When I first rolled into the West Entrance of Amazon’s Baltimore Fulfilment Center, my Lyft driver said, laughing, that I was “going to see the slaves work.”
I was there to take a tour. The company was engaged in a PR blitz in the wake of reports of employees pissing in bottles and onsite deaths. I was guided through the vast warehouse that stretched on for miles.
I didn’t come across any outward abuse — the tour was far too scripted for that — but the sights I saw there still haunt me. As I stood back and watched employees picking boxes off an endless conveyer belt, I couldn’t stop thinking about that comment.
It really did look a lot like slavery.
The Exploitative Rise Of Amazon
Amazon was founded by Jeff Bezos on July 5, 1994, as an online marketplace for books. It was originally filed under the name Cadabra, Inc. (as in, the magician’s phrase “abracadabra”). This name was allegedly tossed because it sounded too close to the word cadaver.
Jeff Bezos settled on the name Amazon both because websites at the time were listed alphabetically (see Apple vs. Altari), but also because he liked the metaphorical image of naming his company after the largest river in the world. As Jeff Bezos allegedly remarked to author Brad Stone in his book The Everything Store:
“This is not only the largest river in the world, it’s many times larger than the next biggest river. It blows all other rivers away.”
Jeff Besos was obsessed with growth from the very beginning. Infamously, one of the first names he considered before settling on Amazon was relentless.com (and as of writing this, the URL still redirects to Amazon’s homepage). His slogan in the early days of the company was “Get Big Fast,” which he was rumored to have printed on t-shirts that he then handed out for his employees to wear.
While the company did not make a profit until the final quarter of 2001, it was successful in achieving an explosive amount of growth. The company sold books to customers in over 45 different countries within the first month of the website's launch. Amazon rapidly expanded to sell countless other items, and by 1999 Bezos was so successful he made Time’s Person Of The Year.
This “Get Big Fast” mentality was unsurprisingly brutal to Amazon employees. In another anecdote from The Everything Store, one employee described how their work-life balance was so nonexistent that they were unaware that their car had been repossessed and sold at auction until months after the fact.
Sometimes this rapid expansion was downright dangerous. When the kitchen category was first introduced, it was done so haphazardly that employees noted knives hurtling down conveyor shoots without protective packaging.
This dangerous environment prompted the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health to place Amazon on its Dirty List of most dangerous employers in the United States. The advocacy group stated in its report that thirteen employees have died working for Amazon since 2013 — six of those deaths took place since November of 2018. One death just last September took over 20 minutes for anyone to notice.
The incentive for employees is to keep moving no matter what.
Amazon keeps workers moving for brutal durations: employee shifts consist of 10 hours or more of constant movement. In some instances, they suffer consequences if they go to the bathroom for longer than 6 minutes, since the company’s tracking and termination processes are automatic. If workers slip up too much, they can receive a computer-generated termination notice. As one former Baltimore fulfillment center worker told me:
“They work the sweat out of you.”
The pressure to keep up a constant pace for hours on end results in the development of chronic pain in the back, neck, and wrists. When, for example, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH) surveyed 145 workers from a Staten Island warehouse, over 60% reported experiencing pain while at work.
Amazon has been notoriously slow to respond to worker injuries. They have a history of dragging their feet on workers' compensation. Some employees have had to take the company to court to get their medical expenses covered. One employee, Ashley Judd, died from a heart attack due to the stress of dealing with Amazon’s appeal process. Homelessness among injured employees has been known to happen, and mental health issues are frequent.
The company has advertised “reforms” to address these systemic shortcomings. There are now people who monitor the floors more rigorously, and during the tour I took, they advertised the fact that all employees were permitted to take bathroom breaks (how revolutionary). They have also instituted audits to assess their own employee’s perception of safety.
The chief approach Amazon uses to handle these problems, however, is gaslighting. Whenever a potential violation breaks out in the news, they deny it outright. When the news site Vox asked about Amazon’s response to the NYCOSH’s aforementioned report, the company spokesperson Rachael Lighty claimed the organization was effectively lying:
“It is an example of selective data skewed to support false statements by an organization that’s sole business objective is to misinform the public on Amazon’s safety record.”
Lighty has made many similar statements for incidents running the gamut from pretending union-organizers don’t exist to pretending like workers weren’t fired for union-organizing. Amazon generally does not take responsibility for its long history of labor abuses.
Instead, they hire people to deny that things ever happened, to spread propaganda on Twitter, and to open up their facilities for highly curated tours.
It’s the reason I was there.
None of this should be surprising. Amazon is a company that works its employees for hours on end. Workers are used, often at the expense of their own health, until they can no longer pick, wrap, or lift. When this happens, they are given the bare minimum compensation required by law, with no consideration of what happens if their conditions worsen and/or are unable to come back to work.
If this type of work ethic sounds familiar, then it’s because it has deep, painful roots in the United States’ history of slavery.
Slavery As A Historical Constant
Slavery has existed for almost as long as social hierarchies. From Mesopotamia to ancient Greece, there is literally no inhabitable landmass where humans have not known forced bondage. Some archeological evidence indicates that slaves were used as human sacrifices as early as the Shang Dynasty (1122 BC est).
There was a great deal of variation among these slave-based societies. Slaves in ancient Athens were allegedly treated better than their counterparts in other Greek city-states. In some limited circumstances, domestic slaves could even buy their freedom.
Other societies were crueler. We have recently learned that forced labor was an integral part of Viking society. The Norse took men, women, and children from raided coastal towns up and down the coasts of Europe. Slavery, in some cases, was also punishment for a crime. Slaves were called thralls, which in contemporary usage means the state of being in someone’s power.
Depending on the area, some Norse thralls were treated extremely poorly. They did not have legal standing in society and could be punished at their “owners’” discretion. They slept amongst the animals and were heavily segregated from the free population. There is evidence of textile-based plantations, women being taken as concubines, and slaves possibly being buried with their masters.
There are many similarities between Viking slavery and the chattel slavery of America. It’s estimated that roughly 15 percent of enslaved people on ships en route to the Americas died before reaching land. Slaves had no rights in the colonies (and later in the United States) and were often brutalized by their captors. Diets and medical treatment were inadequate, which meant the chance of infection with disease was high. There was also the constant threat to a slave of being sold to another person, and thus being separated from their family and friends alike.
The chief difference between these two types of slavery was the intense racialization and commoditization that underpinned chattel slavery. The Norse captured people off the European coasts just like the Europeans did off the Western coast of Africa, but they did not tie enslavement directly to race. As Mary Elliott and Jazmine Hughes wrote in New York Times Magazine:
Forced labor was not uncommon — Africans and Europeans had been trading goods and people across the Mediterranean for centuries — but enslavement had not been based on race. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, which began as early as the 15th century, introduced a system of slavery that was commercialized, racialized and inherited.
This created a system that was intergenerational and intransmutable. Even if an enslaved person found freedom, their skin color always tied them to the legacy of that bondage.
While slavery in America was technically outlawed with the ratification of the 13th amendment on December 6, 1865, it has never truly died. As an institution, the one thing slavery has been “good” at doing is evolving to satisfy contemporary norms.
Slavery is, for example, still alive and well within the US prison system. Prison is the one area in which the 13th amendment specifically refused to abolish slavery. The amendment literally reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
A working example of this is the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana — a former plantation that still makes its inmates pick cotton. The prison population there is overwhelmingly black, and conditions within the facility have been described as “going back in time.”
Slavery within the prison system has been racialized for over a century. Despite black Americans only being slightly over 12% of the US population, nationally there are more black inmates than white ones. There is a long documented history of how governments across the country imprisoned freed blacks to continue labor exploitation post-emancipation under the guise of criminal punishment.
The system of slavery within the US has constantly evolved to sit on the edge of what is legal, and we see it evolving again as a service-based underclass, which is now solidifying in America.
As I stood in Amazon’s vast warehouse and saw scores of predominantly black men and women pick boxes off a seemingly endless field of conveyor belts, I struggled to see how the institution of slavery had died. The thing that had changed — something that slaveholders had historically been very adept at doing — was outsourcing the cost of that bondage to everyone else.
The Elimination Of Slavecatchers
The cost of chattel slavery has been hotly contested for centuries. Some have contentiously argued that it was spurred predominantly by economic interests — not racism — while others have claimed that it was never economically feasible.
It’s true that slavery drew down labor costs (that’s kind of the whole economic point), but there were still economic and moral costs associated with this repugnant institution: it costs money to maintain an extensive police state that keeps people where they don't want to be.
Despite slaveowner propaganda, enslaved people did not simply accept their bondage. It’s estimated that there were several hundred slave revolts by the time this institution was abolished in 1865. Some of the larger ones, such as the German Coast Uprising and Nat Turner’s Rebellion, had dozens, even hundreds of organizers, and many whites were killed in the process.
Fear of rebellions both real and imagined, prompted the passage of regressive policies restricting enslaved people’s movement and right to knowledge. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was perhaps the most codified version of this policy. The law, among other things, imposed steep financial penalties on those who protected runaway slaves and provided financial incentives for federal officers called commissioners who were tasked with finding said runaways.
These policies were only as good as they could be enforced, though, and that meant boots on the ground. It translated to the hiring of overseers on plantations, and, at the community level, the formation of slave patrols that tracked down runaways and punished offenders. The hiring of all these people cost money. The federal commissioners, for example, were paid $10 per returned slave (over $300 today), and that came out of the slave owners' pocket.
I don’t bring this up to generate sympathy for slave owners, but rather to emphasize the price of this police state on the financial system as a whole. It required heavy subsidy from local, state and federal governments. The Constitution directly preserved the power of slaveholding states (e.g. the three-fifths compromise) in a way that made it difficult to challenge the institution for decades.
Times have changed since then. There are no professional slave patrols hired by Amazon to track down employees who have quit. Workers do not live in fear over whether or not they can leave. If anything, the opposite is true. Workers live in fear that they will be unable to eat. When I came to tour the Fulfillment Center, there were more people trying to apply for a job than there were on the tour itself.
This would lead some people to believe that workers are indeed choosing to work for Amazon, but that ignores the reality that the current labor system relies on an underclass of people who do not have many options.
America has steadily stopped paying for things in the last couple of decades: Infrastructure spending is inadequate; welfare spending is steadily being cut; and essential services such as education, housing, and healthcare have gone through the roof.
This incentive structure creates an oppressive system that doesn’t need slavecatchers because many consider themselves lucky to work on the plantation.
Exploitation Is Not Unique To Amazon
When I went to the Baltimore fulfillment center I was struck by the sight of large banners hanging in the entryway. These banners listed the types of items that workers could and could not bring into the facility. They were placed into three large categories — banned items, permitted items, and items that were permitted with conditions. The latter included cellphones, which, according to the workers I talked to, had to be stored in their lockers.
I want you to imagine a daily routine of having to work a 10 to 12-hour shift for 5 or 6 days a week: you spend this time doing repetitive tasks that constantly shift depending on the floor's needs. For several hours you could be lifting boxes. Hours later you could be sorting items. There is never any consistency.
Your back hurts. You are never able to be able to sit down on your shift. To take your break, you sometimes have to walk half a football field away (or more) to the recreation room. If you take too long at the rec room or the bathroom, then you automatically get dinged, and in some cases, fired outright.
You aren’t paid enough to cover all your expenses, but the company is constantly feeding you propaganda that dismisses your concerns. Employees talk about how you are part of the Amazon family. They call themselves Amazonians. You see cheery expressions everywhere, and sometimes have them on t-shirts you wear to work.
Through all this stress and gaslighting, you can't even communicate outside the facility.
For those 10 or 12 hours, Amazon completely owns you.
This grueling schedule is not as bad as the antebellum South (there are no scheduled beatings), but I don’t know what to call it, if not slavery. Slavery is always evolving, and we have to be careful not to dismiss all forms of wage exploitation simply because they fail to compare to the worst iteration of it in modern history
It would be comforting if this form of labor exploitation was being done by Amazon alone; it’s something that could be rectified with a mere boycott. What makes this situation so tricky, however, is that Amazon isn’t alone here. As one alleged former Amazon worker wrote on Reddit:
“The work does suck, but all warehouse work sucks. I was actually treated really well by the management and they were very encouraging (“don’t worry, you’re pick rates will go up”).
I have experience FAR worse conditions and been treated terrible by other Fortune 500 companies. If you ask me, they should be pointing the finger at some of the worse companies out there.”
Workers at warehouses across the world are treated in a similar way. The online retailer Asos has had workers come forward claiming that they are treated like machines. Walmart has been accused of punishing workers for taking sick days.
In the service sector, harassment from customers is also common and can turn quite violent. Pizza delivery workers are routinely robbed: a 2015 report found that 12% of fast-food workers had been assaulted on the job, and over half had been burned or cut.
The traditional conservative rebuttal is that “these people” should get better jobs, but this claim belies an ignorance of the current US labor market. There simply aren’t enough good jobs out there. According to a 2019 report from the Brookings Institute, which is by no means a liberal institution:
“…53 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 64 — accounting for 44% of all workers — qualify as “low-wage.” Their median hourly wages are $10.22, and median annual earnings are about $18,000.”
Many of these workers (approximately 14 million people according to the same Brookings report) are the only earners in their families. They live below the poverty line, and given the United States' ever-shrinking safety net, it seems doubtful that they are receiving the support they need to consistently support their families, let alone escape their income bracket. As Vox reporter Emily Guendelsberger reported of her experience working at low-wage jobs:
“In my experience, most people are willing to make immense sacrifices to keep their children safe and happy. In a country with a moth-eaten social safety net, health care tied to employment, and few job quality differences between working at McDonald’s, Burger King, or Walmart, corporations have long since figured out that workers will put up with nearly anything if it means keeping their jobs.”
Amazon doesn’t need to pay for slavecatchers. It simply needs to convince the government to pay for nothing at all and watch as the desperate parents line up at its entrances.
Exposé after exposé has emerged to criticize Amazon’s predatory business model. The demonization of Amazon in recent years is undeniably a good thing, but while they are the worst offenders, they are benefiting from a system that long preceded them. America is a country that is driven by wage exploitation— a nation that does not provide people the resources necessary to live a good life.
Moving forward, we have to be honest with the amount of slavery that is driving our economy. The cold truth is that there is an underclass of Americans who support the economy by doing the most demeaning jobs to subsist. Outside the prison system (a subject that deserves another article), these workers aren't being held there like the plantation workers of the antebellum south. The sickening efficiency of the current American plantation system is that such bondage is unnecessary.
Our society's refusal to guarantee an adequate standard of living to all citizens means that companies like Amazon can always count on a steady stream of workers. They don’t need slave patrols: if these workers want to support their families — if they want to live at all — then they often have to get in line and start picking up boxes.
The dismantling of this predatory system will not happen through canceling your Amazon Prime Membership alone, but it can’t hurt. The bigness of this problem has sometimes been treated as an excuse for inaction. When, for example, comedian Hassan Minhaj did an episode about Amazon for his show Patriot Act, he joked:
“Despite knowing all of this, I’m not going to lie, I’m still gonna use Amazon. It’s an essential utility for me!”
While we ultimately need big, structural changes to eliminate modern-day labor exploitation (e.g. forming unions, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and redistributing that wealth to marginalized people), at a certain point, work needs to be done on the individual level too. We need to more seriously factor in the consumer's role — our role — in this marketplace, and that begins with doing things like reducing your Amazon purchases.
You are reading this article behind a paywall, so chances are you are not the 44% of America scraping by on $10.22 hour.
This system of slavery is for us.
It’s to provide us the cheap rides, and bougie $4 coffee, and overpriced pizza joints. It’s to give us subscription services, cheap mani-pedis, and 1-day shipping we don’t need. These services are rooted in labor exploitation, and using them is starting to look less cute.
The ways in which we specifically run our lives need to change. In general, we need to make an effort to wean ourselves off of predatory businesses for our food, housing, entertainment, and travel.
Keep a note of exclusionary places: the coffee shops that kick you off of the wifi after 2-hours; the fast-casual places that charge $15 for a salad; the restaurants with exported entree items; the spaces with decoration you're meant to pose in front of for Instagram; the gentrifying neighborhoods that just so happen to be whiter and more affluent.
Observe these places and start to untangle yourself from them.
These places were never okay, but the more self-aware we become, the less cute the trappings of late-stage capitalism will appear to everyone else. Do you really think the increasingly starving public will look kindly on your late-night Uber rides or your brunches where you paid $15 for what effectively is scrambled eggs with salsa?
Because I don’t, and I don’t think Alexa is going to save you either.