Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

More on the workplace culture exemplified by Amazon

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The Onion has a good headline: “Jeff Bezos Assures Amazon Employees That HR Working 100 Hours A Week To Address Their Complaints.”

But the problem of excessive demands—i.e., exploitation of the workforce—is serious. And, as Tim Wu points out in an interesting piece in the New Yorker, it is not necessarily due to individuals in charge. The entire article is worth reading, but let me quote just his conclusions:

. . . What all of these explanations [for the excessive demands of the modern workplace] have in common is the idea that the answer comes from examining workers’ decisions and incentives. There’s something missing: the question of whether the American system, by its nature, resists the possibility of too much leisure, even if that’s what people actually want, and even if they have the means to achieve it. In other words, the long hours may be neither the product of what we really want nor the oppression of workers by the ruling class, the old Marxist theory. They may be the byproduct of systems and institutions that have taken on lives of their own and serve no one’s interests. That can happen if some industries have simply become giant make-work projects that trap everyone within them.

What counts as work, in the skilled trades, has some intrinsic limits; once a house or bridge is built, that’s the end of it. But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs. Consider the litigation system, in which the hours worked by lawyers at large law firms are a common complaint. If dispute resolution is the social function of the law, what we have is far from the most efficient way to reach fair or reasonable resolutions. Instead, modern litigation can be understood as a massive, socially unnecessary arms race, wherein lawyers subject each other to torturous amounts of labor just because they can. In older times, the limits of technology and a kind of professionalism created a natural limit to such arms races, but today neither side can stand down, lest it put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

A typical analysis blames greedy partners for crazy hours, but the irony is that the people at the top are often as unhappy and overworked as those at the bottom: it is a system that serves almost no one. Moreover, our many improvements in the technologies of productivity make the arms-race problem worse. The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.

Litigation may be an extreme example, but I do not doubt that many other industries have their own arms races that create work that is of dubious necessity. The antidote is simple to prescribe but hard to achieve: it is a return to the goal of efficiency in work—fulfilling whatever needs we have, as a society, with the minimal effort required, while leaving the option of more work as a hobby for those who happen to love it. In this respect, it seems like no little irony that Amazon should be a brutal workplace when its ostensible guiding principle is making people’s lives better. There must be a better way.

In a situation such as this, a government that is by, for, and of the people and is focused on the general welfare can play a role. While no single company can afford to slack up because of competitive pressure, the government can set (and enforce—important aspect) ground rules that protect workers and level the playing field for all companies. For example, enforcing a 40-hour work week for all employees would enable companies to give their workforce time for family, rest, and activities other than work.

As an example of how this works, automobile manufacturers are required to meet certain safety standards by law. Without such laws, there would be a race to the bottom as companies cut costs by jettisoning the safety measures built into their cars. (You can see that they would by noting how strenuously and vigorously the automobile industry has fought the introduction of each safety requirement: if it were left up to them, they would never incorporate such measures for fear that their competitors would undercut them on price by having lower costs. But a law requiring the observance of such safety standards takes off the table the option of ignoring the standards, so no one can get a competitive advantage by ignoring safety.

Because of the nature of the system, however, the change probably must be imposed from without, since the companies have entered a trap from which they cannot otherwise escape.

Written by Leisureguy

22 August 2015 at 12:08 pm

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