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Amazon is finally realizing it has a labor problem

Amazon is finally realizing it has a labor problem


What Jeff Bezos’ final letter to shareholders reveals about the company

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Today, let’s talk about the new tone Jeff Bezos is taking when talking about Amazon — and whether we can expect it to have any practical effect on the company after he turns over the CEO job to his successor, Andy Jassy.

A recurring theme in this column is Amazon’s general indifference to public perception. Last month, it picked a losing fight with Congress over the unionization efforts at its Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center. A year ago, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the company had lied to lawmakers about whether it used data from third-party sellers to inform product development. A couple years before that, it conducted a sham search for a second “headquarters” that angered politicians around the country.

The company has seen record growth every year since anyways, and it was the most-liked of all big tech companies even before the pandemic made people more depend on it. (Amazon picked up 50 million new Prime subscribers in 2020, an increase of about one-third in just 12 months.)

Given Amazon’s tendency to dismiss most criticism, you might have expected Bezos’ last letter to shareholders to resemble an extended victory lap. Certainly it would be warranted: Amazon is one of the most extraordinary businesses ever built.

But that’s not really Bezos’ style. His religious devotion to “Day 1” — the idea that businesses ought to remain as paranoid and action-oriented as they were when they first born, lest they be defeated by entropy — precludes that sort of long walk into the sunset.

And so perhaps we should not be too surprised that he took labor issues at the company head on. Sure, Bezos has mentioned them before — his letter last year also devoted many paragraphs to Amazon’s support for the $15 minimum wage, re-training workers, and so on — but I’m not sure he has ever confronted critics quite so directly. Bezos writes:

Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t. I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.

If you read some of the news reports, you might think we have no care for employees. In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots. That’s not accurate. They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work. When we survey fulfillment center employees, 94% say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work.

Bezos knows that there will be more efforts to unionize in Amazon fulfillment centers, and future ones might not be quite so easy to defeat. And so he sets two enormous goals for the Amazon of the future. The company should be “Earth’s Best Employer,” he writes, and “Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” And he plans to work on these projects personally:

In my upcoming role as Executive Chair, I’m going to focus on new initiatives. I’m an inventor. It’s what I enjoy the most and what I do best. It’s where I create the most value. I’m excited to work alongside the large team of passionate people we have in Ops and help invent in this arena of Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work. On the details, we at Amazon are always flexible, but on matters of vision we are stubborn and relentless. We have never failed when we set our minds to something, and we’re not going to fail at this either.

Is it just me, or does this sound like a man who has at long last gotten the message?

It has taken long enough. Pushback on the company’s claims of being a friend to the working man has come from all corners, from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to Democrats like President Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And despite Bezos’ note that 94 percent of employees say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work, it’s the company’s own workers who keep bringing disturbing information about their job sites to light. (I’m still trying to unsee the photos of pee bottles that workers used in the absence of bathroom breaks that they submitted to Vice.)

Over the past year, workers have filed at least 37 complaints to the National Labor Relations Board alleging interference with workers’ right to organize, more than triple the total in the previous year. Amazon mounted an anti-union campaign that included, among other things, firing organizers on flimsy pretexts.

If workers were as happy at Amazon as Bezos says they are, you wonder why all of that was necessary. And maybe — finally — he does, too.

There are technological ways of improving Amazon as a workplace, he says. The company can rotate workers who perform repetitive tasks to lessen the strain on their bodies, for example, using “sophisticated algorithms.” It will spend $66 million “to create technology that will help prevent collisions of forklifts.” It will invent more things like this under Bezos in his new role.

No tech giant deserves much credit for announcing a simple intention to do better. Amazon’s business requires punishing physical labor, along with ruthlessly seeking new efficiencies that chip away at workers’ dignity. The company is also leading the way in the use of automation technologies that will make those same workers’ jobs ever more precarious. It’s hard to even imagine how such a system could come to be seen as “Earth’s Best Employer,” no matter how good Amazon’s forklift management software someday becomes.

But part of the unusual power that founder-led tech giants have is the way their creators can marshal internal goodwill, along with their limitless finances, to make investments that others won’t.

Bezos’ promise to become “Earth’s Best Employer” is on some level insane, because it immediately becomes a cudgel with which lawmakers, the press, and the public can beat Amazon every time another labor issue is discovered. (I predict “Earth’s Best Employer” will become to Amazon what “don’t be evil” became for Google, or “move fast and break things” became for Facebook: a mission statement that ultimately became more useful to critics than it did to the company itself.)

The thing is, though, that Bezos is smart. Like, world-historically smart. He knows that he is setting the bar far above where it sits today, and he knows that he is going to be held accountable to it. Bezos’ version of the world’s best employer likely looks a lot different than mine, but I also imagine that it could lead to higher wages, safer working conditions, and better job training programs, at least for the workers who aren’t replaced by robots. Hopefully it will lead to less union-busting and bottle-peeing as well.

In the days after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal, Facebook executives looked as tone deaf as Amazon has lately in response to its labor issues. Eventually, though, they realized their tone had to change — and their business practices had to as well. We can argue about how effective the 30,000 people hired to shore up the platform’s security have been, but it’s undeniable that Facebook transformed its approach to integrity between late 2016 and today. And it all started with a belated acknowledgement that the company had a problem.

Maybe the cursed @AmazonNews account will snipe at another member of Congress tomorrow in the coming days, and all of the above will seem moot. Or maybe Amazon has truly internalized that the time has come to shut up and listen.

For now, it sure seems like Jeff Bezos is. And I can’t say I saw that one coming.

This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.