Challenge to Amazon: show the world America values workers

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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

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