Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, is thought to be worth in excess of $150 billion – built on the success of Amazon, the world’s largest multinational. Now he wants to ‘give something back’, and has pledged to create a $2 billion (£1.5 billion) ‘Day One Fund’ to pay for a network of pre-schools and help tackle homelessness in America.
It is hard not to be cynical about such an initiative, not least because it comes on the back of a deluge of criticism directed at Amazon for its aggressive tax avoidance and exploitative treatment of warehouse workers. Bezos’ generosity looks an awful lot like an attempt to distract from those brand-damaging facts.
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It is also an exercise of power, as philanthropy often is. Some philanthropists, such as Microsoft chief Bill Gates, seem genuinely to want to make a difference in the world. Others, however, are demonstrating that they have the power to dole out money on a whim – Bezos is the only American among the world’s five richest people to not join the Giving Pledge.
This attitude to philanthropy was summed up well by the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who viewed the “man of wealth” as “the sole agent and trustee for his poorer brethren.” The philanthropist, he went on, should use “his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer” to help the poor and needy because he is able to do so “better than they would or could do for themselves”.
Grasp this pseudo-paternalistic view of humanity and you begin to understand how the super-rich are able to rationalise their tax avoidance and reconcile it with care in the community. Men like Jeff Bezos view it as their job, rather than the job of the democratic state, to distribute their vast riches. In pledging a fraction of his wealth to assist the poor and needy, Bezos is flaunting the power that only unimaginable riches can bring – the power to dodge the full force of the tax man, dole money out on a whim and be applauded for it as a munificent philanthropist.
There is particular effrontery in adopting a lofty philanthropic air when you can’t seem to find the money to make life bearable for workers in your warehouses. I have written many times about my experiences working in an Amazon warehouse back in 2016. Workers were urinating in bottles because they were afraid to take toilet breaks (a recent survey by Organise found that 74% of Amazon warehouse workers in England were scared to go to the toilet because of productivity targets), and disciplinaries were given out by management for taking sick days, regardless of whether they have a doctors note. The agencies Amazon used to employ workers in the warehouse frequently underpaid people – one young woman I interviewed was paid 62p an hour by one such agency, and it took six weeks for her to claw back the money she had earned.
Bezos may see his philanthropy as ‘giving back’– the cliché deployed by every self-important philanthropist – but his company was giving very little back to the community of Rugeley, the town in which the warehouse I worked in was located. Every job as a picker or packer in the warehouse was temporary and lasted for nine months, providing little stability. “Be under no illusions, this is a temporary job,” we were informed on the first day. And despite being the biggest employer in the town, few local people worked at Amazon. Instead the warehouse relied on an army of Romanians bused in predominantly from neighbouring areas – apparently the only people economically desperate enough to put up with the Victorian working conditions.
This state of affairs exists because companies like Amazon are run like dictatorships. A cult of personality prevails – witness the army of sycophantic Twitter users who turn up under any article critical of Amazon to blast out positive statements about the company. One of these paid-up brand ‘ambassadors’ seems to turn up whenever I tweet about the company these days. Within the warehouse, language is distorted in an Orwellian fashion. If you lose your job at Amazon you are not sacked or fired, but, euphemistically ‘released’.
Workers’ representation – through forums such as trade unions – are all but non-existent. Those on the shop floor at Amazon are, as Carnegie put it, subject to the “superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer” of higher ups like Jeff Bezos.
Last year Amazon trebled its UK profits yet paid less in tax than the year before. If Bezos really cared about the lives of the poor he would use some of that profit to pay his workers a decent wage – enough, perhaps, so that they do not have to sleep in tents, as has been reported in Scotland. The billionaire may believe he is better able to spend the money generated by his workforce than they would or could do for themselves, but his charitable initiative, based in the US, will do nothing for low income families outside of North America.
Bezos has said that his new network of pre-schools will “use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession.” Yet it is precisely Amazon’s intense customer obsession that has led to such detrimental workforce conditions. If a 24-hour Amazon Prime delivery requires an army of downtrodden workers, hidden away in vast warehouses where they are afraid to take a toilet break, how are those who work in Amazon’s network of pre-schools going to fair? If “the child will be the customer”, as Bezos puts it, is the teacher going to be the professional equivalent of the warehouse skivvy peeing in a bottle?
Charity is inevitable in any society. It is foolish and utopian to believe that the state can provide cover so comprehensive that nobody ever slips through society’s cracks. But the increasing reliance, particularly in the United States, upon mega-rich givers reveals wide economic distortions – the 1% are getting ever richer partly because of the low wages that mean ordinary workers are struggling to make ends meet. Before rushing to laud Jeff Bezos for his generosity, we should judge him for the exploitative treatment of workers in the company that has made him so wealthy.