The Guardian’s Take on Amazon Stores: Benefiting Society, Not Just Consumers | Editorial
WWhat Amazon is doing today, its competitors seem to be doing tomorrow. This is why the arrival of Amazon’s futuristic stores is both disturbing and important. The company’s new grocery stores are doing away with cashiers and using a Big Brother-style camera surveillance system that allows customers who swipe an app in and out with their purchases. An invoice is calculated and the cash is automatically debited. Rivals don’t wait to be left behind. Tesco and Aldi are testing similar technology. The market is a rich target: £ 180bn was spent on UK grocery stores in 2020, a 7% increase from 2019.
Already Britain’s largest online retailer, Amazon is also one of the UK’s largest digital streaming and cloud services companies. By aggregating millions of data points, Amazon’s algorithms can extract information about consumption, transportation, and work activities. These are then used to target the right consumers at the right time and to pursue changes in the workplace that increase productivity. In this way, Amazon dominates the markets while keeping the customers satisfied. But at what cost to society?
The company is accused of sucking sales off the main streets of Britain and threatening to automate the disappearance of workers. Its UK division does not recognize unions. Of the UK’s 3 million retail workers, around a tenth are union members. As Amazon expands its stores, that proportion is likely to decline further, reducing the bargaining power of retail workers. Last year, 54 retailers collapsed, affecting 5,200 stores and 109,000 jobs. Covid has also accelerated the shift to online shopping. The web accounts for about a third of all retail sales, up from 20% before the pandemic. Amazon’s new department store is capitalizing on this trend by offering products at lower prices to buyers who are already Amazon’s online customers.
With a workforce of 55,000, Amazon now employs more people in the UK than household names like Barclays Bank, Vodafone and GlaxoSmithKline. Many of these jobs are found in Amazon UK Services, the group’s warehouse and logistics operations. It only paid £ 18.3million in corporate tax on division profits of £ 128million in 2020, an effective tax rate of around 14%.
Amazon is smuggling into the UK economy a form of low-tax, lightly regulated work intensification where staff are tracked to ensure they are meeting specific goals. It says more about the decrepit state of the care industry than Amazon’s warehouses that workers choose the latter over the former.
Last year, a Union Congress report described 10-hour shifts in Amazon warehouses, with 300 items picked and packed every hour, and workers sacked for not keeping up. The company’s new CEO said Amazon could do more to treat workers better. Perhaps he could support the call by Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, to unionize the company’s UK warehouses? Amazon signs agreements with unions in Europe. The government’s promised jobs bill could help. It is expected to embrace the Labor idea for collective agreements between unions and employer groups that set a floor on wages and conditions in a sector. The TUC said it would take 294 hours for Amazon warehouse workers outside of London to match what company founder Jeff Bezos earns per second. If this isn’t a sign of a faulty system that needs urgent repair, then it’s hard to know what it is.