TUMBY BAY - It seems that slavery is alive and well in the USA and is being perpetuated by one of the richest men in the world. He is Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon.
What began as Bezos’s innovative online bookstore in July 1995, which later assisted writers publish and distribute books, has morphed into a monstrous retail operation that is trampling all in its path, including its own workers.
Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in his garage at Bellevue in Washington State with big ideas that extended well beyond selling books. Amazon now sells more than 12 million products, not including books.
And it has made Bezos the second richest man in the world with a wealth of nearly $200 billion. Tesla’s Elon Musk just overtook him by a billion dollars this week.
But the people who work in Bezos’s businesses do much worse.
Typically, workers in one of Amazon’s huge warehouses, or ‘fulfilment centres’ in corporate-speak, spend 10 hours a day on their feet tending to an assembly line that spits out packages for delivery once every 11 seconds.
Workers are not allowed to use their phones, they are discouraged from chatting to co-workers and are monitored every second they are there.
They are permitted two breaks of 30 minutes in 10 hours. If they need to go to the toilet the time is deducted from their 10 hours. If they do it too often they can be fired by text message.
A high proportion of Amazon’s warehouse employees are African Americans and Latinos who work for poverty level pay. It is not a surprise that worker turnover is very high.
One employee recently described the conditions as "like a slave camp." Another said workers were treated like robots.
Amazon can afford to pay its workers better wages and it can afford to provide them with better working conditions but is refusing to do so.
In one of Amazon’s fulfilment centres, employees are attempting to organise themselves into a union but Amazon is strenuously resisting.
I think we all know of the appalling conditions in Asian sweatshops in places like Bangladesh but it is a surprise to see the same in the USA, especially in a company often praised for its progressive ideas.
Large companies like Nike which also used sweatshops changed to sourcing products from ethical manufacturers after being strongly criticised.
But, so far, Amazon has not changed its behaviour. It is time it did.
I suspect that for many writers the continued use of Amazon as their publisher and distributor has now become an ethical issue.
Fortunately, there are many print-on-demand publishers in Australia which have developed similar formats to Amazon.
And some of them are prepared to work with writers in Papua New Guinea.
The downsides are that they are more expensive than Amazon and that they don’t have its massive distribution advantages.
So if you are disturbed by Amazon’s treatment of its workers, the question arises whether you’re prepared to pay a higher price for a service with fewer advantages.
At the moment it is wait and see. If the push for unionisation in Amazon succeeds, well and good.
If it fails, it is crunch time for anyone with an ethical approach to life.
Or technology may come to our assistance as other innovative people develop faster, cheaper more convenient ways of publishing and distributing books.