning Call, by its reporter Spencer Soper. The series revealed the lengths Amazon was prepared to go to keep costs down and output high and yielded a singular image of Amazon’s ruthlessness— ambulances stationed on hot days at the Amazon center to take employees suffering from heat stroke to the hospital. Despite the summer weather, there was no air-conditioning in the depot, and Amazon refused to let fresh air circulate by opening loading doors at either end of the depot— for fear of theft. Inside the plant there was no slackening of the pace, even as temperatures rose to more than 100 degrees.

On June 2, 2011, a warehouse employee contacted the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report that the heat index had reached 102 degrees in the warehouse and that fifteen workers had collapsed. On June 10 OSHA received a message on its complaints hotline from an emergency room doctor at the Lehigh Valley Hospital: “I’d like to report an unsafe environment with an Amazon facility in Fogelsville. . . . Several patients have come in the last couple of days with heat related injuries.” 

On July 25, with temperatures in the depot reaching 110 degrees, a security guard reported to OSHA that Amazon was refusing to open garage doors to help air circulate and that he had seen two pregnant women taken to a nursing station. Calls to the local ambulance service became so frequent that for five hot days in June and July, ambulances and paramedics were stationed all day at the depot…"

Head, Simon (2014-02-11). Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans (p. 42-44). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

It gets worse. Lots more about the odious management culture at Amazon. Walmart too.

More to come...

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