Development Crossing

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

Interesting article in Forbes about working conditions in the US. China at your doorstep. After Apple and Foxconn, obviously the topic got pushed again to the front-page. In the magazine Mother Jones piece, reporter Mac McClelland takes a job in one of the large fulfillment centers for online retailers like Amazon, Staples, Sears, Zappos, Best Buy, and, yes, computer companies like Apple and Dell. She doesn’t announce herself as a journalist, but she uses her real name and job history. She and her editors decide she will blur the details of her employer and location, but be specific about the work schedule and the challenges of the job.

McClelland is required to work ten and twelve hour days, repeating tasks in a cold, cavernous warehouse where talking is not allowed and there is constant pressure to move more quickly to fill orders. To be sure, this is not as bad as a 14-hour day in a Chinese factory, and McClelland gets paid “elevensomething dollars an hour” and overtime for hours she works past eight, but as she describes it, the work is mind-numbing, grueling and soul-sapping.

It’s also a growing source of employment for desperate, out-of work Americans. As online commerce steadily grows by at least 10% a year, these packing and shipping warehouses are expanding and hiring. Some are owned and operated by the retailers themselves and others, by third-party logistics contractors, known as 3PLs.

McClelland meets so-called Workampers, who travel from temporary job to temporary job, living in an RV. She interviews a retiree who says he and his wife can’t survive without working, and this is the only job they can get.

Another revealing fact: Many fulfillment center workers are employed by temporary staffing agencies, which don’t provide health care because the workers are short-term “contractors.” The staffing agencies also do not give raises or vacations, and they pay temps around $3 an hour less than permanent workers.

The warehouse enforces rules with iron inflexibility. During the first week of training, it fires workers who are one minute late. One new hire takes a day off because his wife has a baby, and the company fires him, and requires him to re-apply and start his training from the start. Workers are responsible for their own safety on the factory floor, which is uneven in spots, causing employees to trip and sprain ankles. Conveyor belts catch hair and fingers.

McClelland gets two 15-minute breaks during her 10.5-hour shift, and a 29-minute, 59-second lunch break. Supervisors remind workers “Lunch is not 30 minutes and one second.” One day, McClelland picks books, and the static electricity generated in the cold zaps her every time she touches one. She writes that the company that runs the warehouse estimates that pickers cover an average of 12 miles a day. Full story @Forbes.

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