Amazon warehouse jobs coming to Wisconsin: A closer look

English: Amazon warehouse in Glenrothes, Fife;...
English: Amazon warehouse in Glenrothes, Fife; (Photo credit: Mcwesty via Wikipedia.)

An Amazon.com distribution center is apparently in the process of being approved for land just outside of Kenosha; it reportedly would create over 1,000 full-time jobs and 2,500 temporary or seasonal jobs. Most of the full-time jobs would pay an average of $13 per hour. And putting an Amazon warehouse on Wisconsin soil would require Amazon to do in Wisconsin what it long preferred not to do, but now supports: collect sales tax on online purchases. This will help smaller retailers in Wisconsin to compete with the online giant, and the state is expected to collect about $30 million per year in tax revenue from Amazon.

Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it’s worth delving deeper into past and present reports of what employment at an Amazon distribution warehouse may mean. Mike Ivey of The Capital Times has already touched on some of the issues.

Last year The Seattle Times produced a four-part investigative series on the corporate practices of Amazon.com, whose headquarters is located in Seattle. The reporting included an in-depth look at working conditions at a few of the Amazon “fulfillment centers”, the huge warehouses from where online orders are shipped, the sort of warehouse proposed for Kenosha. Some 40 current and former warehouse employees were interviewed by The Seattle Times; though Amazon reportedly has a good safety record, the negative feedback reported by Seattle Times included one former safety manager at the Campbellsville, KY warehouse who called it “a brutal place to work.”

In September of 2011, a newspaper in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, The Morning Call, published an investigative article based on interviews with 20 current and former warehouse workers. Only one of those interviewed said the Amazon warehouse was a good place to work. The others describe what the newspaper called “brutal heat, dizzying pace.” The workers were, as the article states, “pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain.”

And in August of this year The New York Times looked at Amazon’s warehouse issues both in Germany and the United States. Amazon told the NY Times that all of its warehouses have now been air-conditioned to eliminate the heat stress.

Also mentioned in the Seattle Times and NY Times reports is the growing use of robots to do at least some of the Amazon warehouse work. Amazon has reportedly spent $775 million to buy a robot manufacturer.

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Robots, of course, have some advantages for corporations over human workers. Most importantly, robots do not object when they are treated like machines.

The neglected downside of our high-tech revolution is that we all can’t be computer programmers, robot builders, high-tech executives and creators of apps; some people, especially in Third World nations, will end up working in what have been called high-tech sweatshops, and as the science of robotics improves, more and more of our jobs, especially in manufacturing and the service industries, may simply vanish. The irony is that the drudgery of the early industrial revolution has not been ameliorated completely in our so-called post-industrial economy; we still are treating people, in the name of capitalism, efficiency and work, like machines.

So creating jobs matters, yes. But we need work that treats people (and nature) well, work that is not brutal and pays people a living wage, even people who have not gone to college. There are many ways to help create and sustain such work, and it will require both government and individual citizens working together and separately to achieve it. Depending on a few, big  corporations and a mindless faith in digital technology to guide and employ us, however, seems a doomed way to proceed.

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