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<nettime> Amazon Requires Badly-Paid Warehouse Temps to Sign 18-Month No
David Mandl on Tue, 31 Mar 2015 15:29:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Amazon Requires Badly-Paid Warehouse Temps to Sign 18-Month Non-Competes


This borders on sadism. Amazon using a policy that was created for
specialized, elite managers to prevent their low-level warehouse workers
from getting jobs anywhere else.


Amazon Requires Badly-Paid Warehouse Temps to Sign 18-Month Non-Competes

Posted on March 30, 2015 by Yves Smith

The Verge has broken an important story on how far Amazon has gone in
its relentless efforts to crush workers. Despite its glitzy Internet
image, Amazon's operations depend heavily on manual labor to assemble,
pack, and ship orders. Its warehouses are sweatshops, with workers
monitored constantly and pressed to meet physically daunting
productivity goals. Indeed, many of its warehouses were literally
sweatshops, reaching as much as 100 degrees in the summer until bad
press embarrassed the giant retailer into installing air conditioners.
In Germany, a documentary exposed that Amazon hired neo-Nazi security
guards to intimidate foreign, often illegal, hires it had recruited and
was housing in crowded company-organized housing. Amazon also fought and
won a Supreme Court case to escape compensating its poorly-paid
warehouse workers for time they spend in line at the end of shift,
waiting for security checks.

Amazon's latest "keep workers down" practice is to make temps sign
non-competes. Yes, if you are so desperate and foolish as to take a
short-term gig with Amazon, you will be barred from working for
virtually anyone else for the next eighteen months. Look at how
incredibly broad the language is in the non-compete agreement obtained
by The Verge (hat tip MF):

During employment and for 18 months after the Separation Date, Employee
will not, directly or indirectly, whether on Employee's own behalf or on
behalf of any other entity (for example, as an employee, agent, partner,
or consultant), engage in or support the development, manufacture,
marketing, or sale of any product or service that competes or is
intended to compete with any product or service sold, offered, or
otherwise provided by Amazon (or intended to be sold, offered, or
otherwise provided by Amazon in the future) that Employee worked on or
supported, or about which Employee obtained or received Confidential

Pray tell, what possible employers are not included, given how sweeping
these terms are? A cleaning service? Nah, Amazon sells Roombas and
vacuum cleaners, so you'd be competing indirectly with them. A
receptionist in a dentist's office? Nope, Amazon sells tooth whitening
products. A massage therapist? No, Amazon sells electronic massage
devices. Working as a gym? No, Amazon sells home exercise equipment. And
note that this includes "intended to be old, offered, or otherwise
provided by Amazon in the future." Amazon temps are precluded from
competing with Amazon vaporware too.

Not only is this agreement eye-poppingly broad in terms of
product/service range, but Amazon also means for it to be far-reaching
from a geographic perspective. From the Verge account:

"Employee recognizes that the restrictions in this section 4 may
significantly limit Employee's future flexibility in many ways," the
agreement asserts, referencing the section containing the noncompete
agreement and three other clauses. "Employee further recognizes that the
geographic areas for many of Amazon's products and services--and, by
extension, the geographic areas applicable to certain restrictions in
this Section 4--are extremely broad and in many cases worldwide."

Now I have my doubts as to how much success Amazon would have in
enforcing this contract in a lot of non-US jurisdictions. But the
Seattle retailer goes to great lengths to turn a short-term warehouse
gig into a bar to future employment. Consider Verve's description of
this provision:

The contract--which was obtained through applying and being accepted to
a seasonal Amazon warehouse position--even includes a provision that
requires employees who sign it to "disclose and provide a true and
correct copy of this Agreement to any prospective new employer [???]
BEFORE accepting employment[???]"

The intent is to create a captive pool of Amazon temps, who will be
forced to accept whatever crappy pay and conditions the retailer offers
by virtue of being barred from virtually any other job.

Verge said it was not able to determine whether Amazon had attempted to
enforce these captive labor agreements, but pointed out that the company
had been extremely aggressive in pursuing non-compete case against
white-collar employees. And some, perhaps many, of the workers who are
aware of these clauses do feel the need to obtain consent, which at a
minimum creates an obstacle to getting hired by a new firm:

Lee wants to continue her seasonal work at Amazon, and because of the
noncompete that she's signed, she would be careful if she were to apply
for a second job at an Amazon competitor like Sam's Club, the wholesale
subsidiary of Walmart. Lee says, in this hypothetical scenario, she
would be clear with the hiring agents at Sam's Club about the noncompete
she'd signed at Amazon and would also contact Amazon to ask for
permission for working at Sam's Club.

In the story, Lee bends over backwards to present Amazon as nicer than
WalMart, which is a low bar, and to stress that she's grateful for the
holiday work. But it's not hard to see the implications. It's hard
enough for low-wage candidates to land an offer. The notion that a
prospective employer will go through the hoops of obtaining consent
seems unlikely, particularly since many temp or short-term gigs want the
candidate to start immediately. It's easier to rescind the offer and
pick the next in the long line of applicants. And even if the
prospective employer has the time and inclination to obtain Amazon's
consent, Amazon can refuse to give it, or achieve the same effect by
being really slow in providing it.

Verge describes how practices like this feed the growth of McJobs and
accelerate the rush to the bottom in work conditions:

In this way, noncompetes can exacerbate structural inequalities in the
current job market, inequalities which themselves make noncompetes
easier for companies to demand. In America's post-recession economy, job
seekers continue to vastly outnumber openings for good jobs. In this
setting, workers don't have much leverage when haggling with employers
over terms and conditions of work. One effect of this has been the
expansion of the so-called "gig economy", where apps like Uber and
TaskRabbit draw on a pool of freelancers ready to perform quick jobs
that become available with no attendant promise of benefits or job
security. Large numbers of unemployed and underemployed have also fueled
the boom in temp-agency staffing that has accounted for significant
portions of the country's post-recession job gains.

A lack of negotiating power can lead workers to sign noncompete
contracts, [Orly] Lobel [a professor of labor and employment law at
University of San Diego] says, and those contracts further erode their
negotiating power. Because noncompetes make job loss more perilous by
limiting post-employment opportunities, the agreements can tether
workers to their current job, making them less likely to address
grievances with management or attempt to look for better or more fitting
work. says, and those contracts further erode their negotiating power.
Because noncompetes make job loss more perilous by limiting
post-employment opportunities, the agreements can tether workers to
their current job, making them less likely to address grievances with
management or attempt to look for better or more fitting work.

Even though a labor lawyer who reviewed the agreement questioned whether
it would be enforceable, given how short a temporary role at Amazon
would be versus the post-employment restriction, and the lack of
employee access to trade secret information, they are likely to have a
chilling since a low-pay worker who understood the reach of the
agreement could fear incurring the wrath of Amazon.

It's time to boycott Amazon. Tell your friends to shun them. It's time
to recognize that the supposed neoliberal paradise of cheap and easy
shopping comes at the expense of workers, and hence society as a whole.
You pay for what you get, and stumping up for better conditions for
employees means spending more. Take your business from Amazon and give
it to more ethical retailers.

Dave Mandl
dmandl {AT} panix.com
davem {AT} wfmu.org
Web: http://dmandl.tumblr.com/
Twitter:  {AT} dmandl
Instagram: dmandl

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