Jean-Baptiste Malet went undercover to write a depressing book about it.
An Amazon warehouse (photo via)
In November 2012, journalist Jean-Baptiste Malet got a temp job in an Amazon warehouse near the French town of Montélimar. As far as his bosses knew, Malet was there to cover the pre-Christmas rush. However, the 26-year-old had different plans: at the end of his experience, he wrote a book describing the miserable working conditions that the online retailer's employees had to put up with.
Ironically enough, En Amazonie: Infiltré dans le “meilleur des mondes” (Inside Amazon: Inflitrating the "best of both worlds") – is now available on Amazon. I called him up to talk alienation in the 21st century workplace.
VICE: Hello, Jean-Baptiste. Why did you decide to infiltrate Amazon?
Jean-Baptiste Malet: At first, I didn't plan to "infiltrate" it – I just wanted to write a piece on the working conditions of Amazon's employees. I wanted to know how an online order was treated in a warehouse and what the nature of the work was. I first tried to speak to a bunch of Amazon's employees after work, having introduced myself as a journalist, and they were afraid to in case they got fired.
So you decided to do it undercover. How did you go about that?
I got a temp job for the high-demand period just before Christmas. I started in November 2012. During my interview with Adecco, the temp agency, I was made to sign a confidentiality agreement that is purely illegal. According to the agreement, I couldn't talk to anyone – not even to my family – about what was going on at work, even though no temp has access to confidential data. That's the dark side of the computer screen, the hidden face of the digital economy.
Can you describe it for me?
For starters, employees are being watched at all times by the scanner machine they work with. It's a machine linked to a Wi-Fi network that lets the supervisors know the exact location of each worker, their working rhythm and their productivity – all of which are registered every second.
Jean-Baptiste Malet (photo by David Latour)
In your book, you talk about Amazon's unique working code.
Wherever Amazon is implanted, wherever Amazon manages logistical activities that make it the number one online retailer in the world, Amazon adopts the same management, the same ideology, the same rules – with rare cultural exceptions. My experience and the numerous testimonies I got all point to the same conclusion: Amazon doesn't respect Western labour laws. The infractions are numerous and that's why I wrote a book about it.
In the West, we don't tend to ask workers to stick to a precise productivity rate. Yet every day Amazon asks them to go faster than the day before. They are also set against each other. For example, if someone talks during work hours, the rest are expected to shun them.
How does the management encourage that?
It's a subtle thing. At Amazon, they ask you to "report possible anomalies to your superiors". It could be a box that obstructs the hallway, but it could also be two colleagues who are talking instead of working. This leads to a loss of productivity, which means it's an anomaly and so it has to be reported. If you don't do that, they will subtly intimidate you during the frequent one-on-one meetings.
What does that tell us about the age we work in?
It's work without pauses. But it's not one simple, annoying task – it's a new kind of work that didn't exist in the 20th century.
In your book, you also mention daily body searches.
Because Amazon sees each employee as a potential thief, employees are searched when they enter and exit the warehouse on a non-remunerated time that can accumulate to 40 minutes per week. In the US, some workers filed a complaint about it. In reality, people who work for Amazon are loyal people who are only trying to make a living in an honest way. Most of the workers I interviewed were between 25 and 35 years old, which is the average age at Amazon. These workers affirmed repeatedly that, if they were crooks or thugs, they wouldn't bother waking up at 5AM to sign into the warehouse on time, but would actually engage in illicit activities. This body search practice is humiliating and stressful.
You explain that managers organise artificial convivial times, mostly through tutoring and "fun" activities.
Yes. "Work hard, have fun, make history" is Amazon's motto, and it's all over the walls of their warehouses. There are bowling parties and Easter egg hunts around the car park, and – at the same time – employees are being spied on and searched. This "fun" strategy is merely an attempt to also organise employees' lives outside working hours.
Why even bother organising Easter egg hunts? Are people that dumb?
It's not about being dumb. You're in a tough working situation that drains all your energy and enthusiasm. Working for Amazon still means working in a team, even if you're not actually allowed to talk while you're working or during the really short breaks. When you're done working, even if you think Amazon is exploiting you, sharing some good times with your colleagues is a human desire. The "fun" becomes fundamental – a sort of social oxygen without which the reality of work could be revealed: young workers, metamorphosed into dumb robots, having to work really hard for a small salary in order for Jeff Bezos to get a few places higher in Fortune's rich list.
You're probably aware of this, but when you google the title of your book, the first result is its page on Amazon. How do you feel about that?
This is a masterstroke by Amazon that gave me a lot of trouble in the media. By doing this, they got what they wanted: they ensured that I look like a journalist maintaining a contradiction, a journalist denouncing a system that allows him to sell his book. It's very well played on their part. What they may not know is that former Amazon customers write to me to say, "Your book is the last item that I ordered from Amazon before I permanently closed my account."
More on modern work culture: