Supply chain secrets: American sweat shops

Horrifying and upsetting, this article about the contract warehouses of online retailers, I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave is a compelling if not grisly read. Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland goes undercover in a warehouse by applying for and getting an actual job as a picker. The conditions are what one might expect in a low-cost country: dangerously uncomfortable temperatures, workplace hazards such as uncontrolled static electric shocks in picking areas, non-ergonomic conditions for picking that has workers taking 800 mg of ibuprofen to survive, required 10-hour days or longer, and more. One instance of being absent for any reason the first week of work and you’re fired, but you can get in the queue to work there again. Minimum wage. No raises. No benefits. You’re told daily how poorly you’re doing and not meeting your goals. You’re a temp warehouse worker. You’re an important reason why places like Amazon can offer free shipping and WalMart can offer low prices. And how they can beat the competition of local businesses in your community. It’s not just having low cost suppliers. It’s using temporary worker agencies who supply you with low-cost workers. The contract warehouses with sweatshop conditions don’t actually belong to the companies with household names. And the workers are contractors, so they aren’t actually Amazon or Staples employees.

Why aren’t these contract warehouses subject to more scrutiny? First, the employees are all temps supplied by temp agencies. They don’t work for Amazon. But every time you click “Place your order” on Amazon, some temp worker is out of the gate at one of these warehouses, on the run (averaging 12 miles per day of speed walking on concrete floors) to pick your product and trying meet challenging productivity goals to keep his or her job.  

Why would anyone willingly work for such wages and under these conditions? Simply, they have no other options for surviving economically and feeding their families.

So while Americans worry, and rightfully so, about the conditions at Foxconn in China or at factories in other low-cost countries, perhaps they should think about the supply chain right here in the U.S. And while we can’t resist getting a bargain and may engage in “showrooming” (shopping a bricks and mortar store, then buying online instead), we never consider those other Americans on an economic hamster wheel, falling behind as they run in place.

I couldn’t help but think that a contract warehouse would make a good episode of Undercover Boss. But a contract warehouse is part of the hidden supply chain where workers don’t work directly for the name-brand companies – by design, of course – to avoid as we say in the supply risk world, reputational risk.

Sherry R. Gordon

 
Author of:
Book: Supplier Evaluation and Performance Excellence: A Guide to Meaningful Metrics and Successful Results
CloudDVD: Supplier Evaluation and Performance Management
 
 

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