“Prime Changes Everything”—Psych!

More measures need to be taken to ensure fair wages, job security, improved management, and better workplace conditions for Amazon employees.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’m sure many of us have seen the cringy “Prime Changes Everything” commercials that incessantly pop up on YouTube. They usually feature famous fictional or historical figures who are faced with an obstacle, followed by Amazon Prime saving the day. One tone-deaf commercial, titled “Cleopatra Has a Change of Heart,” shows Cleopatra being lifted in a sedan chair by her slaves. The narrator begins, “Cleopatra was the most powerful woman in Egypt, but no one likes a diva.” The camera then shifts to Cleopatra watching a video on an iPad, and the narration continues: “Watching Prime Video, she realized rulers could give back, so she ordered some gifts with Prime. After that, it was more of a one-team, one-dream kind of vibe.” The group of happy slaves and Cleopatra then drive off into the desert with their new dirtbikes and gloves.

The picture-perfect relationship between authoritative figures and their people perpetuated in these commercials represents what Amazon wants its consumers to see: a generous CEO redistributing his wealth to his workers. Sadly, this facade is only a fantasy, and many of us do not realize it is, because we live in a world where our only interaction with the multi-billion dollar corporation is when our packages arrive on our doorsteps.

Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers are expected to work tirelessly while they receive inadequate wages and are treated like disposable tools. More measures need to be taken to ensure fair wages, job security, improved management, and better workplace conditions for them.

Amazon made $108.5 billion in sales in the first three months of 2021, an increase of 44 percent from the same period in 2020. Despite this massive profit, Amazon fails to share its prosperity with its workers, who work under grueling conditions to meet the influx of orders. Under bogus self-employment contracts, delivery workers aren’t entitled to minimum wage and unemployment benefits, because they technically work for third-party companies who deliver on behalf of Amazon. Drivers even incur debt because they are expected to rent their own vans, which can cost up to £215 ($240) a week, and pay for any damages the vans receive. Workers are actually making negative weekly earnings with these expenses and resort to milk and cereal for dinner. One worker is barely able to send £50 ($56) to his family in four weeks. These conditions make it nearly impossible for delivery drivers to earn a livable wage.

People who work in Amazon warehouses suffer similar treatment. After three years at the job, guaranteed raises stop, and upward mobility for “low-skilled workers” is restricted. Investigations conducted by The New York Times found that even during periods of record-breaking profit, Amazon had been shortchanging new parents and workers with medical conditions on leave. An internal investigation was launched after Tara Jones, a new mother and Amazon warehouse worker, wrote a tearful email to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos after discovering she had been underpaid by a significant $90 out of $540. A $90 cut may not seem much to one of the richest men in the world, but people like Jones depend on these wages to pay bills and raise their children.

Like the slaves in the commercial, Amazon’s workers are treated like robots. Automated tracking systems and cameras religiously monitor the workers’ every move. There is no room for inefficiency. When workers walk slower than the algorithm dictates or take a brief bathroom break, the system flags these pauses as “Time Off Task.” If workers take more than 18 “Time Off Task” minutes, managers are alerted, and workers are often blamed for slowed productivity. Former Amazon employee Emily Guendelsberger recalled how this intrusive monitoring system took a toll on her mental health. “It created a constant buzz of low-grade panic, and the isolation and monotony of the work left me feeling as if I were losing my mind,” she said. “I felt an incredible amount of pressure to repress the human ‘failings’ that made me less efficient than a machine.” Suspending these harsh surveillance systems and using more supervision by human managers would be a step toward improving working conditions, because only humans know how to treat workers like humans—not robots.

While workers face low wages and inhumane conditions, Amazon’s new CEO Andy Jassy and former CEO Bezos continue to spread the false narrative that these heartbreaking stories are not reflective of the whole. In his annual shareholder letter, Bezos even touted Amazon workers’ ability to take breaks, despite the fact that workers feel that they don’t have enough time to even use the bathroom. It is important to note that without strong unions, workers fear that speaking up can cost them their jobs and livelihoods. Amazon workers have a difficult time unionizing because the company hires analysts who monitor “labor organizing threats.”

Bills preventing worker organizations from being spied on should be put in place so that workers’ concerns regarding wages and working conditions can be brought up without fear. Amazon employed more than 1.37 million front-line workers from March 1 to September 19, 2020. If these workers unionized, their voices would have a massive impact that could call for radical change, which is why Amazon is working so hard to fight these unions rather than addressing its inhumane conditions. Bills that protect worker safety should also be approved. Not only does Amazon leave employees in the dark about the toll of COVID-19 amidst a terrifying pandemic, but it also disregards workers’ safety during emergencies. After a tornado disaster killed Amazon warehouse workers in Illinois, leaked texts between an Amazon delivery driver and her dispatcher show that despite many warnings of a tornado threat, the driver was ordered to complete her deliveries or risk getting fired. These bills must ensure that companies like Amazon conduct basic fire and tornado drills and establish clear emergency protocols in the event of a disaster.

Amazon is the leading multinational company in the retail industry, employing more than 1.2 million employees across the globe. With this power comes the responsibility to stand as a model for other companies to protect their employees. It is infuriating that as a society, we continue to allow rich billionaires like Bezos to blatantly treat working-class people as disposable parts. Laws need to be improved so that workers can speak up about safety and workplace concerns without fear, as well as to limit the extent of the use of intrusive monitoring systems to track productivity.