It’s another Friday round of random round ups.
First up, Chinese potties! As we wrote about earlier this week, there have been Occupy Men’s Room protest to demand that public accommodations have more women’s toilets then men’s — a standard that is often referred to has potty parity. The protests began in the city of Guangzhou, which the New York Times says is known to be relatively liberal (For Chinese Women, a Basic Need, and Few Places to Attend to It, Mar 1). The organizers have since tried to take their protests to Beijing.
When Ms. Li and a few other activists tried to occupy the men’s toilets on Sunday morning at the public restroom in Beijing near the Deshengmen long-distance bus terminal, they were greeted by 10 officers and three police vehicles. The officers told Ms. Li that without a permit, she and her fellow activists must leave, taking their colorful poster and pink leaflets with them.
The little troupe headed to another restroom, only to be greeted by more police officers, who videotaped Ms. Li as she talked to reporters about why women need more toilets. Once the reporters departed, Ms. Li said, the police forced her and a friend to spend the next five hours sitting in a nearby restaurant, lest they dare try to occupy another bathroom.
Despite this set back, official news publications have run the headline “Toilet occupation group is flushed with success.”
Our second update relates to Jan’s post from last fall about the reported working condition at an Amazon fulfillment center. Mother Jones has a report from its human rights reporter about toiling in a fulfillment center for retail orders (I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave, March/April, 2012). Now as soon as you hear “Mother Jones” and “human rights reporter,” you might question the objectivity of the article. And you would be right; we’re not talking fair and balanced here.
That said, it clearly paints a depressing story of working in a large fulfillment center. (The author does not explicitly identify the firm or whether it is dedicated to one retailer or is a third-party logistics provider. If it helps nail down the firm, she reports that they sell both books and a wide array of sex toys.)
To some extent, the most interesting part of the article comes at the end where she speaks to someone who hires third-party logistics providers.
“The first step is awareness,” an e-commerce specialist will tell me later. There have been trickles of information leaking out of the Internet Order Fulfillment Industrial Complex: an investigation by the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call in which Amazon workers complained of fainting in stifling heat, being disciplined for getting heat exhaustion, and otherwise being “treated like a piece of crap”; a workampers’ blog picked up by Gizmodo; a Huffington Post exposé about the lasting physical damage and wild economic instability temporary warehouse staffers suffer. And workers have filed lawsuits against online retailers, their logistics companies, and their temp agencies over off-the-clock work and other compensation issues, as well as at least one that details working conditions that are all too similar. (That case has been dismissed but is on appeal.) Still, most people really don’t know how most internet goods get to them. The e-commerce specialist didn’t even know, and she was in charge of choosing the 3PL for her midsize online-retail company. “These decisions are made at a business level and are based on cost,” she says. “I never, ever thought about what they’re like and how they treat people. Fulfillment centers want to keep clients blissfully ignorant of their conditions.” If you called major clothing retailers, she ventured, and asked them “what it was like at the warehouse that ships their sweaters, no one at company headquarters would have any fucking clue.”
Further, she said, now that I mentioned it, she has no idea how to go about getting any information on the conditions at the 3PL she herself hired. Nor how to find a responsible one. “A standard has to be created. Like fair trade or organic certification, where social good is built into the cost. There is a segment of the population”—like the consumers of her company’s higher-end product, she felt—”that cares and will pay for it.”
Clearly it is difficult for individual consumers to verify the working conditions at fulfillment centers. It is nice to think that every job associated with the Internet comes great benefits, ping pong in the break room, and gourmet lunches. The reality that fulfillment is a cost center and that abundant pickers do not have to be coddled like scarce knowledge workers does not immediately come to mind.
Firms hiring third parties to ship their stuff ought to have a little more visibility into what is going on. If nothing else, they should have reputation concerns about what happens when their fulfillment partner gets hit with an immigration raid or busted on overtime violations. Admittedly, that sets a relatively low bar for good HR practices, but it does not seem to be asking for too much more to consider how many employees are permanent versus temp and what kind of turnover they experience.