It’s 11:30 p.m. in May 2021, and it’s my first day as an Amazombian—a nightshift worker at Amazon. I’m not sure what to expect as I make my way in the metro towards Laval, just north of Montreal. In my backpack is a letter from the company declaring I am an essential worker heading out past curfew. I’ve been told I’m one of the lucky ones to work on opening day at their new logistics facility.
As I get off the bus just after midnight in an industrial zone perched behind a complex of provincial prisons, I slowly approach the Amazon building. It’s bright. Everything is well marked along the road. There’s a greeter at the entrance, to make sure I know which door to enter through. With the amount of money invested in these facilities, it feels like I’ve just walked into a gleaming new airport terminal.
Before training begins, the operations manager makes an extra effort to dispel negative media about working conditions for Amazon employees. One of the first things he tells the group of dozen trainees is that rumours about employees having to resort to peeing into bottles during long shifts are “just wrong.” We can take bathroom breaks anytime, he insists. In the weeks following, there will be an extra emphasis on health and safety—including daily ritual stretches where we watch a video of a cartoon robot doing some squats while holding an Amazon box, and imitate it.
But during my month as a so-called associate at Amazon, it will become clear to me that this is window dressing for dangerous conditions and employee surveillance. Amazon has shown that it won’t only go to great lengths to pressure workers not to organize for their rights, but it will also do whatever it takes to remain the only game in town. If there’s anything that sets the company apart, it’s the ability to foster a myth of job security and belonging while becoming a monopolistic force that methodically exploits workers.
The Amazon Effect has transformed our economies. It holds sway over the types of jobs that are lost or created. And it has amassed unimaginable wealth for Jeff Bezos—thanks to the dire state of hundreds of thousands of its workers across its warehouses.
Now it’s spreading through Canada. Since the pandemic and the uptick in demand for online delivery, Amazon has been rapidly expanding into this country from the United States. On September 13, the company announced it would hire more than 15,000 new full- and part-time workers, on top of its existing 25,000 jobs. In the past year, Amazon has increased its Canadian facilities—including fulfillment centres, sortation centres, and delivery stations—from 30 to 46.
I thought this was a critical moment to stop merely reading about the abuses Amazon workers face, and to work there myself, while hiding my identity as an organizer who advocates for workers’ rights. I wanted to understand on the ground level what the work environment is like. Most importantly, I wanted to understand what kind of organization we will need to challenge and confront not only Amazon, but the entire system of just-in-time delivery and logistics, which has become central to our contemporary economy and its accompanying inequalities.
An Amazon delivery station in Laval, Montreal. Credit: Kalden Dhatsenpa
Becoming the industrial robot
The day I decided to apply for a job, I navigated on my web browser to Amazon’s website. After a few clicks, I entered a portal, where I was posed a series of psychological questions that might as well have been asked by a high school guidance counsellor. The exam was 30 minutes long. There were questions about relating to teams: if I were given a hypothetical award, would I take credit or give credit to the others in the team? I was also asked about my satisfaction with life. How gratified was I, on a scale between 1 and 5? Although I’m not sure how satisfied I could possibly be if I was submitting an application to work for Amazon, I gave the answers I thought they might want to hear. God forbid I was ungratified and dissatisfied—and possibly disobedient.
The next day I received a message that I’d been hired—no interview, no reference check, no apparent job experience necessary. I was asked to come to an employment centre, where a worker checked my ID, took a photo, and asked for my schedule availability. I was given two choices: I could work a 10-hour shift either between 1:20 a.m. until 12 p.m. at the delivery station on weekdays, or work from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. at the fulfillment centre, which would include a weekend day. I learned that these schedules are near-universal across Amazon, with contracts that stipulate workers must be available for mandatory overtime days during peak seasons—working five days, or 50 hours, a week.
I picked the night shift. I was now an Amazombian.
As part of the first hires, my new coworkers and I were designated as blue badges. “Blue badges” are considered permanent hires, for whom benefits kick in immediately.
Amazon has largely limited the use of temporary agency work; but it has essentially created an internal temp system. White badges, unlike blue badges, are seasonal workers who can be let go at any point. The badge system creates an essentially desperate and docile workforce among those hired as seasonal workers. Amazon will tell white badges there is the possibility of becoming a blue badge, but it requires them to satisfy their rates and win the approval of management and HR. We were regularly told that being made permanent hires was a privilege, and that we didn’t have to work like hell to move from a white badge to a blue one.
The delivery station where I worked north of Montreal is different from the stadium-like fulfillment centres that many associate with Amazon. These delivery stations, introduced across the continent, are part of Amazon’s strategy to dominate e-commerce by creating its own last-mile logistics system. No longer relying on FedEx, UPS, Purolator, or Canada Post, it can now manage last-mile delivery for its own products and also for third-party sellers.
Mostafa Henaway outside the delivery station. Credit: Kalden Dhatsenpa
A delivery station employing nearly 100 workers ensures that anywhere between an astonishing 25,000 to 35,000 orders are prepared by 9 a.m. each day to reach their final delivery. To achieve this, Amazon breaks down the work through the creation of several job tasks that are repetitive and done at a neck-breaking pace. Warehouse work is challenging to automate because it requires much thought, troubleshooting, and carrying varied sizes of boxes and packages. Amazons’ solution has been to merge technology with human labour to essentially turn workers into industrial robots.
Every day as I started my shift, I would don our robotic armature. We would grab what’s called a TCI device—which looks like a giant smartphone—and strap it to one arm, and with the other hand pick up a scanner. We’d log into our device, and from that moment on no longer be in control of our actions. Instead, this device would determine where we would go, what tasks we would be doing, and how good an employee we were.
The jobs themselves would begin with us unloading numerous trucks, and scanning items on conveyor belts to ensure that a picker, at a latter stage, would know where to place the item on a rack. At that point, a stower would scan each article, put them in a bag and begin to play high-speed Tetris to ensure every item could fit into a bag before it would leave the warehouse.
The expectation of every worker was to hit 300 items per hour for the entirety of the shift. Working with such speed with various items—ranging from books, cat litter, BBQs, and even large ergonomic chairs—created immense pressure. Of course, we were told constantly to move things safely, that our health was a priority, never to run, never to lift items too heavy. But these recommendations began to feel like a joke, because the bottom line was that our rates were everything. If we became too slow, boxes would pile up rapidly and cause a nightmare at the end of the line. According to my calculations, keeping on top of it meant moving a box about every six to eight seconds.
On the warehouse floor line, our device and scanner clocked every box or package we touched, then the sorting bag that it went into. If we placed the item in the right bag, we would be rewarded by a green light; if it was wrong, red. The device also told us which delivery route we needed to prepare, and which packages to pick.
The device isn’t only guiding you—it becomes your supervisor. Not only are you monitored during the work tasks, but the periods taken up by your Time Off Tasks is a metric that affects your rates. The longer you aren’t signed in or are logged off, the poorer your standing with supervisors. That can lead to audits and meetings, making workers anxious and insecure.
The repetitive and fast-paced nature of the job quickly took its toll on my body. I was working on my feet for ten hours a day, constantly scanning, lifting, moving—all in the middle of the night. Usually, the physical pain increased during the shift as the pressure went up. As managers, our fundamental responsibility was to get all the packages out the door at 9 a.m. That might mean our breaks were delayed, leaving people working for four to five hours straight. The only way to seek reprieve was to hide in the bathroom for a few minutes.
As 9 a.m. loomed, with workers getting pressured by supervisors, assistants, and managers, we would scurry to stow faster, lifting heavier and heavier bags, finding whatever way to meet our quotas. It didn’t matter that the work was ultimately now unsafe—the point was to meet our precious, all-important deadline.
Security cameras outside the facility. Credit: Kalden Dhatsenpa
Very Big Brother is watching
One early morning in late May, toward the end of our shift, a manager told everyone to immediately stop what we were doing. He saw on his computer that two packages had been misplaced. We needed to find them. Our 100 per cent ratio of all boxes going into their corresponding bags was ruined, because two packages—only two out of 25,000—did not make it into their bags. The amazing thing was the manager could tell who last touched them, who last scanned them, and what bags they should have been in. In real time, he could follow the packages inside the warehouse.
At Amazon, the almost omniscient power of technology is always in the background. At first, no one speaks of it, and no one tells you how the existing system works and how you are surveilled. As an employee I eventually learned that my bosses could in real-time monitor my every movement, my metrics, and the number of boxes I was stowing. This is when I began to realize that almost half of the workers at Amazon, once they are promoted, must constantly monitor and audit employees below them.
The most insidious form of surveillance inside the warehouse comes in the form of artificial intelligence cameras. Since they are visible everywhere, at the beginning of each shift we would be reminded of Big Brother watching us. Amazon claims the benefit of these cameras was to ensure that we followed COVID-19 protocols. Similarly, Amazon in the U.S. justified the addition of AI cameras inside their delivery vans by claiming it was to monitor and detect risky behaviour to ensure the safety of drivers.
But the artificial cameras only ensured our obedience. Every six minutes, the AI cameras analyze every worker and the distance between them, generating a report at the end of the shift. The use of big data artificial intelligence shows that even management is not themselves in control—they are simply there to enforce algorithms and predetermined tasks.
In true Amazon spirit, the company has also found a way to profit from this, by marketing their own labour management technologies. Amazon calls this new service Amazon Business Analytics. This subdivision allows other companies to rent the metrics platform they use to manage workers. Companies realizing they do not have the resources to compete with Amazon can simply rent its platform to become successful. The implications are clear. The Amazon model of work may soon be exported across sectors and workplaces. The question then becomes: why would we accept a type of surveillance in our workplaces that we would not accept in public or in our neighbourhoods?
The cult of Amazon: We are family
In my first week, I asked many of my coworkers whether this job was a short-term or long-term gig for them. To my surprise, many told me they saw Amazon as a stable job, a potential career, and imagined moving up the ladder. Many of our supervisors had been working at Amazon for just a few years, but had already reached the management level. At lunch gatherings, supervisors would share personal stories of triumphant advancement up the ladder. All this served as an alluring horizon: endure the gruelling work conditions, and maybe, you too, can move up.
Many of my coworkers were newcomers, either refugees from Syria or younger, second-generation immigrants. For these racialized workers, finding decent stable employment can be nearly impossible. Refugees and immigrants are increasingly part of the working poor, enduring precarious jobs, trapped in sectors such as warehousing, gig work, and food processing—facing low-wage, non-unionized and dangerous conditions.
From the moment I submitted my application, I noticed how Amazon had managed to distinguish itself from other, similar low-wage employers. For example, before I began, Amazon gave me a $100 voucher to purchase safety boots, and some forms to fill out for benefits. The benefits Amazon provides vary from country to country but are significant, especially in the U.S. They begin immediately for permanent employees. They range from full medical, dental, mental health, parental leave, limited paid sick leave, pension, stocks and a 10 per cent discount. The starting hourly wage when I worked there was $16.25 and now has been raised to $18. In a Facebook post I’ve seen, one American worker who had just had his first child thanked Amazon for the 20-week parental leave. In the U.S., this is a massive improvement for low-wage workers, compared to the usual three-to-six-week parental leave.
During my time at Amazon, the feeling of family, of the company taking care of its workers, was cultivated at our daily stand-up meetings—at which we would go through ritual stretches, and then be asked to present a success story of ourselves from the day before. We were encouraged to clap for each story. In our training sessions, we were even asked to all together shout the Amazon worker motto: “we make history, we have fun, we work hard.”
These attempts to build camaraderie among workers, and to foster a sense of the special ethos of Amazon, is crucial to how the company functions. Images of Amazon are everywhere. It is a cult of the company, albeit not of Bezos himself. Supervisors will constantly remind you that what we do every night and day is not for Jeff Bezos, and not even ourselves, but to make sure our customers are happy. We would be letting down our family—a very broad conception of family indeed—if we were too slow or did not work hard enough.
Amazon utilizes the cult of the company inside the warehouses to make workers believe they are making contributions to its improvement, to make workers feel their voice matters. They use “My Voice,” an online and in-person chatboard in which workers can place their suggestions, critiques and thoughts to improve the workplace. Amazon managers will encourage carpooling and take suggestions for improved measures on diversity. The company boasts that it has installed multi-faith prayer rooms and Halal microwaves at its facilities.
Amazon does not openly push people out the door. It lets the work do that on its own. For example, the company offers workers the ability to train to become better “associates.” Workers are rewarded for doing well, but not let go for underperformance. If you’re slow, they will take you aside, offer you tips or bring in a trainer. Formally, how workers are let go is based on a six point system, but in reality, Amazon prefers workers to quit on their own, through physical attrition, which means they practically never risk facing Labour Standards Complaints of unjust dismissal or reprisal for workers exercising their fundamental rights.
When workers do walk out, mostly because their bodies can simply no longer take it, it doesn’t pose an actual cost to Amazon. That’s because it has incorporated an expectation of high turnover rates into its management system. The way Amazon has adjusted to extreme levels of turnover is evident in their HR system. In the U.S., you can simply “resign” on your Amazon App.
This highly refined carrot-and-stick approach has worked incredibly well to stave off attempts by workers to organize—so far. After all, no matter the small quibbles you might have with family, you don’t turn your back on them.
Credit: Kalden Dhatsenpa
The challenges of unionizing
By this year, Jeff Bezos’s networth has reached US$197.8 billion, making him the richest man in the world. Throughout the pandemic, Amazon saw its market capitalization reach US$1.78 trillion—a number larger than Canada’s entire GDP, which was $1.64 trillion in 2020. According to the World Economic Forum, in 2020, Amazon became the fifth-largest private employer internationally, globally employing over 1.2 million workers, excluding its seasonal, temporary workforce.
So how do you challenge a company in the context where neoliberalism has eroded more and more of our social safety net and the possibility of a decent life standard, and when workers are expressing gratitude to the same corporation that’s been accused of “aggressively avoiding” billions of dollars in taxes? Of the same company that has stifled workers’ rights and attempts to unionize?
Amazon has been in the media spotlight in Canada since the International Brotherhood of Teamsters announced its unionization drive of an Amazon fulfillment centre YEG1, outside of Edmonton in Nisku, Alberta. This is the first union campaign drive of Amazon in Canada and will be a historic test for the labour movement in Canada.
It comes on the heels of a crushing defeat of the efforts of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in Bessemer, Alabama, where a union drive was ultimately unsuccessful. After the vote at Bessemer, there was much analysis of why the union eventually lost, from how it had carried out the campaign to Amazon’s strategy and tactics. And while it’s undoubtedly true that pressure from trade union organizing has forced Amazon to increase its wages, the fact that a single Amazon facility in Canada or the U.S. has yet to be unionized remains an existential threat to the labour movement as a whole.
The challenges faced by unions in organizing don’t stem solely from Amazon’s visceral anti-union tactics and bullying. One obstacle lies in Amazon’s management strategy to create a two-tier workforce. On the one hand, the committed Amazonian will remain a long-term worker. On the other hand, the undesirable worker will eventually quit within days or months. The ones who remain as long-term workers, and who would be the target of any union campaign, tend to be loyal, while those who can’t put up with the work will be gone before they even have a chance to sign a union card.
This streamlining—a culling of the weak from the strong—is such an integral feature to Amazon’s strategy that it was revealed that Amazon pays full-time warehouse associates up to $5,000 to quit. According to Amazon spokesperson Melanie Etches: “We want people working at Amazon who want to be here.”
Perhaps another reason why Amazon is so opposed to unions is because it would throw a wrench into its fast-moving, complex and precarious machine: the ability to sell 12 million different items and deliver them within one to two days relies on a tightly interlinked chain of facilities—from the sortation centres to the Amazon Airport in Kentucky, the fulfillment centres, and delivery stations. There’s no wiggle room for error. Each fulfillment centre is specialized for specific items within a certain radius of major urban centres. For example, an order may arrive from Brampton or outside of Ottawa, and the maximum radius would be within seven hours to any delivery station.
If a truck does not show up on time, it can delay orders for another 12 to 24 hours. Amazon’s lean model of storing and distributing goods allows for fast, free shipping—but at a human cost. If a successful union campaign at a fulfillment centre lowered the rates to ensure humane work conditions, that would result in a loss of speed. Keeping unions out is essential to its seamless flow—which also means the threat posed by successful worker organizing could force huge concessions from the company.
Amazon has crept into all aspects of our lives and how we produce, distribute and consume. For Amazon and us, every unionization campaign is a do-or-die moment. Unionizing Amazon must be about more than simply gaining union members and dues. It needs to be viewed as the most critical labour battle.
As our economies shift towards e-commerce, giving rise to warehouse or distribution work as a critical sector of employment, what Amazon does will have a massive effect across the entire economy. Amazon’s reliance on an enormous pool of precarious, racialized workers seeking a livelihood is a laboratory for the economy of the future.
As Amazon sets the standards for working conditions within the sector, we need to learn from successful campaigns in the U.S.—such as the blocking of HQ2 in New York City by community organizations in coalition with unions, or California’s new Safety law passed in September 2021, which aims to protect workers in warehouses by regulating the quotas workers have to meet if it makes the work unsafe.
In Quebec, the Immigrant Workers Centre, where I’m employed, organized a commission of Warehouse Work, calling for a provincial decree to regulate the Amazon economy in Quebec, via wages as well as health and safety standards. We proposed tackling the racialized inequality produced by Amazon, reining in the power the corporation has to shape our economies, and organizing to win back control for working people and communities from the titans of global capital.
Personally, after a month of working in the Laval facility, I had seen enough. To give my resignation, I called a 1-800 number and spoke to an employee service representative who simply updated my file. It was impersonal, and seemed like a fitting end—I’d experienced what it’s like to become a cog in Amazon’s giant machinery, squeezed of every possible ounce of human energy. The sheer fatigue of workers by the end of the shift allows little time for much—for me, I barely had energy to talk to anyone but my family, let alone participate in activism or organize meetings.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t organize and win, because workers organize every day despite their fatigue and enormous odds. As I exited bleary-eyed from the warehouse on the morning of my last shift, I envisioned an army of Amazombians, arising from slumber and lurching together in great numbers towards labour rights and better working conditions.
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Mostafa Henaway | Mostafa Henaway is a community organizer with the Immigrant Workers Centre and a PhD candidate at Concordia University. He is based in Montreal.