Recently, Amazon announced that they would be increasing their minimum wage to 17 dollars per hour for all of their U.S. workers. This decision brought instant media attention, as it represented a rare victory for the “Fight for $15,” a movement started by workers in 2012. However, while this decision from Amazon is definitely a step in the right direction, the narratives surrounding this development are very indicative of the low standards our society has set for major businesses.
Amazon’s sudden change came among calls for serious reforms of warehouse working conditions. Reports of employees having to skip bathroom breaks and urinate in trash cans plagued Amazon’s image in the news cycle, bringing national negative attention to the company. Additional horror stories from the warehouses included a disciplinary point system that determined when someone could be fired, which penalized employees for calling in sick or working too slowly. Furthermore, Bernie Sanders began making criticisms that targeted the company for the large percentage of their employees who rely on state-funded welfare programs like SNAP. Sanders even introduced the Stop BEZOS Act as a symbolic attempt to hold companies like Amazon responsible for the well-being of its employees.
After the recent minimum wage raise, much of the coverage shifted to discuss the new benefits received by employees. Articles repeatedly quoted Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, claiming to lead the charge of the worker’s rights movement: “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do and decided we want to lead.” Yet all of this coverage tended to ignore the previously-mentioned outrageous conditions employees suffered, and Amazon did not address any conditions besides wages in their statement. In fact, in an interview with Mic, Jay Carney, senior vice president at Amazon dismissed the issue: “The workplace conditions are something we’re very proud of. You know, not every job is for everyone.”
I would argue that Amazon deserves no applause for their decision to increase wages for their employees. First of all, it is clear that they are not taking all of the issues that employees have been reporting seriously. Simply increasing the wages while dismissing the numerous reports of stressful and sometimes inhumane working conditions completely contradicts the message that Amazon is trying to become a “leader” in workers’ rights.
Furthermore, the narrative of Amazon supposedly leading the fight for livable wages glosses over the years of struggle suffered by activists in the “Fight for $15” movement. In this version of reality, Amazon appears as the generous hero swooping in to grant their employees bountiful wages rather than submitting to the demands of people who work full-time and would like to be treated as such. Sure, Amazon is right to be using their immense sway to join in on the fight for an increased minimum wage, but they should not act as though it was their idea all along. This demand is not a new one, and all Amazon has done is help correct something that should not have been a problem in the first place.
Additionally, we should not fool ourselves into believing that Amazon is making this change simply out of the kindness of their collective corporate heart. Their public image has suffered hit after hit for months, and if they had truly wanted to lead so badly, they probably would have chosen to do so after the first couple of reports. Instead, their announcement to raise their minimum wage comes at a convenient time before they begin recruiting approximately 100,000 seasonal employees for the holidays and before they announce their new headquarters’ location. In a single wage hike, Amazon has made a mostly successful recovery of their public image just before two massive make-or-break business moves, making it extremely evident that Amazon has its own reasons to suddenly gain a passion for workers’ rights activism.
Amazon’s decision to make their minimum wage is, without question, a good change with massive benefits. We as a society should, however, be able to scrutinize such decisions more thoroughly and figure out how they could be doing even better. Hold these massive corporations to a higher standard and refuse to be satisfied when they only fix one of their numerous problems. In many cases, these companies are well-designed to maximize the exploitation of their workers, even when they decide to take short-term sacrifices such as a minimum wage raise. If we look past all the big inspirational talk, I think we’ll find that many employers are just looking to survive the political fallout and quietly continue their most harmful practices.