When you see it laid out plainly as in this piece from Vox, you realize why workers at all income levels are so dissatisfied. Most of us spend our work day, which is most of our day, under oppressive, even humiliating conditions that are more like dictatorship than life in a free country. The argument for this way of treating employees is that it increases profit margins. But humiliation is not a sustainable way to profit or to create a happy society.
Amazon is a leader in using automation on its warehouse floor to pack and move inventory more efficiently. But just as the Ford Model T factory of the early 20th century broke down each worker’s movements and then punished them for making any other movements—guaranteeing repetitive stress injury—Amazon does something similar, staying just inside OSHA safety regulations. It’s like they’re training and forcing the humans to work like robots in preparation for the day when they’ll be replaced by robots.
And I’m an accessory to the problem. I’m a longtime Amazon Prime customer and have Amazon ad links on this site. And Amazon is in many ways an admirable company. But the system in which they play such a huge role makes it less profitable to treat your employees like human beings and incentivizes dehumanization.
In fact, you see such dehumanization a lot in the American workplace: cashiers penalized for too much chitchat, or as Amazon calls it, “time theft,” or the culture of being always on call, even on weekends and in the middle of the night when the CEO can’t sleep. Unpaid overtime has become a fact of life even for people with nice six-figure salaries. It can drain quality of life for years or decades. In short, we’re letting ourselves be punished for not being more like robots. It’s true even of the so-called “creative class.” When a manager or CEO starts talking about helping you increase your productivity, don’t assume they’re offering you some avenue for self-improvement. They’re thinking more widgets per hour. That is not the only or best way to increase profitability.
Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.
How should we understand these sweeping powers that employers have to regulate their employees’ lives, both on and off duty? Most people don’t use the term in this context, but wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in some domain of life, that authority is a government.