Even in times of plague and massive unemployment, a three-way race has emerged at the top of a rising US stock market, the economy’s major league. Amazon has been competing with Apple and Microsoft for the title of the richest company in the world. All three weigh in with a market cap at above or close to $1 trillion.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that has kept stores closed for months, Amazon, already a speedster, has become the fastest-growing company of the three. The massive retailer founded by Jeff Bezos a quarter of a century ago had everything to gain from a global health crisis that confined people to their homes. Now, Amazon can extract further competitive advantage from the wave of protests provoked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The first phase of the protests included extensive property damage to small businesses across the United States. The fewer the number of viable small local businesses, the more business there will be for Amazon. As the weak get weaker, the strongest thrive.
The Tyranny of Algorithmic Order in Times of Revolutionary Change
But despite being the most spectacular success story of the past 30 years, Amazon is suffering in ways that no other enterprise could even hope to suffer. Because of an expansion far more rapid than expected, the global retailer has launched a massive hiring campaign. As a consequence, the firm’s human resources department “is always struggling to automate and keep pace with the scale of the company.” It’s a costly struggle. The victims of that struggle are obviously neither its shareholders or senior management, whose profits and compensation are expanding exponentially. It’s the employees.
Matt Day, in an article for Bloomberg, examines the specific problems related to sick leave in the context of the crisis spawned by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The very nature of the pandemic and the consequent quarantine have produced “horror stories” for HR. It’s a veritable plague of unplanned absences and upended work schedules. The highly automatized HR department, unused to managing uncertainty, finds itself “overwhelmed.”
To assess the damage, Day interviews insiders “who all requested anonymity because they signed confidentiality agreements.” Employees of the hierarchical — not to say despotic — political structures that massive private enterprises have become always must be careful when speaking with the outside world.
Day sums up Amazon’s dilemma: “Three people with experience in the company’s human resources group say the unit has been weighed down by competing priorities.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The fantasy promoted by economic idealists that actions designed for any other purpose than limiting expenses and increasing profit may have a claim to serious consideration in business decisions
The article highlights the Kafkaesque case of Tony Banks, an Amazon employee who tested positive for COVID-19 and suffered the longer-term effects of the illness. Incapacitated for more than a month, he found it physically impossible to return to work. For HR, “Banks is seen as an employee abandoning his job,” writes Day. Other workers are still “owed back pay for time spent on sick leave or in quarantine, have been scheduled for shifts while sick, or were denied leave.”
Quoting one of the three people, the article explains that the overwhelmed HR staff “don’t have the resources and the mental capacity to deal with [workers] because they’re pulled in so many different directions.” Most entrepreneurs understand the problem of inadequate resources in the face of a sudden change in the marketplace. For any company, the lack of financial resources to resolve such unforeseen problems can prove fatal. But surely Amazon has the financial sources to respond to these unexpected needs without imperiling the lives of its employees.
And what do these insiders mean when they complain of a failure of “mental capacity?” Do they mean management skills? Or is it possibly something more sinister and systemic, such as a combined lack of human psychology and strategic vision? But it might boil down to something else, something eminently predictable in a company as rich as Amazon: the fact of simply not caring about anything that fails to translate mechanically into profit.
The article explains the mind-boggling challenge Amazon has been facing. Demand is exploding at the same time as the virus is playing havoc with the continuity of work schedules. The article makes the point that problems may stem from the eminently “rational” strategic decision taken in the past to automate HR processes, precisely because Amazon has seen an ever-expanding growth in the scale of its operations. But when the unpredictable happens, such automated “systems can be of little help to an overwhelmed staffer who needs time to sift through Amazon policies and government leave laws on behalf of an employee,” Day writes.
How unfortunate for so many people seeking a solution to the precarity of their lives by working for one of the world’s richest companies. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the chances of the disease spreading were augmented by the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, adding a new element of precarity to the workers’ lives. At that point, the “mental capacity” of its managers inspired them to find the most efficient way of dealing with the problem of infected workers. Amazon generously offered them “unlimited unpaid time off without risk of termination.” They might starve in the meantime for lack of revenue, but, in case of survival, they would always be welcomed back. Even that generous offer had its expiry date. Designed as a response to an exceptional crisis, it was rescinded after a few weeks.
The article describes multiple examples of what is literally a massive human horror story. It quotes one worker, initially enthusiastic about working for such a dynamic company, who now, after burnout, and at the end of her tether, concludes: “It’s like we’re replaceable,” she says. No, it isn’t “like.” They literally are replaceable. And they will be replaced, today, by equally unskilled workers hoping for a steady income and, tomorrow, by artificial intelligence (AI) and robots.
For most of the 20th century, commercial companies had what were called personnel departments. In the final decades of the century, when neoliberal thinking conquered the economic culture of the Western world, the idea of personnel was replaced by HR, or human resources.
As the British website Personnel Today explains in an article on this topic, the idea of personnel “conjures up too much of the ‘tea and sympathy’/welfare support function from which the term first originated.” A rebrand from personnel to HR took place in the 1980s, a period that “saw the profession aligning itself more closely with what the business wanted to achieve.”
This cultural shift helps to explain the fate of Amazon’s workers today — Amazon itself being only a somewhat extreme example of the trend. The idea of “personnel” contained a distracting allusion to persons (living humans) and personalities (social beings). The idea of “human resources” contains the idea of the exploitable (and expendable) potential of human labor as perceived by managers permanently focused on “what the business wanted to achieve.”
And what do they want to achieve? Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and other neoliberal thinkers — who inspired Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s — answered that question to the satisfaction of all late 20th-century market leaders: profit for shareholders. What else might a rational company and its senior management want “to achieve”?
Personnel Today’s article reminds readers of this anecdote worth pondering: “In many organisations, HR is disparagingly referred to as ‘human remains.’” It’s a joke that many Amazon workers today can understand, though they may not be inclined to laugh.
As the world awaits the imminent reign of AI — a theme Amazon has been assiduously working on — we are literally left wondering whether any humans, with their limited “mental capacity,” will remain. There may even come a time when the title of the department charged with managing the staff of an enterprise will be changed to “algorithmic resources.” And at some subsequent moment in time, thanks to the prowess of machine learning, one software app will share with a fellow piece of code a joke about the inevitability of “algorithmic remains.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.