Amazon Has Never Seemed So Essential—But Using It Never Been So Wrong | Opinion

Earlier this spring, disturbed by reports of Amazon's indifference to safety and retaliation against a worker protesting dangerous conditions, I tried to cancel my membership. When a single Amazon driver fears infecting over 1000 people in just three days, not supporting the company seems like both an ethical imperative and a question of safety.

I'd had misgivings about supporting Amazon before, but its behavior since the coronavirus outbreak began has been especially appalling. With the current social distancing guidelines, millions of Americans face a similar dilemma: Amazon feels more essential at precisely the time when the company's labor practices appear increasingly unacceptable.

Compelling evidence of just how brutally Amazon treats its workers, many of whom are poor and people of color, predates the coronavirus outbreak. Amazon's own data show its warehouse workers being injured more frequently and more severely than other warehouse workers. One report found that people injured at the Staten Island facility in 2018 missed an average of 64 days of work per year and got hurt at roughly five times the rate of any other job category.

"What you're seeing here are the kind of labor practices that we associate with The Jungle," Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff told me, referring to the 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair that depicts the gruesome conditions of workers in Chicago's meat industry. This 2019 story, which describes a worker being crushed by a forklift and lying in a pool of blood for two hours before anyone noticed, offers a particularly graphic example of how dangerous Amazon warehouse work can be. Many other injuries are non-deadly but still debilitating, and countless workers have complained that the high fulfillment quotas they are asked to meet make injuries almost inevitable.

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I managed to close my Prime account, but canceling my entire membership was not so easy. After searching dozens of links and finding nothing, I was routed to a help page for conversation with a chatbot whose vocabulary seemed to lack the words "cancel my membership." Urged to call a customer service number, I spoke with a robot who explained that Amazon was too busy helping the nation's vulnerable seniors to answer calls.

At this point, I almost just gave up and left the account open. Before long, I felt the tidal pull of convenience luring me back into regular shopping.

Amazon may not yet have a legal monopoly – though many experts and politicians believe it does – but the company does have a sort of psychological monopoly. It's easy to feel there is nowhere else to turn for a rapid and convenient service that supplies everything from trendy television shows to tomato soup.

"I think this pandemic is really highlighting why it matters to have antitrust enforcement – to make sure that there is competition so that consumers can exercise their choice and select a delivery system and supplier who is going to put their health before the bottom line," Congresswoman Katie Porter of California told me. She added that her local grocery store, where the workforce is unionized, has installed plexiglass shields to protect cashiers and adopted frequent sanitation breaks to clean the entire store. Amazon, by contrast, has asked the public for donations to help pay their contractors. "Workers are being given this incredibly hard choice between not being able to put food on the table and their health, so first and foremost I would call an Amazon to provide paid sick leave to all of its employees," Porter said.

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Even if Amazon's treatment of workers constitutes a strong moral reason to stop using it, the company still boasted 112 million Prime members in America as of 2019. How could the loss of one or even tens of thousands of customers matter?

This same logic characterizes other collective-action problems – such as climate change or political reform – that require mass participation. But if everyone embraced apathy, progress in these domains would be literally impossible, and we know that political, social, and environmental reform does happen. So there must be some threshold of involvement that generates change.

Harvard Political Science Professor Erica Chenoweth's 2012 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, studied 100 nonviolent campaigns for government change in the 20th century. Her research found that when 3.5 percent of a population became actively involved in a non-violent campaign, it succeeded.

Chenoweth's work also helped motivate the launch of threshold.us, a site where people sign pledges to stop using Amazon, Whole Foods, Prime, Amazon Credit Cards, etc. Some act on the pledge immediately, but everyone promises to stop using an Amazon service only once a key threshold is reached, so they can know that others will do the same and their actions are more likely to cause real impact. The site also eases the inconvenience of quitting Amazon by offering carefully curated lists of online shopping alternatives.

Founded by a Stanford graduate and former touring musician named Kipchoge Spencer, the site launched in 2019 and has quickly gained over 12,000 pledges. Spencer was a regular Prime user for years, and he understands the force of psychological inertia. "It's an awesome customer experience, but a very crappy experience for the world," he said. He launched Threshold to counter individual feelings of powerlessness: "Nobody is really down with the idea that Amazon should be the richest company in the world but treat their workers and suppliers like shit. But we think there's nothing we can do about it," he said. Boycotts typically don't work, he added, not because the tactic is ineffective, but because not enough other people participate. "We don't know how to cooperate."

Harvard's Zuboff, whose 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism documents the staggering levels of covert data collection that fueled tech industry growth in the last two decades, believes the time for promoting change through consumer choice is long past. "If you cancel your Amazon or your Facebook, all that does is to exclude the individual from social participation. You should be able to get online and order a good or talk with friends without the threat of tracking, monitoring, and undetectable surveillance," she told me. Zuboff also distinguished between ruthless capitalism and surveillance capitalism, claiming that Amazon practices the former in its warehouses but the latter in its data collection about customers.

Responding to a request for comment, an Amazon spokesperson called the company's workers "heroes," and said that the company has implemented a "broad suite of new benefits changes for employees," including an additional $2 per hour, double time for overtime, and paid time off benefits for regular part-time and seasonal employees. According to the spokesperson, Amazon is also "encouraging those who are unwell to stay home and taking extreme measures to keep people safe in our buildings. We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC, and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries."

Amazon did not answer specific questions about the number of injuries in fulfillment centers since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of workers who have been tested, the number who have tested positive, or how the company is responding to workers caught between the fear of infecting family members and the need to make a living.

Though Zuboff tries to find alternatives when possible, she lives in rural Maine and sometimes resorts to ordering from Amazon. Rather than relying on individual consumer action alone, she would like to see major new legislation ensuring online privacy. One of her concerns during the pandemic is that digital surveillance systems implemented for tracking the virus will remain in place and become normalized after it subsides.

But she also cautioned against gloom, stressing the gradually growing awareness about the negative externalities of the tech industry and shifting attitudes about the role of government. "In America in 1931, you would have predicted that a handful of oligarchs would rule over a population of serfs. But that's not what happened. There was tremendous public sector innovation under Roosevelt with the New Deal," she said.

Congresswoman Porter echoed the sentiment that the pandemic could galvanize progressive change. "I think the pandemic is highlighting so many of the underlying economic problems in this country, everything from healthcare inequalities to differences in worker protections and the need for a diverse supply of products," she said.

Once I chose to quit using Amazon completely, I found a two-minute video tutorial on YouTube detailing the intricate sequence of steps necessary to cancel your account. With over half a million views, the clip is clearly meeting a need. The top comment voiced a common sentiment: "Canceling your account should not be so difficult." I made my way to the right page and clicked through many steps: the company's ethos of one-click purchasing and customer convenience seem to vanish once you want to quit. Finally I was there – ready to click the button that would close my account for good. Then a last box on the cancellation page asked me to acknowledge that I "accept the consequences" of leaving.

I no longer wanted to accept the consequences of staying.

Nick Romeo also writes for The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and many other publications. Follow him @Nickromeoauthor

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Amazon Has Never Seemed So Essential—But Using It Never Been So Wrong | Opinion | Opinion