Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

Summary: Step up to the plate, Mr. Bezos. Show the world that America can knock one out of the park on behalf of its workers. Show the world that America still has game.


Dear Jeff:

You and I have a long relationship. Since the late 1990s, every week or so, I send you some money, and every week or so, you send me some stuff. This has worked out quite well for me and, certainly, quite well for you.

But, as we've been reading, for some of your employees and contractors, well, not so much.

Here's the thing. America has a really big challenge on its hands. As I'm sure you know, American unemployment and underemployment rate is much higher than is healthy. A big part of the problem is that lower paying manufacturing jobs have been sent offshore.

See also: How To Save Jobs (my book, free download)

You know this, because your arch-competitor, Apple, has been outsourcing the manufacturing of its products to China for years now. It's so bad over there, in those factories, that Foxconn had to put up nets to keep the suicides down to a manageable rate.

See also: Is Apple's suicide factory outsourcing to even cheaper Chinese peasants?

See also: Apple may be poisoning Chinese workers and doesn't seem to care. Should we?

I'm guessing this new tablet that you're about to announce is also going to be built in China, probably in the same Foxconn factories, so you, too, will indirectly benefit from having suicide nets high up on those walls. After all, it'd suck to be able to read a Kindle tablet and know it was forged from the blood of unhappy jumpers.

See also: Sept 28: Amazon tablet on deck?

In any case, it's much harder to outsource picking and packing to unhappy foreign workers. Reed Hastings over at Netflix is trying to solve this problem by simply turning his back on the picking and packing problem and sending Qwikster (can you believe that name?) to the wolves, to live and die on its own.

See also: Apparently, Netflix is renaming itself to Qwikster (seriously, sorta)

See also: Netflix wrestles with innovator's dilemma; Customers pan 'Qwikstupid' idea

But you, Jeff, are stuck. For Amazon to succeed, you must have warehouses in America, and you, therefore, must have American workers.

No doubt, working in any warehouse is rough. Those of us who are members of the chattering class can sit on couches, dream up some incendiary columns, and do our jobs. But factory and warehouse workers must throw their whole bodies into the job, moving fast, lifting, loading, and do it all in, well, warehouse conditions.

You've made some good steps this last week, especially your decision to spend millions of dollars on new air conditioning systems. It shows you care, as much as possible, for worker welfare. Okay, even if all you care about is keeping the bad PR to a minimum, that's still good if it benefits American workers.

But I contend that's not good enough.

Oh, back when Steve was in charge at Apple, he might be able to sleep nights knowing suffering Chinese workers were miserable, but I don't think you're that kind of guy. I think you care.

But here's the thing. I don't care about caring. I care about America and its future. I think you and Amazon can be that future.

Because here's our problem. Chinese workers (and those in other emerging countries) will, at least for another few decades, be willing and able to work for far less money (and in far worse working conditions) than American workers can.

It's not just that we want to be able to pay for our rising Netflix bills or that yearly Amazon Prime payment, it's that it costs more to live here, since we're not willing to live on dirt floor huts or stack our workers in dorms like so many cords of wood.

America, then, has a challenge. For its companies to remain competitive, keep prices low, and sell products to consumers, costs must be kept low. That means outsourcing production to other countries.

But, for America to have enough people capable of buying all those products, Americans must have good, middle-class jobs. It's a paradox, and may be one of the defining challenges for America as we move further into this century.

Amazon, though, can help show other American companies how to meet that challenge. You see, in my opinion, Amazon may well be one of the most innovative companies in America. Sure, we all point to Apple as innovative, but you do more. You don't just design pretty UIs. Actually, having used your current Kindles, you don't even try to design pretty UIs -- maybe you should fix that.

Anyway, you do a lot more. You have an entire cloud infrastructure and you run services for many other companies. You have a distribution and warehousing infrastructure. You have a digital content infrastructure. You have an online retailing infrastructure the envy of pretty much everyone else.

Face it, Amazon is frickin' amazing.

So, you, if anyone, should be able to innovate the worker experience. You should be able to put all that systems smarts into designing the warehouses and factories of the future. You should be able to create systems that allow your warehouses to work at absolutely peak efficiency while providing the worker safety and satisfaction level we Americans have come to consider a basic human right.

We need to show our workers (and more importantly, American employers) that it is possible to have a highly efficient warehouse and excellent working conditions -- that it's possible to out-produce our foreign competitors, at a lower cost, and with greater quality.

Here's the thing, Jeff. If you can't do it, I don't know who else can. So, to that end, you're kind of our last, great hope. Otherwise, the only company we can pin our hopes on is Wal-Mart. Jeez, that'd suck.

So step up to the plate, Mr. Bezos. Show the world that America can knock one out of the park on behalf of its workers. Show the world that America still has game.

I know you can do it. After all, whenever I want anything, anything at all, I just go to Amazon, hit search, and then press a button to get it the next morning. So, I'm doing that now. I'm going to Amazon and asking for something: better job quality for American workers.

I'm a Prime member, so as I push the 1-click button, the timer is starting. I don't necessarily expect better job quality by tomorrow morning, but, hey, see if you can do something by the end of the year, okay?

Thanks, David

P.S. Yes, I'm probably going to buy one of your tablets, too. Sigh.

Image credit: generic warehouse image courtesy Flickr user Nick Saltmarsh

Topics: Amazon, CXO, IT Employment


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • when you have an agenda

    it's called yellow journalism.
    Seriously, what is your problem? You single out Apple as though 10 years ago, when Apple was nothing, all the other tech companies were not having stuff made in China.
    As though they don't to this day.

    Jobs "might" be able to sleep at night? Nice. You're a class act through and through.

    I'd bet money you spend sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get your digs in regarding Apple. Because I didn't read a single whine from you about all the other companies sending jobs overseas and their CEO and the poor people slaving away for them.

    Move on. This is not good for your health. It's ugly and obvious.
    • not yellow journalism

      @oneleft It's not yellow journalism, it's just good writing. He is contrasting Bezos to Jobs. He could have contrasted Bezos with Jobs, Dell, (name of current HP CEO) and many others, but to make his point he picked just one. That does not invalidate the point.
      • It's over here

        No, what invalidates the point is that the suicide rate in the United States is higher than it is in Foxconn factories.

        Foxconn has a million employees. That's a city the size of San Diego. The "Foxconn suicides" numbered 18. San Diego has over 300 per year.
        Robert Hahn
      • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

        @Robert Hahn....
        The suicide rate you quoted for San Diego is for the entire counties of San Diego with a population of 2.5 million, not one million.... second a good portion of that rate in our city has to do with the high rate of suicide among the military personnel here.. in particular the marines have been hard hit. Something tells me that having to go into battle is a little more stressful than working at a factory.
      • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

        @Robert Hahn People aren't killing themselves because they live in San Diego. I can't imagine having my self-image so tied to a consumer product that I'd defend inhumane working conditions and suicide.
      • Absolutely ridiculous.

        @Robert Hahn
        You make an absolutely ludicrous comparison. Its so baseless it makes me wonder if even you think anyone will fall for it.

        Here is the problem with your ridiculous Foxxconn/San Diego comparison, just in case you yourself actually think it has any merit whatsoever. Unless San Diego is somehow unusual in the general scheme of big cities, the reasons for suicide at large in any normal community has to do with depressive or hopeless feelings, feelings witch can be generated quite often by diagnosable mental illnesses or feelings which could have been generated by any number of social problems the individual may have come up against that they can no longer handle. Things like drug or alcohol abuse, bad domestic relationships, death of a child or other loved one, or as a very poignant issue; being out of work for a long period can and often does create great bouts of depression. Point being, a city is in fact a city and it encompasses a massive base of people who could provide just about every reason for a suicide there is. One would expect that to create a significantly higher rate of suicide then any closed system of a similar size, unless of course the closed system had inherent issues in it that were conducive to creating suicidal thoughts.

        One would also expect it to be reasonable that of all places, in a country where a decent manufacturing job would normally thought of as good fortune, that when the "closed system" one is looking at is a big name international company that is your employer, suicide on the job would normally be the rarity of all rarities. In a country like China, one would expect if anything, working for a big company like Foxxconn should be at least one ray of light in ones life, even if you have other troubles.

        But no, people are committing suicide right on the job in noticeable numbers, and that IS an issue far more focused and directly related in all probability to the workplace itself where suicide in any large general community would take similar suicides into account along with every other possible reason under the sun anyone might have for committing suicide for any possible reason, often much of which has little or nothing to do with the job of the person in question.

        With no hard statistics its an especially meaningless comparison you have made.
      • It's the Post Office!

        It amazes me that all these folks realize that there will be multiple causes for suicide in any population of one million, but all of a sudden when it suits their purposes, there is only one cause of suicide in a certain population of one million. None of the Foxconn employees could be suffering from non-situational depression, none of them could have just been crapped on by the love of their life, none of them could be acting according to cultural norms that we don't understand... nope, all the armchair geniuses here know exactly why eighteen people on the other side of the Earth offed themselves.

        BTW, did we in the U.S. ever figure out what causes people to "go Postal"?
        Robert Hahn
      • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

        <strong> /</strong>

        <h1><strong><a href="">Free Puzzle Games</a></strong></h1>
        <h1><strong><a href="">House Design</a></strong></h1>
    • Two faced no doubt.

      @oneleft <br>Why did he mention Apple? Simple, its been in the news about this not so long ago and its a story thats easily recognized by most in the IT industry and the Apple story itself illustrates a great deal of the problems facing the west in general when its in competition for jobs that China is offering up their labor force to engage in. <br><br>Yes...the problem is, to a large degree in fact that American workers do not want to sleep on dirt floors or in a dorm away from their families piled up like cord wood. And yes, if you do not want to live or work under those conditions, and you want a decent crack at the American dream, its going to cost you more to live in a decent apartment or house then it would to live in old shacks with dirt floors, and of course that money its going to cost has to come by way of a job. Of course that job is going to have to pay more then China is willing to pay (hence their need for dirt floors) and as a result if you get that high paying job, the company you work for will have to charge more for its products then China would because in China they don't necessarily have to pay enough to keep you from sleeping on a dirt floor; so they don't, and then if you were Chinese you would. <br><br>Sure, other companies do it as well as Apple, but seriously, nobody has profited by this labor in China perhaps more then Apple and Apple is involved in the most recent high profile stories about the practice so all in all it makes sense to use Apple as a reference point. It makes imminent sense, like it or not.<br><br>The story isn't about trying to level the playing field for Apple in such diiscussions...admittedly unfortunately for Apple. The fact is the article isn't about trying to sully the reputation of any individual company, its an article about the potential impact companies like Amazon, and Amazon in particular can have on the unemployment rate in the States if they shun outsourcing practices like Apple and similar companies do. It also highlights what a negative impact doing that kind of outsourcing can have on a company by pointing to Apple as a recent example of the kinds of working conditions workers are often subjected to in MANY foreign countries and why thats a bad thing for America generally.<br><br>I personally have no problem with a writer hauling out any big companies dirty laundry, so long as its being done in a factual way as opposed to pure speculative ramblings. And that means Microsoft, Apple, HP, General Motors or McDonald's and the rest are all fair game when they get themselves caught up in such a thing. Engage in questionable business practices and take your beats when your bet doesn't pay off. After all, there should be some price to pay would you not agree?<br><br>But you,, you don't want Apples name dragged into any negative story do you? Not even when they do something like send their manufacturing needs out of the very country that is their home and provides them with a massive customer base for their products.<br><br>You of course put it that "You single out Apple as though 10 years ago, when Apple was nothing, all the other tech companies were not having stuff made in China", seeming to indicate a lengthy list of American companies who are doing this or having done this would have absolved the writer of wrongfully besmirching Apple if the full list was included in his article. I guess at least you could have said "See! Apple isn't any more evil then dozens of other companies, just the biggest of the bad!"<br><br>Your comments reek of a two faced approach and when Apple is behaving less then great in certain areas, the world needs to be reminded of this. I seem to recollect that Apple enthusiasts in the past have seen no problem with that very approach when the questionable actions were on the part of Microsoft, so lets take a little break from your self righteous attitude and try putting your blatant bias away and read the article for what its really talking about.<br><br>The most brilliant thing Steve Jobs ever did was to train legions of Apple fanatics to comb through the vast internet to seek out ANY possible negative connotation about Apple and to rail against it without quarter.
  • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

    Foxconn makes products for other companies as well.. why single out Apple?!
  • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

    Umm... he singles out Apple because they are the biggest and most successful? What's hard to understand about this?

    Excellent article. This needs to be said.
  • You buy mine, I won't buy yours

    Only in La La Land do corporate CEOs move jobs overseas. I'll tell you who really does it, and I know because I've tried to stop it. It's the guy in the mirror. You know, the one who looks at two products in Wal-Mart, sees one at $39.95 and another at $22.95, and buys the Chinese-made $22.95 one.

    No amount of syrupy prose can keep the company that is trying to pay American wages in business if Americans won't pay for those wages.

    I did a consulting gig at a household-name American company with factories in upstate New York that was under attack by a Japanese competitor manufacturing in Thailand. We cut costs to the bone, plastered American flags all over the box... nobody cared. Eventually the company wised up, moved the factory to Mexico, and went on its way. I'm sure the author here will blame the CEO for doing that, even as he orders the cheaper foreign-made product from Amazon on his next trip there.
    Robert Hahn
    • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

      @Robert Hahn You should have tried what Wal-Mart did. When I was working for a freight broker, I learned that Wal-Mart's "American" bleach was being made in Canada. A dummy corp was set up across the border that was just an empty warehouse. Canadian trucks would bring the bleach to the warehouse, it'd be offloaded and then onloaded to American trucks, papers were signed, and voila! "American" bleach was shipped out to stores.
      • Low cost labor

        Hey, at least they were providing gainful employment to impoverished Canadians, who otherwise would have to eat grubs and worms.
        Robert Hahn
  • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

    Does anyone else find the "See also" links embedded throughout this article annoying?

    Also, did I miss something? Are Amazon's picking warehouses known for some bad working conditions? I guess I'm a bit lost on that.
    • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

      @Luka16 There's a small link to a story about conditions at an Amazon warehouse at the beginning of the article. Unfortunately, it's linked with the 'clever' wiki-style phrase "as we've been reading" instead of the search (and reading) friendly language (and bold print) reserved for the 'see also links' (including the 'Read my Book' one).

      I suppose David thinks he's building his case with all these links to supporting information, but all it really does it muddy the message in confusion and vauge patriotic double-speak. No wonder it's called "ZD Net Government."
  • Nonsense!

    <i>We need to show our workers (and more importantly, American employers) that it is possible to have a highly efficient warehouse and excellent working conditions ??? that it???s possible to out-produce our foreign competitors, at a lower cost, and with greater quality.</i>

    Working conditions, quality, cost. Pick any 2, you can't have all 3. Especially with American unions.
    • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

      @MSFTWorshipper why trash the unions for providing the 'livable' working conditions you enjoy. Unions exist to protect and enhance working conditions and get the best deal they can for workers. It is up to management to decide if their demands are affordable
    • RE: Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

      @MSFTWorshipper They do it in Germany just fine. Their unions are stronger than ours ever were. They have a trade surplus with China, strong manufacturing, their government has a surplus of cash and their citizens actaully have money to save in their bank accounts. It's amazing what can happen when the people run the country, not the corporations. The anti-union propandists don't want to talk about that or the fact that the middle class grew exponentially with the growth of union membership from the new deal to the mid-seventies and has shrunk as they have been successfull at union busting.

      Instead of cozying up the the corporate class who in America are way overpaid and way undertaxed, maybe you can thank workers who fought and even died so that we could have child labor laws, workplace saefty, health insurance, unemployment insurance, the weekends off, the 40 hour work week, and middle class wages, worker's comp. The unions did that, not capital and not the politicians.
  • You are kidding, right?

    Blaming Apple for the conditions at Foxconn? Or begging Bezos to 'step up' ... your article is nothing but a whine fest... ANY company that wants to stay in business offers the best competitive prices - it's Business 101...