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10 Facts Retailers Don’t Want You to Know About Online Shopping

November 26, 2012

This article is re-posted from ZNet.

When the news covers Cyber Monday every year, the focus is on sales and consumer spending – not the real cost to the workers who deliver all of those orders. The whole system is built on unsafe, low-paying, temporary jobs. Workers in U.S. shipping centers and warehouses that fulfill online orders for major retailers like and Walmart are subject to dangerous, sweatshop-like working conditions. These workers are consistently asked to work at unreasonable and backbreaking speeds, but they endure the pain because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. Get the real deal on online shipping:

1. Backbreaking pace of work: Workers in shipping centers who fulfill online orders are asked to grab items for boxes at unsustainably high speeds. In many cases, workers are required to collect 1,200 items in a 10-hour shift, or one item every 30 seconds.i If employees can’t keep up, they are disciplined or fired.

2. Marathon walking: Workers have to continuously cross great distances inside the massive warehouses. “Pickers,” who locate and collect items for shipping, reportedly walk on average between 12ii and 15iii miles every shift. Despite some items being football fields apart iv, workers are expected to maintain the same frenzied pace.

3. Extreme temperatures: Temperatures in warehouses are often extreme – either way too hot (120 degrees!v) or too cold. The warehouses can become literal sweatshops. Rather than slow the pace of work or provide air conditioning, last year Amazon executives arranged for paramedics to wait in ambulances outside its warehouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to treat all of the workers suffering from dehydration or heat

4. Physical injuries: With a frenzied work pace, repetitive heavy lifting, constant walking, and extreme temperatures, many workers report being injured on the job.viiviii ix Many workers last less than six months at the job because of the grueling physical demands.x

5. Contractor curtain: Sweatshop shipping is such a secret now because many online retailers have grown adept at distancing themselves from the problem by hiding behind a “contractor curtain.” Retailers use a dizzying number of contract and temporary firms to hire employees to fulfill their orders – removing themselves from the responsibility of maintaining safe conditions on the job.xi

6. Expendable employment: Temporary employees at online warehouses lack job security because they are employed in an industry that thrives on disposable labor. New workers cost less than long-time employees, and often warehouses fire staff after only a few months. The high firing rate ensures no one knows how long his or her job will last.xii

7. Low wages: Temporary workers in warehouses on average make $3 less an hour than the permanent employees doing the same work.xiii Less than four percent of online warehouse workers in Illinois have health insurance. Sixty-two percent of these workers earn below the federal poverty line. More than one-third of them have to work a second job to pay the bills.xiv

8. Taxpayers forced to foot the bill: Without adequate wages and benefits, one in four workers requires government assistance, such as food stamps or welfare.xv As a result of online retailers not paying warehouse workers enough to make basic ends meet, taxpayers are forced to cover the difference.

9. No voice on the job: Today, workers face sizable obstacles and intimidation from their employer if they try to organize a union to improve working conditions on the job. Due to outdated labor law, temporary warehouse workers face the unrealistic challenge of organizing and overcoming resistance from both the retailer and the temp agency. Given the odds, temporary workers have little to no voice on the job and are extremely vulnerable to retaliation when they speak out.xvi

10. Wage theft: Many warehouse employees are paid on a “piece rate,” or paid per item rather than per hour. While the piece rate results in inconsistent paychecks for workers, it also leads to illegal wage theft as employers exploit workers, taxpayers, and competitors who play by the rules by paying less than minimum wage requirements, failing to pay workers proper overtime, and failing to pay adequate employment taxes. At a warehouse in Riverside, California, one employer racked up nearly half a million dollars in fines for failing to provide itemized wage statements to its employees.xvii

We can stop sweatshop shipping. Online retail is driven by customer demand for discount goods delivered within a day or two. We have to tell these retailers what we do want and will pay for: products from companies that deliver on good jobs by…

  • Hiring enough workers to meet production demands and paying them fair wages and benefits.
  • Ensuring working conditions are safe and reasonable.
  • Taking responsibility as an employer by creating permanent jobs and hiring workers directly, so their employees have more rights, benefits, and security on the job.

This system won’t change until consumers stand up together and let online retailers know that we care more about how they treat their workers than the cheap discounts they’re offering.

This Cyber Monday, Say No to Sweatshop Shipping. Sign the pledge now > >

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