White Collar Problems

It may seem hard to believe, with the refugee crisis that has rightfully taken the spotlight over the past weeks, but this time last month, the internet was aflame over the alleged mistreatment of a few thousand highly-paid white collar workers and their allegedly terrible working conditions. It says a lot about the internet age that our focus can turn so easily towards caring for the plight of 200,000 Syrian refugees lucky enough to make it to mainland Europe, after we had spent the previous fortnight badmouthing Amazon, in reference to the New York Times article detailing the hardships that it forces on its long-suffering white collar staff, each of whom earn more than $100,000 per year and leave (either voluntarily or not) with vested stock options in one of the world’s most profitable companies.

Posturing aside, the Amazon article did strike a nerve with the well-educated, upwardly-mobile white collar workers among us who spend most of our time online commenting on such things. While we may see countless documentaries about the mistreatment of workers in Chinese factories, there is still the sense of ‘the other’ about these sweatshop conditions, as we in Europe or the US can never really imagine having to encounter such situations. To us, those are problems far away, problems that only exist because developing countries have much more flexible attitudes to labour laws and remuneration, and we can justify them by thinking that after a while these countries will catch up with the rest of us and go on to successfully regulate their labour markets.

The Amazon article on the other hand, is directly relatable to basically its entire intended readership, as anyone who has been to university, or works for a big corporation, can feasibly imagine him/herself in the same position as these Amazon employees. Empathy is an emotion that can only be felt through imagining ourselves in a similar position to another, and this is why a story about future millionaires working 14 hours a day, seven days a week in Seattle could generate more internet outrage than any story about Indonesian children chained to a desk stitching Nike symbols into Manchester United shirts ever could. It may seem extremely hypocritical, given the working conditions in most of the world, yet the Amazon article did speak to a lot of people, and it is worth exploring exactly why the western, white collar sect of the internet got so upset. In my view that I am about to elaborate, it is because it took all of our views on what a workplace could and should be, and absolutely demolished the fantasy in all our heads about how we expect to spend a large portion of our waking life until retirement.

In the modern world, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that the current system of labour is extremely new. Two hundred years ago, the only enterprises that employed more than a handful of people were the extraction industries: mining companies that worked men, women and children to their deaths, and replaced this physical labour with more expendable people when the time came. With the evolution of the Industrial Revolution came the factories where hundreds of workers were worked in conditions similar to what we read about in articles about sweatshops in Asia. Workers were seen as expendable, something immediately replaceable by someone who could do the job just as well as the person who half killed himself doing the job before. This was the labour system that inspired Marx and Engels to mythologise the act of labour as something intrinsically human, and something to cherish, rather than something to be simply extracted from a worker by a brutal capitalist. This philosophy inspired the formation of Trade Unions, and this in many countries gave workers power on a similar standing to their employers. Yet still, any concession to these unions was begrudged by employers, as they were simply bending to pressure rather than respecting the opinion and individual labour of the workers they employed.

The most significant event in the recognition of the value of experienced labour came in 1914, where Henry Ford introduced a standard wage in his Detroit factories of $5 per day, a rate significantly above any competing factories in the area. Ford did this not because of pressure from unions, but because he thought it was a wise business decision to hire workers that were well-fed, and therefore strong enough to concentrate on the monotonous tasks of his assembly lines. An added bonus of the higher wage was that Ford Motors would attract many applications for any open position, and therefore the company would theoretically attract the best, the most qualified, and the most ambitious of all workers in the area. This is the beginning of the idea of “human capital”, where people are hired for more than simply what their body can do for an employer. Fast forward the process a few decades, and we see that companies realise employees become better at their roles after a few years, that they respond well to more responsibility, and that they can be motivated appropriately by the prospect of higher pay, promotion, and even time off work. Within the space of about 100 years, major corporations went from seeing their workers as expendable robots to the modern system, where employees and employers often enter long-term relationships for decades of mutually beneficial service.

While the idea of working for a company for 20 years or more may have disappeared over the past generation, the idea of the workplace as a pleasant extension of family and leisure life has only increased. Most western companies will have an explicit policy on work-life balance, and all will be very concerned about any possible unhappiness in the lives of an individual employee: either in his/her work life or his/her private life. A lot of this concern is driven by regulation, yet a lot more is driven by a decades-old theory that a happy worker is a productive worker. Employers don’t just want you to be well-fed anymore: they want you to be happy. Added to this is the office pornography that is constantly circulated online about the workplace of tech companies such as Pixar, Apple and Facebook. If you work hard enough, you will be fit to work in an office that resembles an adult version of a children’s playroom. This is what, for the past decade, has been sold to us as the future of the workplace. Work is not an office, it is simply a better-equipped version of your living room where you can do what you love, with people who are just like you.

The Amazon article completely threw this idea out the window. The article showed one of the biggest and most successful consumer-based companies in the world actively and purposefully constructing a cruel dog-eat-dog work environment that seemingly equated to the white collar version of a sweatshop. The employees detailed in the article were all paid well, yet there was a depressing industrial revolution-esque feel to the description of the Amazonian workplace. The value of individual labour seemed to have been depreciated to its value of a century before. The work-life balance was non-existent: for all the education you (and your family) had struggled to accumulate, you have the workplace standing of any industrial revolution factory worker, competing for quotas with your neighbour. The workplace of the 21st Century was not supposed to be like this, yet this was Amazon, an absolute behemoth of a company, and the model they have in place is sure to inspire many corporations to install similar workplace environments.

This disruption of workplace expectations was one of the reasons why the Amazon article ruffled feathers, but it wasn’t the main reason. The article is a long read, yet all through, a common message emerges from Amazon that is unsettling to many white collar workers to the very core: they only want you for a year or two. It seems like they just want to use their employees for a certain time, then discard each of them in return for fresh meat. In reality, it is a completely different interpretation of the theory, and extraction of labour. Amazon hires only the most qualified, and driven, of employees, then through its gladiatorial working environment sets each of them on fire. Each of these employees, in an attempt to quench the flames, works as hard as possible before being completely consumed by their situation. They are then discarded a year or two later, with stock options. You can’t feel too bad for these people, as they will not be short of job offers after such an experience. It sounds horrible working there, yet it is a model that has led to the company evolving from a simple online bookstore to products such as Kindle, TV shows such as Transparent, and even the launch of their own movie studio. Fear, and internal competition brought us all of those things. The scary thing is not that Amazon employees are treated badly, but that Amazon actually highly respects the individual labour of each employee. They simply have developed a work environment to extract it a lot faster than would be possible in a company that respects a work-life balance, and what many of us expect from a company that respects the talents and happiness of its employees. The fear that many of us felt while reading the Amazon article is that this is the future of the workplace, that it is not a terrible way to structure such a workplace, and ultimately that it probably is the most efficient form of labour extraction, and probably exploitation.