Amazon's Dirty Secret: A Sweat Shop in Pennsylvania

Last Updated Sep 30, 2011 12:53 PM EDT

The most recent order I placed on Amazon was for birthday gifts. A paper airplane kit, a book, a Paper Jamz guitar, plus a few other random items the family needs. But that order might have been my last.

Two weeks ago our hometown paper, the Allentown Morning Call, reported on working conditions inside a local Amazon warehouse about 10 miles away.

The story, exhaustively reported after interviews with 20 former and current workers, was a damning exposé of Amazon's practices. It's well worth a read. Here are two of the most disturbing allegations:
  • Temperatures in the warehouse soared this summer, with the heat index at times topping 110 degrees. Employees interviewed by the paper said the company wouldn't allow the warehouse doors to be opened to improve circulation. Ambulances waited outside the warehouse to treat workers who passed out. An emergency room doctor reported unsafe conditions to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration after he treated several employees for heat-related illnesses.
  • Workers were reprimanded or fired if their productivity dropped. One "picker," a worker who gathers items for outgoing orders, was a man in his 50s, crawling on his hand and knees in the heat to find items. He had to "pick" 1,200 items in a ten-hour shift, which works out to one item every 30 seconds.
Sounds like a sweatshop to me -- although Amazon did not return my call for comment.

For years, Amazon has made our family run a little more smoothly. I've purchased dog food and socks and face cream from Amazon. We've used the site for birthday gifts, holiday shopping, comparison shopping, review reading. I wrote a book that came out in March, and almost daily I track its sales there. For a mom who hates errands in the car, Amazon is a godsend. It even participates in the gift card program that my daughter's school uses as a fundraiser.

But the thought of my neighbors here in the Lehigh Valley crawling around on the floor in a sweltering warehouse, plucking items from bins to fulfill my order, haunts me.

What's a conscientious, time-strapped shopper to do? Support local stores, where they exist. Plan ahead a little better, I suppose, so I'm not relying on Amazon's fast delivery. Swap, reuse, regift. Buy less altogether.

It's going to take some practice to wean myself off Amazon. The response from the company to the Morning Call's article was far from satisfying. I'd like to see Jeff Bezos be a picker and see how many items he can grab in a 10-hour day. But it will be a cold day in a warehouse in Pennsylvania before that happens.

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