The Stocking Dead: the Danger of Human Automation in Amazon Warehouses

By Blaise Nettles*

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Automating human workers within Amazon Warehouses has led to continuously
unsafe working conditions. On top of the concern for physical harm caused to workers by the
jeopardy Amazon put on the rights of its employees, there is a looming concern for the mental
wellbeing of workers as well. To combat extreme surveillance and gamification, worker
solidarity and unionization should be advocated
to protect the rights of those who work in these
facilities and those similarly situated.

The Walking Dead, a hit AMC show, embarks on an apocalyptic transformation of
modern society by a deadly brain-eating virus that contagiously turns most of the population into
unthinking, unfeeling, zombies. Though this world is fiction, the dramatic overhaul in treatment
for labor workers in the late-stage capitalism giants, the focus of this piece being Amazon,
resembles this transformation in many ways. In an attempt to automate humans, motorized to do
jobs that robots have not been outfitted to complete yet, workers have been continuously isolated
from a sufficient level of humanity, turning the employee into a zombie. Unlike the creatures
from the television show, these workers do feel and think, therefore Amazon and similar
workplaces have implemented a series of illusions to keep those who rely on their payroll at
these locations, including the gamification of the workplace and anti-unionizing measurements
that isolate workers from necessary communication routes needed to coordinate for better work
conditions (Streitfeld 2021). This piece serves to shine a light on this worrying trend, including
the dangers it causes to the health, safety, and human rights of workers.

Dangerous Games
At the core of the mental and physical brutality within these facilities is the emphasis on a
mandatory work speed and quota that the workers must meet. As time goes on, Amazon has
made more and more moves to make this speed quicker, taking any means necessary to increase
the productivity levels of workers (Guendelsberger 2019). Some of these efforts include the
move to make the workplace a competition of sorts amongst workers. This becomes even more
harrowing when the fact that job security at these warehouses is slim, as workers can be fired
with only two infractions with the required productivity rate. So in this instance you are not even
competing in a friendly sense amongst coworkers you have built relationships with over the time
spent at the workplace, but often people you would not even have the opportunity to say hello to
during one of the two mandatory 15-minute shift breaks. Similar to the juxtaposing effect that
happy music has against the bloody visuals of a horror movie (Arun 2019), adding in gaming and
intangible perks to working faster as a form of workplace fun only serves to contrast the stark
and irresponsible work conditions that are being provided.

Surveillance Measures
The gamification of the job in many ways seems mentally wearing but is worse under the
consideration that this environment is only possible with the inclusion of tight surveillance for all
areas of life at the Amazon warehouse. There could be no counting of points without the
counting of items packaged or boxes ready for shipment. With this surveillance, employees are
often led to prioritizing the efficiency of their work rather than the assurance of safety within
their post (Manjoo 2014). The use of AI technology to track each worker’s movement around the
warehouse which was implemented during the pandemic necessity of social distancing might be the most worrying element of surveillance in place, tracking every step an employee takes
(Dastin and Vengattil 2020).

Increase of Injury
The physical dangers of working endlessly faster under the constant threat of
unemployment are clear, as workers are given little chance to take precautions on the job.
Amazon themselves disclosed this year that they have spent $300 million on the cause of
workplace safety in 2021, a sign that significant injury was occurring within the warehouses
before these steps. While this may seem like a sign of transparency and effort to accountability
within the company, there was evidence of an injury crisis within their warehouses that they went
to great lengths to try and cover from the public eye (Evans 2020).

Beyond the safety measures the company has tried to implement, there is not much that
will convince the company, one of the biggest in the world, to treat their workers more like
humans and less like robots as it opposes their entire business strategy. One of the most powerful
tools for moving into this reality is to avoid the zombie apocalypse and encourage employees to
see and hear each other, creating a movement of real organizing and powerful unionization
efforts (Serwer 2022). This effort is not one that only applies to Amazon, but countless other
companies worldwide that are following suit, requiring employees to take these steps to survive.

Blaise Nettles is an undergraduate student studying Political Science at George Washington University, DC.

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