Excellent Experiences Built on Lies?
This is the story of Jeff Lockhart Jr., an American father, husband and temporary Amazon shelf picker. On 18 January 2013, he said goodbye to his family and went to work at the truely gargantuan Amazon fulfilment centre in Chester Virginia. Over the course of a shift, which could involve him covering nearly 12 miles of ground on foot, he would rush to pick up to 100 items oper hour. As a temporary worker, he worked for roughly $12 (USD) per hour. Living in a district with tens of thousands of unemployed people, he had little choice when it came to which work he could take.
Early that morning, at 2 AM, he died alone on the floor of the vast warehouse filled with endless rows of tall shelves lined with yellow bins full of products waiting to be shipped to eager Amazon customers. He was found a short time later and eventually taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. The medical examiner’s verdict was death by irregular heartbeat. There is no way to know if we can be sure his strenous, machine driven work caused his death or it was some underlying medical condition. It’s hard to prove causality in such a situation. It makes me ask questions though.
After all, Jeff’s life is invisible to me. Sitting on the other end of the Amazon interface, staring at endless lists of available products and services, there is no way for me to see who lives, works and dies within the vast system behind it. We are in the age of experiences, of seamless services. Where vast infrastructures move in the deeps beneath a thin sheen of an experience. To deliver us what we want, when we want it, at a low price.
But what if it’s based on a lie? A lie that we can have these wonderful experiences without any cost to the people, economies or environments that make up the delivery chain?
Jeff Lockhart was not alone. Amazon currently has approximately 90,000 full time workers across its fulfilment centres, with an extra 100,000 temporary workers being used each year to meet seasonal demand. Although he worked at an Amazon fulfilment centre, he was actually employed and managed by an external work staffing placement organisation. This is a common arrangement in low-paid temporary work.
The staffing organisation reduces costs for a company like Amazon by hiring, firing and managing each worker’s output. Workers carry scanners that are tracked to estimate a workers pick rate. Like biological components in a vast machine, the workers seek to fulfil the endless flow of orders rushing through the Amazon fulfilment system.
Yet, warehouse pickers like Jeff Lockhart are only one part of the story. If we step a little further back in the chain, before goods are produced, someone needs to obtain the raw materials. So we have mining operators (or communities affected by mines), petroleum workers and extractors of natural resources. Then there are the factory workers (usually in the developing world) who may work in inhospitable conditions to assemble the goods.
They say that ninety-nine percent of everything we buy in the Western World is shipped by sea, so we have to include in our story the lonely and low-paid crewman (often from developing nations), who spend months at sea manning vast cargo ships, watching the swells march endlessly by, as they transport the goods from factory to market. They see nothing of the places they visit except the loud and dirty container loading facilities at each port.
As we browse digital experiences, low-paid content moderators (again usually located in developing nations) check and moderate content before it lands in the public domain. They filter the worst of humanity, day in and day out. Call centre operators who work through long shifts for low wages deal with frustrated consumers at their worst.
Further up the chain, you might think that people working in a white collar office job would be immune from all of this. But you would be wrong. An expose by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld in the New York Times revealed that Amazon has one of the worst reputations when it comes to its internal culture. Health, family and mental sanity are secondary to long hours and an intense corporate culture. I found one of the public comments on their expose telling:
“As the wife of a level 6 manager, a brilliant tech wizard with the kindest of hearts, I realize in reading this article that all my worst nightmares have been confirmed. I have watched him age 20 years over the past five years, slaving 70-80 hours a week, waking up in the middle of the night so many times for Sev 1's or 2's that I felt like I was married to a doctor on call. He maintains a level of stress that is inhumane. Everything this article describes is true and more. I fear for my marriage, I fear for his health and sanity and I have been trying to figure out whether it was his workaholic tendencies, his lack of back bone or the conditions in which he must work. Now I see it is the perfect formula of all three. I have watched his younger colleagues stab him in the back.
I have seen the horrendous culture that results from "turning" on your colleagues like Lord of the Flies. Papers demanded of him at 10 PM to be ready the next day. Well...if he didn't do it someone else would take his job faster than a speeding bullet. I have watched him become a slave under the pretext of providing for his family; a slave to this unhealthy environment, this sick culture where an ambitious person succumbs to brain washing. Despite all his gargantuan efforts, his amazing contributions and innovations even recognized by Bezos himself, he still didn't get a promotion this last year.” (MK, 16 August 2015)
I wonder what it would it feel like to see the entire hidden system behind everything I buy? What if I could see the low wages, long hours, social and environmental impacts? I suspect it would be unpleasant, but at least it would be honest. I know that the service design movement seeks to understand both the ‘front of house’ and ‘back of house’ activities based on the assumption that a strong back of house culture will create great customer experiences. Though laudable, I’m not sure the ‘back of house’ review comes close to encompassing the reality of the true supply chain behind most products and services.
Is it an unreasonable burden for an organisation to understand the breadth of its supply chain from inception to delivery and through to recovery? Is it beyond the scope of corporate social responsibility? I’m not sure why we assume it should be out of scope. Organisations should be responsible and transparent about what activities they benefit from. If an organisation’s choices enact a physical, financial, psychological, social, economic or environment cost, it should be clear. There should be no illusions.
Jeff Lockhart was survived by two children and a wife. His life mattered and his death is a dark reminder. The lies we build into our great experiences don’t have to be lies of commission, where we say something that is false (though there are plenty of those). It is enough if the lies are sins of omission, where we fail to tell the full story. Is an excellent experience worth the lies, illusions and delusions required for it to be great?
George, Rose (2014) Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. Picador. USA.
Jamieson, Dave (2015) The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/life-and-death-amazon-temp/.
Kantor, Jodi. Streitfeld, David (2015) Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. New York Times. Retrieved 2015 from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html.
Wharehouse Photo by Ruchindra Gunasekara on Unsplash.