Amazon Says, Let the Employees Sweat -- and the DVDs, Too

Last Updated Sep 29, 2011 3:30 PM EDT

Amazon has already attracted labor controversy aplenty with its "no taxation with jobs representation" stance. The company continues to pull operations and jobs out of states that demand it collect sales tax. Now it's got another labor PR problem that looks like it might stick around: alleged abusive employment conditions in an Amazon Pennsylvania warehouse.

You can understand that a company might want to run lean. But according to the report from a Pennsylvania newspaper, The Morning Call, "mean" might be closer to the mark. It's almost as though CEO Jeff Bezos, in his quest to dominate and control the business, decided that he needed a Scrooge makeover.

Unhappy campers
The paper spoke with 20 current and former employees at the warehouse who described brutally hot conditions, an unreasonably driving work pace and frequent threats of job loss. Many warehouse workers are apparently employed on a temporary basis, so they presumably don't quality for benefits.

Much of the focus has been on the lack of air conditioning in some of Amazon's warehouses and, in particular, the 100 degree-plus temperatures allegedly experienced at the Pennsylvania facility:
Working conditions at the warehouse got worse earlier this year, especially during summer heat waves when heat in the warehouse soared above 100 degrees, he said. [Former employee Elmer Goris] got light-headed, he said, and his legs cramped, symptoms he never experienced in previous warehouse jobs. One hot day, Goris said, he saw a co-worker pass out at the water fountain. On other hot days, he saw paramedics bring people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers.
Apparently it isn't just one person's fancy, as the paper noted that an emergency room doctor who'd seen multiple Amazon warehouse employees with heat-related conditions had contacted federal regulators.

Meltdown time
And then Amazon had to admit the problem, saying that it was going to install air conditioning, even though "not mandated by any governmental agency, and in fact air conditioning remains an unusual practice in warehouses."

Nothing like saying you'll fix a problem and, at the same time, complain about having to. You'd think that Amazon would at least want to keep temperatures under control for the sake of the DVDs and CDs that it warehouses and sells. Then again, those little disks are rated for 131 degrees at the high end. If they can take it, so can the people, right? Though elevated heat can shorten life span. Oh, well, the world is moving to downloaded media anyway.

Locate foot, shoot at will
Seriously, how much effort does it take in this country to develop a true sweatshop reputation? Companies like Apple (AAPL), Dell, and HP (HPQ) had to outsource to China to pull that off.

How much is Amazon really saving in the big picture? What does it really get from frenetically driving people? It had better be a lot, because something like this can become a public relations black eye that can bruise a company's reputation for years.

Related: Image: morgueFile user dmscs, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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