Are Algorithm-Driven Labor Policies Creating a Crisis for Jeff Bezos and His Company?
9/23/21 – – This headline on today’s The Verge technology blog caught my eye: “California passes law targeting Amazon labor algorithms.” Yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law (AB-701) intended to create a safer, more tolerable work environment in warehouses like the ones operated by Amazon.
What do algorithms have to do with workplace conditions?
Turns out that Jeff Bezos, channeling the principles of Progressive Era management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor, has been using algorithms and AI to maximize the productivity of his fulfillment center employees. If you remember Taylor from your American History classes, he was the engineer who around the turn of the last century helped make employers rich and employees miserable by monitoring every human motion in the manufacturing process and assigning an optimum time for each task to be completed.
The original “time-study man,” Taylor was fixated on efficiency, and driven by a basic mistrust of the human work ethic. He believed that, “Hardly a competent workman can be found who does not devote a considerable amount of time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.”
Just as the tragic results of Taylor’s “scientific management” approach spawned waves of government regulation and labor union push-back in the early 20th century, Amazon’s workplace demands – reportedly making it almost impossible for workers to take a break or go to the bathroom – have gotten the attention of legislators.
Charging that Amazon’s business model “relies on enforcing inhumane work speeds that are injuring and churning through workers at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), tweeted: “Workers aren’t machines. We’re not going to allow a corporation that puts profits over workers’ bodies to set labor standards back decades just for ‘same-day delivery.’”
Last year The New York Times reported a 150% turnover rate among Amazon’s hourly employees and an injury rate twice the average of warehouse workers nationwide.
Jeff Bezos may consider the passage of AB-701 to be nothing more than a speed bump on his company’s road to ever increasing market share and profits. But, I would suggest he take to heart the fate of the robber barons in American history who first embraced Frederick Winslow Taylor’s myopic tenets. Their blind ambition and disregard for the health and welfare of the people who made their factories and railroads run earned them unprecedented levels of public scorn and opened the door for dramatic social change and debilitating government oversight.
I hate to be cynical, but perhaps the unpleasant spotlight created by AB-701 explains the timing of the Jeff Bezos Earth Fund’s announcement this week of a $1 billion pledge to “protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 to prevent mass extinctions and bolster resilience to climate change.” That’s a great cause and a lot of money (about 0.5% of what Forbes estimates to be Mr. Bezos’ net worth of $195 billion), but it won’t avert the crises sure to follow if fundamental changes are not made to the company’s treatment of the hundreds of thousands of fulfillment center employees who make Amazon so successful.
Mr. Bezos shouldn’t need a time-study man or an algorithm to understand the urgency of that task.