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Amazon Empire: Jeff Wilke Interview | FRONTLINE

Amazon Empire: Jeff Wilke Interview | FRONTLINE

About the faster aspect of things, I mean, when you—we’ve talked to workers around the country, both current and former workers from Amazon. They’ve described the pace of work as being really grueling, that these rates are set. I mean, how—in the early thinking about rates and how far you could kind of push human beings in terms of their productivity, what was the thinking about that? Well, obviously if the rates are too high, you’re not going to have people showing up for work. So we have 600,000 people at the company. Most of them are in the fulfillment centers, and they come to work every day; they stay for years. These are considered great jobs in the hundreds of communities where we have fulfillment centers all over the world, and in the U.S. we have—almost every state has an operation in it, and people come to work because these are great jobs. They’re safe; we pay double the minimum wage, the national minimum wage; we have terrific benefits. The benefits for the folks that work on the floor are the same benefits that my family has access to. Our family leave is like 20 weeks. So the rates are set so that we can accomplish what we need to, which is get orders to customers in a reasonable time and in a high-quality way, and that creates a workplace that people want to come back to when they do. I think when we’ve talked to workers, it’s been—there’s been a kind of consistent qualm about the rate in that, in part, they feel to some degree like they’re surveilled; that they’re answering to sort of a black box algorithm that’s telling them and determining what their rate is; that—and they— you’d mentioned that people stick in these jobs, but a lot of people talk about the burnout rate, the high turnover. And I’m just kind of curious also about, you know, what you think, in a more— in an environment where people are working and they’re surveilled and they’re held to this rate, that can cause kind of depression, and it can have psychological effects. What do you say to that? I mean, do you think that this is—is this something that you take into account? Well, again, we’re trying to create jobs that we’re proud of and that we continue to be able to hire people into, and we think we’ve created those kinds of jobs. What would you say to someone, though, who’s worked in your fulfillment centers that feels as though there’s been—that humans are increasingly being treated like robots? Because it’s something that we’ve actually heard, and I don’t—I don’t sense it’s hyperbole. Well, that’s not the experience that I had in setting it up or that I’ve seen. It’s certainly true that these jobs are not for everybody, and there may be people that don’t want to do this kind of work. But again, for people who have relatively few options in terms of the match between their skills and work, to have jobs that pay so well, that are so stable, that are safe, and that have all these opportunities for upskilling— we just announced a pledge recently to spend $700 million to upskill, which is basically creating career opportunities for people, 100,000 of our employees. And what I expect to happen is the people who really don’t want to do that kind of work over and over again, day in, day out, they can take advantage of classroom training. We pay 95 percent of tuition to go to college to get a skill that isn’t about Amazon, that’s about creating options for the employees, and I would expect those people to take advantage of that: work for us for a couple of years and then go do something that they would much rather do, and that’s OK. In terms of the $700 million and that type of investment in your workforce, is there some sort of acknowledgement there that eventually these jobs, these fulfillment center jobs, may be automated out of existence, in that—I mean, you go to a fulfillment center, especially the modern ones, and they’re almost fully automated. There are people there tending to the machines and the robots, but are things moving in that direction here? Well, they’re pretty far from fully automated. There are thousands of people that work in the largest fulfillment centers. I don’t think in any reasonable time frame that we’re going to have eliminated all of the jobs in fulfillment. In fact, when we—as we’ve added 200,000 robots, in that same time frame since 2012, we’ve added 300,000 people in our fulfillment centers. So what happens is the robots change the work, so they allow us—people don’t have to walk as far, which is a complaint that we’ve heard in the past; they make the job safer; they make them higher quality because we present a smaller set of options to employees. And that’s all good for customers, and it’s good for employees, too. But there are lots of examples in industry of automation that doesn’t necessarily lead to elimination of all jobs and sort of lights-out factories. You might look at the chemical industry, for example. I worked in that industry for years, and while those plants are highly automated, there are lots of people that work there because there’s lots to do every day. The jobs may shift from doing the work to maintaining the machines and monitoring and doing quality checks and those kinds of things, but I actually think in our world we’re a long way off from it. So in terms of just—in terms of a complaint that we’ve heard from workers, in terms of the sort of automation of their work as humans and setting these rates that are very high, and some of them telling us that yes, there are high safety standards in these fulfillment centers but that in order to make rate, they’re having to cheat the standard a little bit and not work as safely as they should be or expected to be, so they’re in this kind of bind. I mean, what—how are these concerns addressed internally? Well, I would say that’s not OK. So I—from the moment that I arrived 20 years ago, I made it very clear to our operations teams that we will not compromise the safety of our employees to do anything else. So we have—we have a culture that if we are asking people to do something that they have to do too fast to be safe, they can raise their hand and say, “This isn’t right,” and we’ll fix it. We have a long history of doing that kind of thing, of listening to employees and making changes when we discover things that aren’t right. … In terms of just the larger-picture questions about Amazon right now, you’re obviously aware there’s a number of investigations into Amazon; there’s a lot of people calling now for the company to be broken up. I understand the company’s response to that, which is to say that in a lot of the fields that you’re in, you’re not necessarily the dominant player, but I wonder if there’s a larger question here about the fact that you have been tremendously successful with access to capital, with accumulation of data, with business acumen, being able to scale up in all sorts of types of businesses. It’s rather unique almost in American capitalism to have a company like this, and that there is this sense to some degree that we’re all kind of in this slow creep toward living in Amazonia, right? You’ve got your devices in our homes; there’s smart homes that are powered by Amazon; you’re in the film business; you are the predominant player in the books business; that you’re an arbiter of culture; you’re an arbiter of commerce. And can you understand the larger concerns that are out there about the power of Amazon and your ability to basically design our future? Well, I understand that we’re big and that we deserve scrutiny, and I think everything that’s large in the economy and in society should deserve scrutiny. And, you know, our job is to build the kind of company that anyone who’s not an employee or doesn’t know what’s going on, if they came inside and looked around, would feel proud to be a part of. I’ve been a part of this thing for 20 years. I’m proud to work there; I’m proud to tell my family and friends that I work here, and it’s because I believe in what we’re doing. You said before: We’re in every one of those verticals you described, and the problem is when you think about us, we’re in a lot of verticals, yes. There’s video, and there’s commerce, and there’s web services. There are all these things. But in every one one of them, we have intense competition, and as you said before, we’re not really the biggest in any of them. So there are great global players who are competing with us. Well, you are the biggest marketplace online, right? No. So, again, I don’t—the idea that there’s an online distinct for brands to sell their stuff in distinct from physical just doesn’t make sense to me, and we’re far from the largest retailer. So I describe this as retail, and we’re competing against Walmart and Target and Costco and Carrefour and Alibaba and Tmall and all kinds of folks who are now selling both physical stores and online. There are very few people who are just doing online or just doing physical stores anymore. So just vertical by vertical, there are intense competitors, and these competitors are global. We don’t dominate in any of these areas, and, you know, my sense is that if we’re lucky, if we take care of customers, we’ll deserve to be in each of these verticals, just remain in them. I do understand why, when you’re in a lot of them, it can seem like we’re everywhere, but the global—if we were everywhere, that means we’re talking about the global economy, not just global retail. It’s so vast. We’re just—you know, we’re a speck.

  • Watch FRONTLINE's 2-hour documentary, "Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos," here:

  • You mean amazon pushes their employees who put things in boxes to put things in boxes? The nerve. When do people have time to talk, have coffee and relax?

  • This Frontline show is total and complete bullshit by people who know nothing about the publishing business.  Bezos is a hero in the publishing business who has given millions of new authors exposure and the opportunity to sell their books and have their voice heard.  He has successfully rescued the publishing industry from the few New York monopoly publishers who dominated the industry for years, and who have a strong history of stopping new authors from gaining a foothold because they would be competitive with their few "published authors."   Again, this man is a hero.  I read a number of beautiful books by talented authors on amazon who were passed over by the New York publishing crowd.  Thank God for Jeff Bezos for breaking their monopoly.  He deserves an award because he gave new opportunities to millions of new authors.  This industry needed a wakeup call for years and Bezos did it.  CONGRATULATIONS TO BEZOS!

  • That is some slick salesman sh*t talking. He honestly thinks he can spin Amazon, even just its retail department, from largest retailer in the world in several verticals, as a speck.
    Shameless and if your not careful you might just believe him.
    Amazon senior staff is how Amazon succeeded.

  • The spokesman is going to "rich-splain: this problem six ways to one; so why even bother. There isn't a question he can't deflect.

  • The interviewer is naive, because ALL jobs have psychological effects, including his.  
    In fact NOT having a job has psychological effects. It also has POSITIVE psychological effects; let's not talk about those beaches it doesn't fit the narrative we want to present.

  • "What would YOU say to someone who says…" 

    that is a shitty way of starting a question with YOUR agenda in mind… 

    I would answer,
    "I don't say anything…. what would YOU say to someone who says you're a shitty reporter?? well I would tell them we are trying our best… well, that is exactly what I would say to those employees if I had to say anything, but neither you or me have to answer EVERYONE who asks ANY sort of question, in fact THEY should be able to answer those questions THEMSELVES"

  • I love how he dodges the question with the 'We aren't the biggest in anything' response. That's a bald-faced lie. There's a reason they're named 'Amazon'.

  • I hate how the first of these vids in this series has 4000 comments, and the rest of them (like this one) don't even have 50. More people need to be watching this stuff.

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