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How an 1850’s Theory Can Help Explain Amazon’s Overexploited Workers

By Vrshank Ravi '19, Staff Writer

· Vrshank Ravi

Amazon’s labor practices inside warehouses in the UK were under public scrutiny when undercover reporters from newspapers like The Guardian and The Mirror spent a week inside Amazon warehouses as temporary workers. Working conditions included timed toilet breaks, tracking worker productivity real time and setting high targets, and strict timings for breaks for lunch and other leisure time. Workers fainting and being carried away by ambulances were not uncommon occurrences, and neither were sixty-hour work weeks. 

Why does Amazon have these labor practices in place when it is one of the richest e-commerce monopolies in the world, with CEO Jeff Bezos worth over $150 billion? Noted 19th century revolutionary Karl Marx has a theory that makes the two seem very compatible, but just how relevant is one facet of Marxist thought to contemporary industry analysis? In this essay, let’s see how far one Marxist theory gets us – his theory of surplus-value. 

According to Marx, capitalists gain their profits and accumulate more capital by using surplus labor from the labor power that he has bought from the laborers they employed. Surplus labor is extracted by working ordinary labor beyond the point of generating subsistence wages for workers. It is important to note that Marx believed that surplus value was not a creation of the capitalist, and that it was inherent from previous systems that there needed to be some surplus value created to pay the wages of the owners of the means of production. Therefore, it may not be an inherently maligned concept if there are more people involved in the production process that need to be paid for. Capitalism, however, was particularly insidious in that it cared for nothing more than extracting a maximal amount of this surplus-value, which wasn’t the case in previous systems hunting a merely adequate amount of this surplus. This leads to a normalization of practices leading to overworking and mistreatment of workers.

The Mirror investigation reports that “timed toilet breaks, impossible targets and exhausting, “intolerable” working conditions are frequent complaints. Staff have been paid less than the living wage, and it even emerged drivers had faced fines for “early” deliveries.” (Selby 2017).  These comments point towards Amazon attempting to improve productivity and relative surplus-value. However, pinching a few minutes from minimizing toilet breaks is akin to Marx’s description of the factory owner stealing minor instalments of time from his workers from lunch breaks and the like. As a way to increase absolute surplus-value, Marx notes, “It is evident that in this atmosphere the - formation of surplus value by surplus-labour, is no secret. "If you allow me," said a highly respectable master to me, "to work only ten minutes in the day over-time, you put one thousand a year in my pocket." "Moments are the elements of profit."” (Marx et. al 1978, 366). 

Amazon, being a capitalist enterprise, manages to expand and accumulate capital the way it does partly because of attempts to maximize absolute and relative surplus-value from its workers by multiple means. This helps Amazon to lower costs and expand production with this newfound generated capital, only to increase market share and monopolization and get even more money and wealth into the pockets of capitalists at the top, such as Jeff Bezos. It is no coincidence that the most successful companies outcompete the rest by maximizing surplus-value from their workers.

Unsurprisingly, these conditions took a toll on the health of the workers. There were reports of ambulances coming to collect fainting workers, and people unable to come in for work because of tired and aching limbs – pulled ligaments and torn hamstrings were not unheard of. (Selby 2017) Note that most of these warehouse employees are temporary (or belong to an agency or contractor), and this is not damage accumulated over years of working there – in some cases, just weeks sufficed for their bodies to shut down in protest. Marx notes in the relentless quest for profit, “Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society” (Marx et. al 1978, 375). Treating the workers as disposable must mean that there are plenty more queuing up to take whatever job they could find, and the article shows some evidence for this as well.

 Not only are these circumstances lacking to be major deterrents for future employees at Amazon, but the reporters talk about how people come from far away and commute long hours for this ostensibly low-paying, high-stress job. Commuting as much as four hours per day and paying £4 for the bus to LCY2 (where the warehouses are in London) (Selby 2017) as landlords raised rents in areas near the warehouse, subsequently making it near unaffordable for the regular employee to live there. There have also been reports of workers pitching up tents and living on the streets closer to the warehouse, thus avoiding the wretched commute (Selby 2017). 

Why are these terrible jobs so valuable in the eyes of these workers? For a lot of people, it may be the only way to earn any wage at all, and reflects a large and willing reserve pool of labor. It could be that in this sector, Amazon’s practices are so thorough and successful that its extent of monopolization is realized in that it can hire temporary workers at unmatchable rates, leaving potential workers with little choice when it comes to finding a new job. Not only are these methods employed by Amazon not backfiring, but a key part of their expansion efforts and driving down of costs. All this surplus generated makes Jeff Bezos’ wealth shoots up by the day and create waves in the billionaire world. 

There may be, however, other factors at play in trying to explain Amazon’s competitiveness in e-commerce. This theory of Marx doesn’t explain Amazon’s good relationship with governments in getting sites built in the first place, or the subtler peculiarities of the labor market as a whole being driven to Amazon’s jobs may not just be a result of Amazon’s monopolizing dominance. Generalized austerity measures in the UK and capitalist crises leading to job layoffs and increased unemployment and desperation is better explained with other theories of Marx rather than his theory on surplus-value. There is also more literature on how competition drives capitalists to undertake the practices that they put in place.

In sum, Marx’s theoretical concept of surplus-value largely explains Amazon’s methods. Pinching as much time from the working day as possible is classically indicated by Marx to happen in factories to maximize the profit that the factory owner takes home. These practices also prove to be successful for the company in driving out competing business or normalizing this standard of work throughout the industry, leaving workers with little choice but to clamor for these jobs. However, it doesn’t explain the favorable relationships between these businesses and government for them to get away with this, and nor is it a complete picture of the labor market. 

References:

Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, and Robert C. Tucker. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 1978.

Selby, Alan. "Timed Toilet Breaks, Impossible Targets and Workers Falling Asleep on Feet:  Brutal Life Working in Amazon Warehouse." The Mirror, November 25, 2017. Accessed October 3, 2018. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/timed-toilet-breaks-impossible-targets-11587888.

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