Do consumers help shape the work environment? In some ways, of course; yet, most of us as consumers feel pretty helpless about getting quality service most of the time. In that light, Amazon’s success, at least as of now, could not have been possible were it not for its ferocious customer-focus operations. So, consumers definitely have helped determine the working conditions at Amazon. The evolution of their customer services has been groundbreaking for sure, and as a consumer, I have been part of their equation. Will I continue my patronage after learning about their inner working conditions? Let me brood over that question.
Among the close-to 6,000 comments to the New York Time’s article on Amazon’s working environment, there were many who expressed outrage and immediately cancelled their “prime membership” with Amazon. Yet, I suspect the cancellation has not created even a ripple in Amazon’s sales bucket. That doesn’t mean that consumers should stop protesting or expressing their concerns and criticism of workplace conditions. However, as I have mentioned previously, there are plenty of other organizations and professions where grueling working conditions are the norm, whether employer- or self-imposed. How shall we consumers react to those other places and professionals?
Let’s look at the airline industry…need I say more? In this case, it is the customers who have been loudly complaining about the ways we have been treated, from the headache-inducing contortioned act of figuring out how to cash in on the “loyalty” point system, enduring fees slapped on everything, to surviving the reduced-size carry-on… Would any of us give up flying? Can we? This is but one small area where “consumer power” is a joke.
So, back to Amazon. In 2011, a series of reports about a warehouse in eastern Pennsylvania highlighted yet a different kind of grueling working conditions. Amazon warehouse workers at this location labored in temperatures of 100 degrees and above in the summer, with paramedics standing by in ambulances parked outside to treat workers who fainted, or to rush them to ER. After the exposé, Amazon installed air conditioning. Later, the joke on the street: Given that Amazon will eventually deploy robots to do the sorting and packing, and those robots will need A/C environment… If we consumers didn’t find that story appalling enough to cancel our business with Amazon, why would the company think that the latest brouhaha, generated by a NYTimes article, would lead to any significant downturn in its business volume? To me, the more interesting question is why we seem to be more exercised over the white collar working conditions than the 2011 warehouse story.
Let me be clear. I am not defending Amazon’s operations. The intensely competitive condition is not unique to Amazon. That doesn’t justify any of these types of operations in any professional field. But, what-can-we-do? Apple’s fans haven’t modified their enthusiastic purchasing power even after stories about their Chinese manufacturers’ horrible (and abusive) working conditions. Google hasn’t suffered because it has given the government massive amounts of data for surveillance purpose. Walmart’s business hasn’t been damaged despite myriad criticism from all corners of society. As I have mentioned before, consumer power in the globalized economy is very diffused. I can scream at the Verizon rep (I don’t, at least not without giving him/her a warning first and with the disclaimer that my tone was not directed at the rep), but none of my frustrations and criticism will ever make any dent in Verizon’s operations. But AT&T is even worse. Delta Airlines is on my “do not fly” list. But of course, if the place where I need to go is served only by Delta…sigh. Back to cable and signal carriers: Does anyone have enthusiastic love for any of them? Verizon? Comcast? AT&T?
The only recent episode where consumers actually seemed to have unified their voices concerned “net neutrality” with the FCC last summer. In an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Mr. Oliver’s 20+ minutes monologue on “net neutrality” was a gem; it was informative and energizing…and entertaining. No one can tell if the FCC website crash the following day, after Oliver’s segment, was due to Mr. Oliver’s “plea” for people to take action. Neither could we be certain that President Obama’s taking the consumer side carried much weight. However, FCC’s eventual decision in consumers’ favor was a pleasant surprise, after an almost nail-biting wait.
So if Amazon keeps “improving” its delivery time, such as helping a New York customer to get an Elsa doll (based on movie “Frozen”) in 23 minutes, how do you begin to complain about that? Like, “Can you please deliver this doll in 23 hours instead?!” While this example may be about satisfying an upper class customer – and we don’t really know – Amazon’s offers of conveniences and speedy delivery might also provide much needed relief for many harassed parents or singles who work 80+ hours a week, or single parents who work 65 hours a week. However, is this really “innovation?” Please. Rovers on Mars are innovative; speedy delivery, even by a drone someday, is just an extreme outcome of badgering employees into “continuous improvement” and comes with a huge hidden cost.
If I lived in an area where I can have decent accesses to everything I need and desire, I would happily drop my business with Amazon. But I don’t, and so I just have to swallow my dismay and focus on other battles of my choosing…like everyone in this quick-paced world. What’s your priority?
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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