The Ethics of Buying from Amazon

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Image description: An Amazon warehouse 

We have all heard horror stories of how warehouse employees are treated in Amazon – the insanely short lunches, the deprivation of human contact, and the stringent bathroom breaks, just to name a few. This is terrible, but the solution is not to stop buying from Amazon. Rather, it is to be solved by public pressure onto Amazon, as well as increased pressure on the government to tighten legislation on the treatment of its employees.

Some argue that by buying from Amazon, we are directly complicit in perpetuating the suffering and maltreatment of its employees. Indeed, Amazon does treat its employees very harshly. One particular story that struck me was employees being forced to pee in bottles or completely forego their bathroom breaks because fulfilment demands were too high. This is definitely a terrible problem that has to be rectified. However, it is unclear that this so-called exploitation is as bad as it appears. The upsetting reality is that there are a lack of jobs, let alone decent jobs in the job market. The fact that Amazon workers choose to work there even under bad conditions means that the alternative, i.e. being unemployed or getting a worse-paid job, is worse. Even in the best-case scenario where we could get rid of jobs with such bad working conditions, this will not necessarily improve the lives of people currently working in Amazon.

In addition, stopping our purchase of Amazon products is unlikely to change anything. Firstly, there is a collective action problem – even if you personally stop purchasing from Amazon, other people are still likely to continue, creating very little change. Secondly, boycotts have historically been quite ineffective. There are countless examples of this – the boycott of Facebook, for instance, after the Cambridge Analytica and data scandal, was a failure even though many people participated. This is because the products or services of these large tech companies are too pervasive to stop using. Hence a boycott of Amazon is very unlikely to succeed or create any change.

It is intuitively wrong to impose a stringent moral code on students living on a small loan.

Others argue that Jeff Bezos is ridiculously rich as a result of us buying from Amazon, and that this accumulation of wealth is unjustified. However, this is an unfortunate by-product of capitalism. We want his products and are willing to pay for it, because Amazon brings a lot of convenience and choice for us that cannot be replicated by other companies. As a result, Bezos gets filthy rich. To deal with the excesses of capitalism, the government and legislators should step in, regulate, and redistribute the profits. The U.S. government could, for example, enact a minimum tax rate on large companies across the whole country to prevent Amazon from exploiting tax differences between states and paying basically nothing. The amount of money Bezos is receiving hence should not be an argument against buying from Amazon.

In addition, many of us are students who are living on tight budgets. It’s all well and good saying richer individuals have a moral obligation to purchase fair trade products and avoid enriching large corporations – but most of us just can’t afford that for all our purchases. It is intuitively wrong to impose a stringent moral code on students living on a small loan.

For the problematic workplace culture enforced by Amazon, there are more effective ways to deal with that. One solution is public pressure – the stories we hear about bathroom breaks, for example, can inspire collective action. This looks like increased legislation and pressure on the government through voting and expressing keen interest on the treatment of such employees. Even though many governments (especially the American government) are beholden to lobbyists, the way big corporations get their way is because they have very specific issues that the general public doesn’t care enough about to vote on. If there is concentrated enough interest, the government would always prioritise voters and enact some change.

The upsetting reality is that there are a lack of jobs, let alone decent jobs in the job market.

Amazon does treat its employees badly, and there is definitely much to be improved upon. However, it has undeniably brought us a lot of convenience, with a vast array of products at the tip of our fingers and next-day delivery for those of us who are procrastinators. To change Amazon’s work practices, the solution isn’t to stop buying its products. Rather, we should sign open letters, retweet videos and stories of the maltreatment of employees, and make the government recognise this to be an issue voters care deeply about. This should be our most important role as students.

Image credit: Scottish Government, CreativeCommons