Employees of Seattle-based online retailing giant Amazon portray the company as a white-collar sweatshop. | AP file photo

Amazon brings back the sweatshop: Steinberg

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Treating your employees like crap is not a new concept.

In fact, it’s very old. Peer into the past and you see it everywhere. The 12-hour day. The six-day workweek. Children in thread factories. Lose your hand in the spinning exposed gears? You’re fired, and the next guy takes your place.

Nor do we have to go back in time to find Dickensian conditions. The reason our stuff is made in China is because decent workplaces, which cost money, are scarce there. Workers packed into dormitories, nets under the windows to catch the suicides, factories belching pollution. No pesky EPA there, and the fact that 4,000 Chinese citizens die of air pollution-related illnesses every day, well, there’s plenty more.

How do we compete with that?


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We used to fancy we’d be smarter, more productive, more innovative. That was a decade ago; we seem to have given up that dream.

Now the plan is to compete by emulating them. We’ll work all the time too, embracing an insane Horatio Alger pluck and luck and email ethic. There is always an element of America who wants to imitate our foes. In the 1950s, that meant instilling the same thought-police, loyalty-oath fear tactics that we decried in the Soviet Union. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now we’re going to out-hustle China.

I’m writing this in the aftermath of reading a lengthy, jaw-dropping exploration of the corporate culture of Amazon that ran in the New York Times.They spoke with more than 100 employees, past and present, of the Seattle-based online retailing giant, and portray a white-collar sweatshop where a set percentage of employees are fired each year on general principles. Where failing to answer a midnight email is unacceptable, and employees unfortunate enough to contract cancer or have children can find themselves shunted toward the exits for being insufficiently committed.

And like Communist China, it works great on one level. Amazon is worth a quarter-trillion dollars. Founder Jeff Bezos is the fifth wealthiest man on Earth, with 188,000 employees working like plow horses to make him fourth richest.

But on another level, the notion that employees should have full, rounded lives, with hobbies and families and relaxation, it’s a failure.

Their entire philosophy seems to be that the customer is king. The assumption being that all customers want is to get their “Minions” DVDs delivered in 20 minutes, by drone if possible. But customers also care, maybe a little, about where the stuff they buy comes from. And as much a disincentive it is to buy books on Amazon, knowing how it has been chewing up publishing, it’s even more off-putting to realize you’re supporting a dehumanizing hive.

But not that off-putting. Amazon will not suffer much from a story in the Times. Horrid conditions in China might make us shake our heads, but we still buy their khakis.

Why? Maybe somewhere we lost our humanity. Maybe decent work environments were a phase, a mid-20th century American fad, and now we are reverting to form. The philosophical groundwork is certainly being laid. Politicians used to paint themselves as the workers’ friend. Now a truly loathsome billionaire like Donald Trump can be the darling of the party of Lincoln, just because he promises to bring his secret rich guy knowledge to the table. Scott Walker is running on his success at crippling public unions in Wisconsin, and Bruce Rauner is aping him. We went from a society that asked itself why teachers don’t get paid like athletes do to a society that wonders why teachers get paid so much and tries to see that it stops in the name of economy.

Reading the Amazon story, I uttered a silent thanks for the career I’ve had. A good union salary to do work I love for tolerable management. Now people line up to do that work for free under the dubious proposition that making Arianna Huffington rich will rebound well to them in some nebulous fashion.

Our only hope is that working for free, like abusing workers, is an untenable business model in the long run. You can dupe people for a while. But they don’t like being unpaid drones. No dogma of well-polished MBA phrases hides that forever, and so coercive ideologies, whether communism or our current technology stoked wealth worship, won’t prevail. People are not that stupid. At least I hope they’re not that stupid. Donald Trump is still topping the polls.

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