Wed, Jun 13, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Underpaid and exhausted:
The human cost of your Kindle

In Hengyang, China, there is a fatigued, disposable workforce assembling gadgets for Amazon, owned by the world’s richest man

By Gethin Chamberlain  /  The Guardian, in HENGYANG, China

In some ways, they resemble the Amazon products they are making: wanted one day and discarded the next.

However, the increasing reliance on a disposable workforce by companies has alarmed the Chinese government, and in 2014 it changed its labor laws to limit dispatch workers to just 10 percent of a company’s staff — and then only to cover temporary work. Companies were expected to fill most positions with regular staff on employment contracts.

The wage slips pinned to the walls of the Foxconn factory in Hengyang suggest that the message might be taking some time to get through: They show that about 40 percent of the workforce in the Hengyang plant are bought in from agencies. These are the workers on whom Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is relying to further entrench his position as the world’s richest man.

Bezos is worth an estimated US$138.8 billion, a fortune he acquired against a backdrop of global reports of misery for Amazon’s warehouse workers, exhausted by the demands made on them in return for the most basic of wages.

Unions and labor rights groups have protested about low pay and harsh working conditions, and three delivery firms used by Amazon are facing a legal challenge from the GMB union, demanding that gig economy delivery drivers receive sick and holiday pay.

Last month it was revealed that ambulances had been called 600 times to Amazon’s UK warehouses over the past three years. There have been repeated calls for Amazon to improve the lot of its workers.

However, Bezos does not see the need. Collecting an award for “outstanding personalities who are particularly innovative and who generate and change markets, influence culture and at the same time face up to their responsibility to society” a couple months ago, he was questioned about the controversies surrounding the way he made his money.

“When you’re criticized, first look in the mirror and decide: Are your critics right? If they are right, change. Don’t resist,” he said.

However, Bezos’ mirror apparently showed him that his critics were wrong.

“I’m very proud of our working conditions and very proud of the wages we pay,” he told the audience gathered to fete him.

And now he and Gou have brought that same formula to Hengyang, but what draws two of the world’s richest men to set up in a city far from the big manufacturing hubs of Shenzhen, Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, with their easy access to shipping and huge industrial bases?

For an answer, it helps to know that Alexa is working for 14.5 yuan (US$2.27) an hour. That is US$1.34 less than the US$3.61 national average for a factory worker in China.

Foxconn could not pay her so little in Shenzhen, where the legal minimum wage is 19.5 yuan an hour, or in Shanghai, where it is 20 yuan.

Some days, Alexa gets to work overtime, but when she opens her wage slip at the end of the month she will be disappointed, because she and her fellow dispatch workers are paid only the same 14.5 yuan rate that they get for the main shift, instead of the time-and-a-half stipulated by Chinese labor law and Amazon’s own supplier code of conduct.

Foxconn promises agency workers a minimum of 3,700 yuan a month, but pay slips and workers’ own accounts suggest real wages rarely get close to that figure.

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