The human cost of your free online shipping

I am a progressive, and I identify with leftist politics. I want Medicare for all, free higher education for everyone, Social Security caps lifted and payments doubled. I want a peace economy rather than a war economy. I believe in high taxes, strong labor laws and I want money banned from the political process. But I don’t live in Europe. I live in the United States—the land of opportunity, Amazon and Walmart.

Intellectually I am against consumerism as a basis for our economuy, but, in real life, I’m an American, and the desire to consume is encoded in my DNA. I love ordering online because I get a good deal, and if I order enough, I get free shipping! I’m a socialist who loves not paying sales tax.

Like most Americans, I want my stuff cheap and I want it fast—and I haven’t wanted to think about the human cost of online buying. Sure, I know much of the stuff I buy is made in sweatshops in Asia, but I don’t have a choice because, you know, practically everything is made there. I tell myself that those countries will eventually catch up with us on human rights and worker rights. The human rights problems are “over there,“ not here.

Then, I read Mac MacClelland’s jaw-dropping story in Mother Jones, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave: My brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying, dildo-packing time inside the online-shipping machine. “ In a brilliant piece of reporting, McClelland simultaneously rips the mask off online retail and the reality of the “economic recovery” in America. She writes about small towns in the Midwest where vast warehouses employ thousands of workers under horrendous working conditions so that you and I can get all that stuff we buy online cheap and fast. The large online retail outlets we all know and love, either own and operate these warehouses themselves, or they contract with other companies to provide storage and shipping services for them. McClelland has a gripping, compelling and important story to tell about work in these warehouses and human rights abuses in America today.

The standard shift in these warehouses is 8 hours, but “working more than eight hours is mandatory,” explains McClelland, who takes an undercover job in one of them where she ends up working mandatory 12-hour days during the peak pre-Christmas season. During that 12-hour day she gets two fifteen-minute breaks, and a 29 minute and 59 second lunch break. Like other workers, McClelland takes some of this precious time for anxiety filled pee breaks because she has to wait in long lines to use one of the smelly, dirty bathrooms.

McClelland reports that sometimes the backbreaking pace and unrealistic demands on warehouse workers cause them to break down and cry. “Well, what if I do start crying?” McClelland asked a seasoned worker. “Are they really going to fire me for that?” “Yes,” she says. “There are sixteen other people who want your job. Why would they keep a person who gets emotional, especially in this economy?” MeClelland further reports, if a worker manages to perform well enough to keep the job, there probably won’t be a promotion in his or her future. Workers stay temporary for years.

As a new hire, here’s what McClelland learned during training: “People lose fingers. Or parts of fingers. And about once a year, they tell us, someone in an Amalgamated warehouse gets caught by the hair, and when a conveyor belt catches you by the hair, it doesn’t just take your hair with it. It rips out a piece of scalp as well.”

McClelland on why people take these jobs: “The American job market isn’t great, people will take what they can get. ‘How’s the job market?’ a supervisor says, laughing, as several of us newbies run by. ‘Just kidding!’ Ha ha! ‘I know why you guys are here. That’s why I’m here, too!'”

After reading “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” I took away the following:  First, I can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I will forever know the human cost of my wanting discounted items and fast delivery. I will know that the worker who fills my order is hounded and shamed with impossible demands to fill unrealistic quotas. In order to keep the job, he or she has to find, pick, pack, or ship items at breakneck speed, in massive, multi-football field sized warehouses for 10 to 12 hour days. Most warehouse workers take up to 600mg of Advil daily just to survive the painful toll the job takes on their bodies. Sometimes while retrieving items they get massive static electricity shocks from the huge multi story metal shelving—over and over again. All this for the handsome reward of eleven something an hour, with no benefits and forced overtime.

Second, after reading this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the economic recovery is overrated. I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave is both an indictment of one of the fastest growing segments of the American economy, online retail, and a snapshot of what jobs are going to be like going forward in the United States. McClelland writes about the desperation of the unemployed and the kinds of jobs they are willing to take, many of which are low-paying, soul sucking, and/or backbreaking. These low paying jobs will actually increase, rather than reduce, the percentage of those in the U.S. living in near poverty—remembering, of course, that the official poverty level is absurdly low. The unemployment rate may be trending downward, but we may not have much to celebrate.