“AmaZen” is not a solution to Amazon’s worker exploitation

By Shriraksha Mohan

Amazon recently announced the idea of equipping its workspaces with ‘AmaZen’ – small, enclosed cubes in which employees can enjoy quiet and peace to “focus on their mental wellbeing”. These pods come with interactive kiosks inside, where workers can watch videos on mental health and mindfulness.

Amazon, a company which catapulted its founder, and soon-to-be ex-CEO Jeff Bezos to the status of world’s richest man, was criticized when it released a video of Amazen on social media. Critics rightly argue that a company which does not allow its workers sufficient bathroom breaks during their long 10-plus hour shifts, is better off spending its money supporting workers through better pay and dignified working conditions.

In the last one year, as the pandemic forced many brick-and-mortar businesses to stay shut, Amazon recorded a revenue of $419.130 billion, a 41.47% increase in its revenue for the 12 months ending March 21, 2021. Jeff Bezos’ net worth skyrocketed to ~$200 billion. In this same timeframe, Amazon has done little to prevent Covid outbreaks in Amazon warehouses. This is a grim reminder that Amazon and Jeff Bezos are not short of financial resources to ensure safe working conditions, but they are unwilling to use those resources to safeguard their employees.

While initiatives like ‘AmaZen’ claim to cater to spiritual wellbeing of employees, Amazon’s business and labor models have left communities bereft of local self-reliance, ruptured human connections formed through interactions between local people and local businesses, kept people away from finding meaningful work that pays livable wages – all these factors affect our wellbeing. Amazon has stripped people off their basic right to physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.

A 2016 report from Institute for Local Self-Reliance about Amazon’s Stranglehold on the Economy outlines Amazon’s exploitative practices like monopolizing trade and commerce, and undermining labor. The report concludes with a section on Policy Response to curb Amazon’s unchecked expansion. A more recent report highlights Amazon’s exploitation of sellers on its platform: Amazon’s Monopoly Tollbooth. Focus of most of these policies is amends to taxation laws, reasonable pricing, and breaking up market monopolies.

In an interview about his book One-Click Civilization, author Alec MacGillis discusses the role of consumers in creating monopolies. Consumers, who seek instant gratification, have fueled the growth of Amazon. It is hard to escape the lure of Amazon’s low prices and quick delivery strategies. We have chosen short-term conveniences over long-term costs we pay, as a civilization, by being active consumers in an Amazon ecosystem. The biggest cost we are already paying is by sacrificing human wellbeing at the altar of convenience.

Prout addresses this problem by advocating for a decentralized economy that puts more power into the hands of local people and local institutions. In a decentralized economy, people will be equipped to manage local resources and determine economic activities of their region. To successfully implement policies for decentralization, citizenry should be made conscious of their rights as workers and consumers. Local people must be encouraged to take control of their economic destiny.

In a centralized economic structure, either a handful of capitalists or state capitalism wield an enormous influence on the socio-economic lives of people. Prout proposes an alternative scenario through economic decentralization where everyone’s needs are met by production of goods and services for consumption, rather than for profits. In a decentralized economy, most of the production and distribution of goods are undertaken by mid-sized worker-owned cooperatives, which employ local people and pay wages that provide adequate purchasing capacity.

How should people as consumers, workers, and stakeholders in an economy support this system of decentralization? Prout advocates for creating consumer awareness to purchase only those goods and services that are local to a region and contribute to building a robust local economy. Laws must also be framed to incentivize local production and consumption.

In summary, Prout proposes policies based on these principles of decentralized economy.

  1. local control of economic planning
  2. production mainly for local consumption
  3. production and distribution managed by local cooperatives embedded within the community
  4. targeted hiring of local residents to achieve 100% employment in a socio-economic region
  5. the gradual elimination of all non-local products and services from local markets

Legislation tightly woven around principles of decentralization ensures outside forces like Amazon do not exploit local workers, local resources, and find loopholes in laws to make huge profits. Profits capitalist corporations make are almost never reinvested for the economic development of that region. Therefore, the goal of economic decentralization is to create a secure socio-economic environment, in which worker-owned cooperatives thrive without fear of behemoths like Amazon killing competition. As a result of this, self-reliant socio-economic regions capable of generating local employment opportunities and also guaranteeing better living conditions thrive.

In the current economic situation, it is hard to convince every customer to rethink their consumption patterns and make necessary lifestyle changes. While some have the privilege of making a conscious choice of being Amazon’s customer or not, others are left with little choice in this matter. It is true that Amazon’s efficient last-mile delivery caters to many hard-to-reach rural areas, and low costs of items help poorer families.

However, in a healthy decentralized economy with less inequality between rural and urban communities, between the rich and the poor, and with a greater consumer consciousness, local businesses and cooperatives will fulfill the role of Amazon. Exploitative corporations like Amazon will have no role to play in essential economic activities.

Amazon disingenuously offering “AmaZen” booths for mental and spiritual wellbeing of employees, while also destroying local economies that adversely affect our communities is one of the many diversionary tactics capitalists employ to masquerade as saviors. Amazon takes the logic of capitalism to its extreme by treating workers as mere robots or machines on an assembly line.

Low wages, physical injuries, abuse, and resultant impact on mental health are ingrained in Amazon’s efficiency-at-all-costs culture, and just building “Amazen” booths cannot offset this damage. For the sake of protection of workers, consumers, and businesses selling their goods on Amazon platform, governments must act quickly to implement practical legislation to curtail the power and peril of Amazon’s employment system.

Legislation will only serve to temporarily regulate Amazon and similar corporations, which have a notorious reputation for circumventing legislation and laws to serve their ulterior motives. Ultimately, a system that led to the emergence of such companies must be replaced with a system that embraces structural changes as proposed by Prout.

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