Amazon warehouse workers protest outside its London HQ on 28 February 2014. Photo: Flickr/PictureCapital. Amazon warehouse workers protest outside its London HQ on 28 February 2014. Photo: Flickr/PictureCapital.

Corporate exploiters like the Jeff Bezos giant are feeling the heat as workers organise, but its pay announcement should be treated carefully, writes John Clarke

Amazon’s decision to increase its workers’ wages in the US and UK to $15 and £9.50, respectively, was rolled out with great fanfare in the media. Company founder, Jeff Bezos, the richest human being on the face of the earth, spoke as if he had experienced a veritable social justice epiphany. “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead. We’re excited about this change and encourage our competitors and other large employers to join us.” he solemnly declared.

Bernie Sanders – who has highlighted Amazon as an example of how powerful companies super exploit workers in the United States, with his “Stop Bad Employers Zeroing Out Subsidies Act” (aka the Stop BEZOS Act) – responded at a press conference that, “What Mr. Bezos today has done is not only enormously important for Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of employees. It could well be, and I think it will be, a shot heard around the world.”

Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, made clear that the increases were no act of kindness but reflected pressure from organised workers and he stressed that the struggle was far from over, pointing us in the right direction if we are to seriously evaluate what is taking place here.

Elastic workforce

A working draft of the World Bank’s World Development Report, issued earlier this year, called for an assault on minimum wages and all ‘burdensome’ legislation that may offer limited protection to workers. The report proposed intensified efforts towards the key neoliberal objective of creating an entirely powerless, elastic and super exploited workforce. In this regard, the Bezos empire has played a cutting edge role.

Media accounts of “intolerable working conditions” at Amazon facilities have surfaced. Those who have previously worked at the company’s warehouse in Dunfermline report that they were made to “work like robots” and some of those employed there, unable to afford commuting costs out of their paltry wages, have had to resort to camping outside their workplace in the dead of winter. 

A US report, entitled ‘Amazon’s Stranglehold’ details, on page 42, the prevalence of ‘permatemps’ among the company’s workforce. It looks at how Amazon ‘fulfillment centres’ are supplied with workers by temporary staffing agencies to the extent that as many as half the workers in Amazon warehouses are outsourced in this fashion.

So keen is the focus on intensified exploitation that Amazon has even taken out a patent on a wristband that can ‘precisely track where warehouse employees are placing their hands and use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction.’ The ‘dark Satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution were clumsy operations when it came to driving workers to produce by comparison to high tech taskmasters like Amazon.

Precarious workers fight back

Despite this proliferation of the low wage, precarious workforce, the neoliberal project has not gone unopposed. Indeed, the recent period has been marked by an astounding upsurge of working class resistance in precisely this sector.

The Fight for $15 in the US has become a powerful force to be reckoned with. In Ontario, Canada, where I am based, a major victory has been won, with an increased minimum wage and improved workers’ rights, albeit that a new right wing Provincial Government is presently counter attacking and wants to roll back many of the reforms.

The Fast Food Shutdown strike day just held in the UK brought the grievances of low wage workers to the forefront and showed that they have no intention of accepting their assigned place as powerless and super exploited.

Amazon itself has not been spared the resistance of its own workers. The Washington Post, ironically owned by Jeff Bezos, has reported on the strike action taken by Amazon workers in Spain and Germany and acknowledges that Bezos is anxious to keep out unions whenever possible.

This leads us back to Jeremy Corbyn’s comment. Bezos is acutely aware of which way the wind is blowing and has made a determination to give a little ground in order to protect his fundamental interests.

Tactical retreat

Jeff Bezos is very much a voice of ‘enlightened capitalism.’ He cultivates a ‘progressive’ image and goes in for public spats with the crudely reactionary Donald Trump.

Yet if, as his Washington Post’s mast headline reads, ‘Democracy Dies in the Darkness,’ it would certainly croak if inside an Amazon warehouse and Bezos would rather see other capitalists singled out as champions of exploitation.

However, he is far more concerned to ensure that his competitors bear the brunt of worker resistance and union drives. So, he looks to make a tactical retreat and, as is always the case with such an initiative, he wants to give as little ground as possible while positioning himself to defend his vital interests.

When you watch a magic trick, it’s always a good idea to look at the hand the magician doesn’t want you to watch. Bezos is preparing to increase wages for Amazon workers but only in the US and UK.

Moreover, Amazon will take back a part of that increase by cancelling stock awards and monthly bonuses for warehouse workers. The large number of workers that are regarded as independent contractors will see no increase.

Most importantly of all, however, as the TUC has pointed out, the ‘exploitative working conditions’ that Amazon can maintain as long as it shuts out trade unions, are the real issue.

Had Karl Marx had the workplaces of the Bezos empire to study, it’s likely they would have been featured in his explanation of relative surplus value because Amazon extracts it with ruthless scientific precision.

Amazon’s tactical retreat is too little, too late. As the third largest retailer in the world and a flagship for a neoliberal reordering of the workforce, the company must not be let off the hook.

Bezos’ cynical efforts to shield his operations, while preserving them as bastions of super exploitation must fail and the struggle for decent wages and working conditions must be directed against Amazon as a prime target.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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