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Sahan Journal publishes stories about Minnesota’s communities of color you won’t find anywhere else.
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This is my story about how Amazon dehumanizes its workers for the sake of profit. The biggest Amazon fulfillment center in the state is the Shakopee warehouse: In company language, it’s called “MSP1.” When Amazon hired me and more than 50 other people in 2016, we joined over a thousand people already working there.
My first day was very exciting because I was really happy I got my first job in the United States. When I started at Amazon, I was 22 years old and had lived in the U.S. for just three months. I was a newcomer. My family members knew some people who worked there and that is how I found out about the job and ended up there. I didn’t have any family or friends working at MSP1, but after I started, I made a lot of friends.
The Amazon trainers gave us a tour of the building and made us feel like everything would be a piece of cake (though that didn’t turn out to be true at all). The supervisors only explained the job on the surface: They showed us how to hold the scanner and scan the items, put the items into the bin and then follow the process.
It was too much information to consume and to digest. It was so hard to understand all the processes in just three days—especially considering it was communicated entirely in English, even to the newcomers. I felt misled by the training: Amazon didn’t tell us what the consequences would be if we made errors or couldn’t meet their productivity-rate expectations afterward. Still, after this brief and dismally inadequate training, I was on my own.
I was hired as a full-time employee, a “stower” in Amazon terms, which meant I was working on my feet for four 10-hour shifts a week. My station contained a conveyor belt, bins, and a computer. Boxes would come down the conveyor belt and I would be required to open the box and sort all the items in the box to the appropriate bins. When the bins were full, the robot would take the bins away and bring brand new ones to you.
You need to adapt to constantly changing bins and items. Workers are constantly being timed on their work, and any break (going to the bathroom, taking a drink of water, praying) is considered a TOT (time off task). The restroom was at least a five-minute walk away. The floor is 14 football fields long.
Amazon rates you every single minute of every single day and every single week. Workers get rated based on how fast they sort the items or fulfill an order. Any time off task is deducted from your average work rate.
After only one week, my supervisor informed me I had to improve or ultimately be fired. My productivity was low; I was slow and made mistakes. This was a shocking surprise. There was no way I could improve without help.
I became so stressed and anxious, I couldn’t sleep at night. After an agonizing week of hard work and sleepless nights, my supervisor pressured me into signing a write-up. The write-up is a warning: If I received three warnings, I would be fired. I was new to the country, new to English, and I was dying inside. I was standing 10-plus hours a day, lifting 50-pound items. I was exhausted physically and mentally.
Yet, I was told that I wasn’t working hard enough. The only option was to meet their expectations 100 percent of the time or be terminated.
I was having trouble meeting the quota of moving more than 260 units per hour (a unit means an item) and 2,600 units for every 10-hour shift. If I made more than one error during this time, I would be in trouble. Just imagine, how could a human being who has been employed at Amazon for less than a month do all that?
The computer never stops tracking you
Amazon did not provide any helpful coaching to improve my performance, but my coworkers did. These coworkers were girls I became friends with after I started. They had the same difficulties with the demands of the job as I did. The coworkers always support each other at Amazon and if you are new to the job they give you some hints to help you improve. They see a coworker or a good friend getting unfairly fired every day. They help each other cope with the situation.
There were a lot of Somali workers and a few other East African workers, too. But at that time, most of the managers were white and did not know how to communicate with employees who had limited English. It was only with the advice of coworkers and friends that I was able to keep the job I needed for survival. My life here was dependent on my earnings. I also had to provide money for my family back home.
The human managers were only part of the problem. On a typical day, you’d log into the computer and scan your badge ID. Then it connected you to the computers that the managers have, so they can see your performance from their computers. For example, they can see how many minutes you might be away from the station if you use the restroom, or if you send a wrong item. The computer also tracked how many items you sent an hour. Fall short? You’d get another warning.
Going to sleep hungry, waking up with nightmares
I found the computer was constantly monitoring my rate and movement. If I spent too much time off task, the computer knew. Keeping hydrated and using the restroom were considered time off tasks, so I did neither for my 10-hour shifts.
Not only was I dehydrated and exhausted, I was denied the opportunity to follow my daily prayer rituals. That was another time off task problem. We had requested prayer spaces and time to perform our required prayers. Nowadays, as a result of our organized and prolonged struggle, employees have time for three out of the five required prayers, but last I heard, there is no prayer space yet.
After my shift, I couldn’t even cook for myself. I barely had the energy to take a shower and often went to bed with an empty stomach. I had nightmares about getting fired, disrupting the little sleep I was getting. They treated me and every other warehouse worker like a machine, not a human.
At Amazon, every employee has to prove her or himself every single day in order to survive. Employees don’t quit because most of them are new immigrants and are just trying to survive in a country they don’t entirely understand.
Immigrants, like me who are new to the country, are more vulnerable at Amazon because the managers know you aren’t going to speak up when your rights are violated. They know you don’t have easy access to resources like information about employees rights, or where to seek help, or communicating with HR.
Even though the new immigrant employees face difficulties, they stay quiet because of the language barrier. I wondered if Amazon doesn’t want to employ supervisors or translators who can communicate with employees who have limited English.
I felt like employees of color were often treated unfairly. It seemed to me like others got the opportunities to level up and go to higher positions. Amazon assumes we don’t know our rights under the law as employees. They assume that we are not going to say anything when they mistreat us and they take advantage of that.
I had been working at Amazon for two-and-a-half years. When I quit I was 24. I’d found a better workplace: a job that treated me like a human being, not like a machine.
To be honest, Amazon always has been oppressive and still is. My mood changes whenever I think about how cruel Amazon is toward its own workers. I was providing for my family and I was also providing for myself. That’s why it was impossible for me to quit early on.
To maximize its profits, Amazon demands unreasonable quotas from the fulfillment employees in its warehouses and delivery trucks. I felt like employees’ health and wellbeing are continually jeopardized by the ridiculous standards. My close friends are still working at Amazon and they tell me they’re still facing the same difficulties. This should be unacceptable to everyone.
I think we should address the real issues that are happening at Amazon warehouses. Let us investigate the situation that former workers and current workers are telling us every day. Let us listen to their stories and experiences and let us not ignore the reality. Everybody should pay attention: customers, readers, leaders, and especially people who fight for workers’ rights. I believe it’s everybody’s job to honor human dignity and human rights, which Jeff Bezos fails to do.
I wish workers were more united and had energy to fight for a better workplace together in order to pave the way for the next employees. If we don’t do that it’s going to stay the same forever. And we’ll fail the incoming workers who are often newcomers like I was: completely vulnerable and unfamiliar with what is acceptable in the workplace.
Amazon shoppers, have you ever wondered how your order is delivered at your doorstep within mere hours? Just think twice because these items are not picked, packed, shipped, and delivered by robots, but by human beings just like you!