Amazon’s white-collar sweatshop

Amazon's workplace culture has come in for heavy criticism from The New York Times.


With September only a fortnight away, you may be away from your desk, soaking up the last of the summer sun. But even if you aren't, you might be able to console yourself, as you glance around a half-empty office, with this thought: at least you don't work at Amazon. A profile in the New York Times paints a picture of the internet giant as the white-collar equivalent of a sweatshop, even for senior staff. Employees are expected to "tear apart one another's ideas in meetings, toil long and late, and [are] held to standards that the company boasts are unreasonably high'".

Apparently, 85 hour weeks are typical. Backbiting is actively encouraged "the internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another's bosses". Naturally, all of this has led to a very high staff attrition rate, with one former employee claiming that "nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk".

It's easy to write this off as the behaviour of one company. And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has answered the expos by saying that he himself wouldn't work at the company it describes, and asking staff to "escalate" tales of callous management practices to him. However, The New York Times notes that the availability of data is encouraging some American firms to demand that employees account for every minute of their day.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

One firm selling electronic time sheets notes that an employee who arrives two minutes late and leaves two minutes early wastes time equivalent to "a few days' more vacation". Another technology firm found itself in legal hot water when it demanded that its staff use an electronic app that would enable their location to be monitored 24 hours a day.

Of course, no one likes clock-watchers or those who take long, liquid lunches. But still, one wonders when did things get so serious? After all, as Tim Harford points out in the FT, Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that by 2030 "we will all be working 15-hour weeks and wondering how to fill our time". Instead, while average working hours fell slightly between 1965 and 2005, "the best-educated and the highest earners, both menand women, have less free time than ever".

Harford has two explanations. One is that many of us enjoy working hard on something that feels worthwhile, or at least "aspire to such work". Perhaps that is true. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason is his second: that we are "trying to keep up not with the Joneses, but with our work colleagues".

Indeed, Dan Price, the chief executive of Seattle-based Gravity Payments, has seen his apparently noble decision to slash his own salary to allow him to pay a minimum wage of at least $70,000 a year backfire badly, because it destroyed the sense of internal hierarchy. One web developer who received a raise quit, because "people who were just clocking in and out were making the same as me". Perhaps we're only truly happy when others are more miserable than we are.

Tabloid money... Sky's wonderful for football England's players aren't

Uzbekistan Airways has decided to "weigh passengers with all their baggage, bodily and otherwise, at the departure gate", says Katie Hopkins in The Sun, turning away those who exceed the weight limit. It's not the first to come up with the idea Samoan Airlines has been doing it for years but it's perfectly sensible: "If you boarded a ferry you wouldn't expect to get charged the same price for a lorry as a car".

In fact, this principle should be extended further, "into the high street... we are happy to pay more for kids' clothes as they move into bigger sizes, so why doesn't that apply to adults too?" Since "fat people choose to internalise the contents of their fridge, it's time they internalised the cost of their overeating".

"After what happened to his mother, no royal has been given an easier ride by the paparazzi than Prince William," says Carole Malone in the Daily Mirror. Yet "he wants to control the world's media and stop them printing photographs of his children... If it's that much of a problem, he could give up royal life and try living on the £40k he earns as an air ambulance pilot".

There have been plenty of calls "to make Premier League clubs field more English players", says The Sun's Simon Jordan. But "the only reason foreign players are here is because English players are not good enough". And even when a domestic player, such as Raheem Sterling, for example, is nurtured and rises through the ranks, they leave England for a higher wage at the first opportunity. The only good news here is that the arms race of "overpaying players cannot go on forever".

While broadcasting giant Sky "has been wonderful for football", streaming piracy is growing. As a result, there will come a point where "the TV money men are no longer able or prepared" to pay the sorts of sums they do now for football broadcasting rights. "How is football going to sort that out when the average footballer is on £200,000 a week?"