Monday, December 02, 2013

On Cyber-Monday, a Letter to Amazon

Last night, and just in time for "Cyber Monday," Amazon CEO Jess Bezos surprised a CBS interviewer by revealing a prototype robot -- an "octocopter" -- that Bezos says he hopes will be able to make deliveries to Amazon customers within a few years.  Today, the media is full of talk about small flying robots delivering products to consumers within a half hour of their online purchase -- a great story with which to open the holiday shopping season!

And, as James Ball argues in The Guardian, it just might be a publicity stunt.  In particular, Ball writes:

Bezos' neat trick has knocked several real stories about Amazon out of the way. Last week's Panorama investigation into Amazon's working and hiring practices, suggesting that the site's employees had an increased risk of mental illness, is the latest in a long line of pieces about the company's working conditions – zero-hour contracts, short breaks, and employees' every move tracked by internal systems. Amazon's drone debacle also moved discussion of its tax bill – another long-running controversy, sparked by the Guardian's revelation last year that the company had UK sales of £7bn but paid no UK corporation tax – to the margins. The technology giants – Amazon, Google, Microsoft et al – have have huge direct reach to audiences and customers, the money to hire swarms of PR and communications staff, and a technology press overwhelmingly happy to incredulously print almost every word, rather than to engage in the much harder task of actually holding them to account.

Whether it's a bunch of hooey or a sincere plan (albeit not yet practical), I thought it was worth a letter.  As you'll see, it's really about people, not robots.

Mr. Jeffrey P. Bezos
410 Terry Avenue
North Seattle, WA 98109

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Last night, in a television interview for the program 60 Minutes, you revealed a research and development project at Amazon. I refer, of course, to your “Prime Air” initiative, in which small, unmanned vehicles (called “octocopters”) would deliver merchandise to consumers within minutes of placing an order.

As your customer, let me say thanks for your interest in making our shopping experience unique, and completing orders quickly using new technology; and having said that, please allow me to share my concern about this initiative and suggest an area of investment that would make me feel much better about shopping on Amazon -- far more than flying robots with cameras showing up at my house.

While “Prime Air” is certainly novel, how necessary is this technology? While Amazon offers a staggering array of goods for sale, I cannot imagine what a consumer would need from Amazon so urgently as to justify aerial delivery within minutes. It’s not as though we will be ordering blood for transfusions. Are you considering a move into pizza delivery? Aren’t “Amazon Prime” and Amazon’s music download service fast enough for non-perishable merchandise? My mailman does a splendid job finding my house and I have no wish to take work away from him, as exciting as it might be for a novel to get dropped on my doorstep by a drone.

The truth is, I have long had concerns about Amazon’s business model, particularly with respect to labor. It concerns me greatly that Amazon’s warehouse workers are not represented by a union, that many if not all are employed indirectly through a staffing agency, and are now facing further automation (to whatever degree “Prime Air” delivery becomes a reality) and reduced employment. You would be reducing your own labor costs at the expense of regional economy and effective demand for the economy as a whole.

Let me proceed to an area of investment that seems, to me, far more necessary and beneficial to Amazon. Instead of sending robots to my house, I would like to see some investment in your human staff. Periodically, I read reports about conditions in Amazon’s “fulfillment centers,” which in straightforward English we call warehouses. Most of us do not see these warehouses, but we know that human beings work very hard in these places, in shifts longer than eight hours, and there are several worthy investments in this area that Amazon might consider.

  • Expedited warehouse security procedures. There are reports that security checkpoints take as long as half an hour or more, which comes at the end of an employee’s shift (which are sometimes as long as 12 hours), and it is not compensated time. Requiring an employee to remain on site for an extra half hour without pay constitutes wage theft. The procedures should either be reorganized so that employees can clear the checkpoint quickly, or the employees should be released from their shifts early to accommodate the process while they are still on the clock. 
  • Lunch facilities for warehouse workers. Although an eating area may be provided, the distance employees must travel on foot to reach the facilities sometimes consumes half their allotted break time, leaving them insufficient time to eat, much less rest during a long shift. It would be humane, and beneficial to morale, to alleviate this problem. If the warehouses cannot be redesigned to bring break areas closer to employees, what about golf carts or shuttles? You win bonus points if the shuttles run on batteries charged from solar power, or a non-petroleum fuel. 
  • Climate control in all warehouses. I am sure you are well aware of what went on at your facility in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania. In that case, Amazon invested $52 million in order to provide appropriate air conditioning. That is a lot of money but it was well spent – in terms of the welfare of your employees as well as your reputation among your customers. Has Amazon conducted a review of climatic conditions at its other facilities, and made improvements as appropriate? 

There are more suggestions I could make, but I think this gives you the gist. Without cynicism, I would also recommend that you publicize these investments so that your customers – and other large companies -- see Amazon making investments in the welfare of its employees. You might even consider deepening your investment in personnel by increasing direct employment at appropriate living wages, and relaxing your objection to union representation. I understand that rapid delivery is part of your brand, and there may be concerns about compromising that service, but I truly believe your keys to maintaining that signature service is not just technology, but also human morale.

Your company has made a point of not commenting on these matters for the press, and I don’t expect a response to this letter either (although one would be welcome), but I hope it is read – if not by you, then by someone with the authority to consider these concerns and bring them up in an appropriate venue. Amazon has ample opportunity to use its considerable capital to set a whole new standard of how large companies operate. I am optimistic that Amazon can lead the way, if it wishes.

 Most sincerely, and with best wishes for your holiday season,

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