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Jim Hightower: Thinking of Amazon Workers This Holiday Season

During the hectic holiday shopping season, Jeff Bezos' Amazon.com may seem like a great option, especially for us procrastinators. Anything you want can be shipped directly to your doorstep. All it takes is a few clicks on the Amazon website and — of course — some of your hard-earned money.

The media sing the praises of Bezos' concept and business. But what you may not know is that, as head of the Amazon beast, Bezos is hard on his labor force. In fact, this past May, he was awarded a less-coveted prize by the International Trade Union Confederation: "World's Worst Boss."

Consider one of the most difficult of Amazon jobs — the "picker."

In each warehouse, hundreds of them are simultaneously scrambling throughout a maze of shelves, grabbing products. This is hard, physically painful labor, for two reasons. First, pickers must speed-walk on concrete an average of a dozen miles a day, for an Amazon warehouse is shockingly big — more than 16 football fields big, or eight city blocks — and pickers must constantly crisscross the expanse. Then, there are miles of 7-foot-high shelves running along the narrow aisles on each floor of the three-story buildings, requiring the swarm of pickers to stoop continuously.

They are directed by handheld computers to each target. For example, "Electric Flour Sifters: Dallas sector, section yellow, row H34, bin 22, level D." Then they scan the pick and must put it on the right track of the seven miles of conveyor belts running through the facility, immediately after which they're dispatched by the computer to find the next product.

Secondly, the pace is hellish. The pickers' computers don't just dictate where they're to go next, but how many seconds Amazon's time-motion experts have calculated it should take them to get there. The scanners also record the time each worker actually takes — information that is fed directly into a central, all-knowing computer. The times of every picker are reviewed and scored by managers who have an unmerciful mandate to fire those exceeding their allotted seconds.

That's not good, for Amazon has a point system for rating everyone's time performance. Score a few demerits and you get "counseled." Score a few more and you're out the door. And everything workers do is monitored, timed and scored, beginning the moment they punch in for their shift. Be one minute late, you'll be assessed half a penalty point; an hour late gets you a whole point; missing a shift is 1.5 points — and six points gets you fired.

All this for $10 to $12 an hour, which is under $25,000 a year, gross. But few make even that much, for they don't get year-round work. Rather, Amazon's warehouse employees are "contingent" hires, meaning they are temporary, seasonal, part-time laborers entirely subject to the employer's whim. Worker advocates refer to these jobs as "precarious" — on the one hand, when sales slack off, you're let go; on the other hand, when sales perk up and managers demand you do a 12-hour shift with no notice, you must do it or be fired. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Election Day, July 4 or (for God's sake) Labor Day — don't even think of taking off.

Also, technically, you don't actually work for BeZon. You're hired by temp agencies with Orwellian names like "Integrity Staffing Solutions" or by such warehouse operators as Amalgamated Giant Shipping that do the dirty work for the retailer. This gives Amazon plausible deniability about your treatment — and it means you have no labor rights, for you are an "independent contractor." No health care, no vacation time, no scheduled raises, no promotion track, no route to a full-time or permanent job, no regular schedule, no job protection, and — of course — no union.

Bezos would rather get Ebola virus than be infected with a union in his realm, and he has gone all out with intimidation tactics, plus hiring a notorious union-busting firm to crush any whisper of worker organization.

Jeff Bezos is no Santa. His treatment of workers is downright disgusting. We can let him know there are alternatives to his Amazon by doing our holiday shopping at locally owned, independent businesses. Visit American Independent Business Alliance by clicking here to get started.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JimHightower, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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