Ethics In Tech & Lack Thereof

Sleeping Under The Cell Tower

By Vahid Razavi

You Knew What I Was When You Picked Me Up

I suppose I should have known better from the start. It’s not like Amazon’s myriad crimes and misdeeds weren’t well known — and not just among activist circles either. The old legend of the boy and the snake comes to mind:

A little boy was walking down a mountain path, where he came upon a rattlesnake. The serpent had grown very old and asked if the boy would carry him to the mountaintop so he could behold one last sunset before he died. “No, Mr. Rattlesnake,” the boy respectfully but warily replied. “If I pick you up, you will bite me and I will die.” The rattlesnake promised not to bite the boy, and so he cautiously picked it up and carried it to the top of the mountain. There, they watched the sunset together and it was beautiful. The snake then asked the boy to take it home and he carefully carried it down the mountain, stopping at his own home on the way where he gave the old snake food, water, and a place to sleep. In the morning, they awoke and the boy picked up the snake to carry it back to its own home where it would die. When they arrived at the old snake’s home, the boy began to set it down when it suddenly reared back and bit him. “Why did you do that?” the boy shrieked in pain and shock. “Now I will surely die.” To which the old snake slyly retorted, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.”

I certainly knew what Amazon was when I “picked it up.” I was aware of some of its egregious corporate practices before I was hired and although I found them disheartening, I’ll confess I turned a blind eye because I needed a job. But, in my defense, this was before many of Amazon’s worst misdeeds had occurred and been revealed; I had no way of knowing about these practices during my days at AWS. It’s long been known that the company’s more than 15,000 “fulfillment center” employees are pushed to and beyond the limit with grueling conditions and hours. That’s “fulfillment” for customers, definitely not the workers: the men and women who toil away in giant, soulless warehouses where speed and efficiency are the name of the game, as Bezos tries to squeeze out every penny of profit while filling customer orders as quickly and cheaply as possible.

In 2011 the Allentown Morning Call reported that Amazon workers in a Pennsylvania warehouse were forced to work mandatory overtime in insufferable working conditions, including 100-degree summer heat. Pushed to a pace many couldn’t maintain, numerous warehouse workers collapsed from heat exhaustion. The problem was so acute that Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked outside the warehouse during the hot summer months so that they could treat workers suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion. One former worker said he saw multiple colleagues passing out at work or being brought out in wheelchairs and stretchers by paramedics. “I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one,” he told the Morning Call. “They can do that because there aren’t any jobs in the area.” He’s right; once a booming mining and manufacturing region, the area, like much of Rust Belt America, has been in decline for decades — as Billy Joel immortalized in his 1980 hit “Allentown.”

The Morning Call interviewed 20 current and former workers at the Lehigh Valley warehouse; only one said it was a good place to work. The others described being dangerously overworked in scorching summer temperatures, frequent reprimands over their productivity, and constant threats of termination. Workers who were fired were unceremoniously marched out of the facility, a terrifying reminder to their colleagues to pick up the pace, “make rate” (Amazon-speak for working fast enough), and don’t complain — or else. All of this for an $11 or $12/hour gig that doesn’t even cover the basic life necessities for each worker, let alone their families. Still, many Amazon warehouse workers had no choice but to keep at it. “I just kept pushing myself,” former employee Karen Salasky told the Morning Call. “They asked me why my rates were dropping [in the summer heat], and I said, ‘My rates are dropping because it’s hot and I have asthma.’” Salasky said she would often cry herself to sleep at night, and that she and her colleagues would often sarcastically chant, “end slavery at Amazon.”

On one hot June day Salasky’s body felt numb and her fingers started tingling. She was taken in a wheelchair to an air-conditioned office where she was examined by paramedics — and questioned by Amazon management. “I was really upset and I said, ‘All you people care about is the rates, not the well-being of the people,’” she said. “I’ve never worked for an employer that had paramedics waiting outside for people to drop because of the extreme heat.”

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