When Amazon announced that they would raise the minimum wage for their employees to $15 an hour, many commentators praised Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, for this new approach. Despite the fact that Amazon is a multinational company, people genuinely applauded this pitiful rise. To make matters worse, Amazon only acted after receiving sustained negative press coverage about its working conditions and it’s hard to argue that this was little more than an attempt to salvage its reputation. It raises questions about how much power companies like Amazon have over their workers and why ruthlessly exploiting employees is even legal.
To say that Amazon has failed their workers is an understatement. A recent book published by James Bloodworth alleges that employees at Amazon’s ‘fulfilment centres’ actually feared taking a break from work. Productivity targets had to be met, and even illness was treated with disciplinary measures.
Putting this bluntly, Amazon has the power to destroy a person’s livelihood because of something they can’t control. Therefore, it’s especially hard to see how a minor change in pay policy somehow vindicates the company. Even if you subscribe to the view that a pay rise is better than no change at all, it’s difficult not to say that something is fundamentally wrong. These working conditions may actually be hurting Amazon as treating workers well could improve their productivity when on the job.
Of course, Amazon is hardly the only guilty party. In a world dominated by a myriad of large corporations, it’s easy to focus on one particular story in a single working environment. Apple is also exploiting their workers to a similar degree. It’s well documented that Apple factories in China put workers under a massive amount of pressure and mistakes generally result in employees being humiliated by managers. Employees have even threatened suicide over wages not being paid to them. It’s therefore impossible to judge whether a company is being ethical or not by looking at the amount they are paying their employees.
So the question now becomes about who is responsible for forcing large companies to treat their workers in a humane manner. It is my personal view that it should be the job of government. In trying to convince Amazon to change its pay policy, Bernie Sanders introduced a new bill into congress. This bill, fittingly nicknamed the ‘Stop Bezos Act’, would apply a special tax to companies whose workers were forced to rely on state welfare programmes. Clearly, such a policy would have significant merits as companies would be forced to pay their employees a wage they can actually survive on. But, as I have illustrated, it’s difficult to say whether this would actually improve the day to day working conditions of low wage employees.
It is then obvious that the impetus for change cannot just come from the government. It must also come from the consumers, who have the power to punish companies like Amazon by simply not using their services. This is especially challenging given how many people use Amazon on a daily basis. But, if a significant number of people were to boycott the company, it could compel them to enact changes to working conditions. By adopting simple legislative changes like the one I examined and boycotting companies which are known to treat workers badly, we can improve the lives of low wage workers. Corporate dominance is here to stay but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.