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Insecurity All the Way Down: How Our Economic Order Functions For Too Many People

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A terrific piece by Dave Jamieson, observing that life even in non-sweatshop conditions in the freelance American economy are pretty appalling:

In the years since Amazon became the symbol of the online retail economy, horror stories have periodically emerged about the conditions at its warehouses—workers faced with near-impossible targets, people dropping on the job from heat or extreme fatigue. This isn’t one of those stories. Jobs at Amazon are physically demanding and the expectations can be high, but the company’s fulfillment centers are not sweatshops. In late September, I visited the Chester warehouse for an hour-long guided tour. Employees were working at a speed that seemed brisk yet reasonable. There were no idle moments, but no signs of exhaustion, either.

At the same time, we are living in an era of maximum productivity. It has never been easier for employers to track the performance of workers and discard those who don’t meet their needs. This applies to employees at every level, from warehouse grunts to white-collar workers like those at Amazon headquarters who were recently the subject of a much-discussed New York Times piece about the company’s brutally competitive corporate culture. The difference is that people like Jeff don’t have the option of moving to Google, Microsoft or a tech startup eager to poach managers and engineers with Amazon on their resume.

When it comes to low-wage positions, companies like Amazon are now able to precisely calibrate the size of its workforce to meet consumer demand, week by week or even day by day. Amazon, for instance, says it has 90,000 full-time U.S. employees at its fulfillment and sorting centers—but it plans to bring on an estimated 100,000 seasonal workers to help handle this year’s peak. Many of these seasonal hires come through Integrity Staffing Solutions, a Delaware-based temp firm. The company’s website recently listed 22 corporate offices throughout the country, 15 of which were recruiting offices for Amazon fulfillment centers, including the one in Chester.

This system isn’t unique to Amazon—it pervades the U.S. retail supply chain. Many companies choose to outsource shipping work to so-called third-party logistics providers, which in turn contract the work to staffing companies. At some of Walmart’s critical logistics hubs, multiple temp agencies may be providing workers under the same roof. The temp model also extends far beyond retail. The housekeeper who cleans your room at a Hyatt hotel may not work for Hyatt, but for a temp firm you’ve never heard of, for less money and fewer benefits than a direct hire. “It’s the standard operating model,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The entire service economy is based on this kind of hyper-flexibility. If you don’t have it, it sends costs way up.”

Freddie’s discussion of Michelle Goldberg’s terrific piece about the dismal economic lot of yoga instructors is also on point here.

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