Saturday, September 24, 2011

Netflix, Amazon, and Dickens

Netflix is getting out of the messy, labor intensive, business of mailing physical DVDs. Now they are purely digital. They won't need postmen or people to fill the gaps machines couldn't manage. They can scale without hiring.

It is the 21st century way.

Amazon can't do this [1]. They cannot, yet, make do with robots. They have jobs for the non-elite. Jobs in a Dickensian world...

The Fraying of a Nation's Decency - ANAND GIRIDHARADAS -

... Thanks to a methodical and haunting piece of journalism in The Morning Call, a newspaper published in Allentown, Pennsylvania, I now know why the boxes reach me so fast and the prices are so low. And what the story revealed about Amazon could be said of the country, too: that on the road to high and glorious things, it somehow let go of decency.

The newspaper interviewed 20 people who worked in an Amazon warehouse in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. They described, and the newspaper verified, temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37 degrees Celsius, in the warehouse, causing several employees to faint and fall ill and the company to maintain ambulances outside. Employees were hounded to “make rate,” meaning to pick or pack 120, 125, 150 pieces an hour, the rates rising with tenure. Tenure, though, wasn’t long, because the work force was largely temps from an agency. Permanent jobs were a mirage that seldom came. And so workers toiled even when injured to avoid being fired. A woman who left to have breast cancer surgery returned a week later to find that her job had been “terminated.”

The image of one man stuck with me. He was a temp in his 50s, one of the older “pickers” in his group, charged with fishing items out of storage bins and delivering them to the packers who box shipments. He walked at least 13 miles, or 20 kilometers, a day across the warehouse floor, by his estimate.

His assigned rate was 120 items an hour, or one item every 30 seconds. But it was hard to move fast enough between one row and the next, and hard for him to read the titles on certain items in the lowest bins. The man would get on his hands and knees to rummage through the lowest bins, and sometimes found it easier to crawl across the warehouse to the next bin rather than stand and dip again. He estimated plunging onto his hands and knees 250 to 300 times a day. After seven months, he, too, was terminated...

Which brings me to Bernstein, who echoed a recent post of mine ...

The Policy Backdrop of Inequality and Its Implications for “Class Warfare” | Jared Bernstein | On the Economy

...Technological change, most recently computerization/IT, is also thought to be a significant factor behind the changes in the graph, though the evidence here is more ambiguous.  (One strain of work, for example, argues that technology has increased labor demand for both high skill and low skill work, while leaving out the middle.)..

... Then there’s a bunch of stuff that directly raises or lowers the bargaining clout of middle and working class families—policy changes or missed policy opportunities that have hurt or failed to help them.

–the long-term erosion of the minimum wage
–the absence of legislative protection to balance the organizing playing field for those who want to collectively bargain
–the inattention to labor standards such as wage and hour rules, overtime regs, workplace safety, worker classification ...

We have a diverse population. We are not all equally suited to the narrow range of work that seems America's natural fate. Education is not the answer; we are not all didacts. We need a diverse set of employment opportunities, and we need to prevent the cruelties of the market red in tooth and claw.

[1] Update: Duh. After I wrote this I remembered they started out moving books, and now they ship them by wire.

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