An abundance of cheap consumer goods is a feature of contemporary life in the West. That said, it is worth remembering that cheapness is often a by-product, not only of efficiency and economies of scale, but of the squeezing of profit from a cowed and precarious workforce.
This was strikingly apparent in some of the places I visited in 2016 during the research for my book, Hired. For those who are not part of the hidden world of Britain’s warehouses and call centres, it is easy to ignore those that are, because the latter are typically too exhausted to leave any meaningful record behind.
You can punch your credit details into Amazon’s website without ever having to think about what goes on in one of its vast ‘fulfilment centres’. Just as the people who broke their backs in the pink splodges on the map did not exist in the minds of those who sipped sherry in England’s drawing rooms a century ago, so the people cocooned inside Amazon’s warehouses may as well not exist to those browsing the company’s website. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The cheapness of a service can also arguably alter the mentality of the person using it. While this may be anecdotal, I was told on several occasions by Uber drivers during my research that the low cost of the rides altered how customers typically responded to the person picking them up in a cab. “It’s to do with the rates,” a forty-two-year-old Eritrean Uber driver named Aman told me emphatically:
“For any service you pay, if you pay a high price you tend to have respect for that person…even though it’s the same job, or it’s the same service you are receiving, you’re gonna respect whoever is helping you more, unfortunately.”
Though not quite the same thing, while driving for Uber myself I noticed a peculiar disconnect on the part of the customer between the fare they were paying and the money I took home at the end of a shift. People in the back of my cab would regularly bemoan ‘surge’ pricing, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this mechanism – whereby a multiplier is applied to standard rates during periods of high demand – was essential from a driver’s point of view in ensuring that you earned something close to a living wage.
There is a dilemma here though: how does one oppose environmental degradation and waste, sweatshop labour and a ‘race to the bottom’, without depriving working people of the consumer goods that make life worth living? Every worker is, as it were, also a consumer, and the Amazon warehouse which is characterised by a precarious and poorly paid workforce is also churning out the consumer goods that are affordable enough for working class people to buy and enjoy.
In the case of Amazon, however, the nature of the jobs being created by the company does seem important when the company has very often been enticed to set up in a particular area using local authority cash. A street leading up to Amazon’s huge fulfilment centre in Swansea was purpose-built for the company by the Welsh government – to the tune of £4.9 million. That money came on top of an £8.8 million regional selective assistance grant given to Amazon for the cost of the warehouse to encourage the company to come to South Wales. Moreover, the year the purpose-built track was finally completed Amazon paid just £2.4 million in tax in the UK on £4.3 billion in sales – less than 0.1% of its total revenue.
In other words, Amazon’s cheapness is not only a result of the precarious labour force that toils away in its warehouses – local ratepayers are also picking up some of the cost.
Of course, reigning in companies like Amazon might seem an impossible task when parts of the country are crying out for jobs and when average incomes are stagnating. But local authorities should look beyond job numbers alone when spending money in the hope of enticing big corporations to an area. In the Amazon warehouse I worked in in Rugeley, most of my co-workers were Romanians bought in on coaches each day from surrounding towns and cities like Wolverhampton and Birmingham. In this context it is hard to see how Rugeley was gaining a great deal of benefit from the company’s presence.
As to where the responsibility for sourcing goods and services on an ethical basis rests, it is first of all with those who can afford to pay a little more for things. There are of course ways of dealing with low pay and precarious work that go beyond consumer activism. But just as it is possible to give to charity while working towards an end to the need for it, so each of us might consider the true cost of the cheap products or bargainous rides home – and then act on that knowledge. In the twenty-first century when the internet allows us to source ethical alternatives, there are fewer excuses for ignoring what really goes into producing the plethora of cheap goods and services that we’ve slowly grown accustomed to.