On August 15, 2015, The New York Times published a devastating expose on Amazons workplace practices. It revealed a winner takes all culture where employees are encouraged to knife one another in the back. Where getting cancer or having a miscarriage can result in disciplinary action. Where people are taken in, ground down into nothing, and then spat out by a lethal corporate machine. No wonder former employees have claimed that being homeless is better than working for the retail giant.
Yet Amazon is far from alone in the way they treat their employees. Across the corporate world, CEOs are leading companies into territory so despicable that theyre indistinguishable from supervillains.
Unpaid Overtime And Backbreaking Work
Ever since the Great Recession hit, theres been an explosion in dollar stores. Family Dollar, Dollar General, Dollar Tree . . . how can all these places stay in business with such low prices? Easythey punish their employees.
Since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, companies have been forced to pay their hourly employees time and a half for overtime. This means that most stores have an incentive to cap a workers week at 40 hours. Not so at the dollar stores. Instead, ordinary workers are promoted to managers, given fixed salaries, then forced to work so many hours that they wind up just as poor as before their promotions.
Rather than get extra responsibilities, managers are often in charge in name only. In practice, they do all the backbreaking grunt work they would normally do, only now they have to do it longer. In 2013, 14 Family Dollar managers sued the company for making them mop floors and stack shelves for over 60 hours each week with no overtime. One plaintiff worked such long hours that he was required to sleep at the store three nights a week. Another who accidentally sliced his finger open was refused medical attention until his shift was over.
Just as shocking was Family Dollars policy regarding shoplifters. According to former managers, it was company policy to challenge thieves. Unsurprisingly, this often resulted in employees getting attacked. In one instance, a guy who was injured confronting a shoplifter had his contract terminated because he could no longer handle heavy work.
Union Busting, Incessant Propaganda
Target has a good reputation among liberals who are too ethical to shop at Walmart but too poor to shop anywhere else. Billed as one of the worlds most ethical companies, its supposed to be friendly, fast, and fun. Unless youre a member of a union, in which case they want your blood.
In the last five years, Target has gone to hilarious and often-illegal lengths to stop its employees from unionizing. In every store, workers are forced to take training days which consist of nothing more than watching antiunion propaganda. In some cases, these sessions have been followed by veiled threats against union organizers. One store issued a pamphlet ominously titled Will the store close if the union gets in?
Theyve followed up on these threats. When a store in Valley Stream, New York, nearly voted to unionize, Target shut the place for seven months, suspending workers without pay. Although they claimed that the store was being remodeled, others reported the closure as a convenient excuse to fire pro-union employees. A judge found that managers at Valley Stream had unlawfully threatened and interrogated employees prior to the union vote.
Corporate Undermining And Backstabbing
One of the major criticisms of Amazon in The New York Times piece was its use of stack ranking. But the practice is far from unique to the online retailer. It nearly drove Microsoft to ruin.
The idea is to rank everyone in the company from best to worst and then eliminate the worst. To make this more practical, each department ranks their members separately. In those departments, each team often does the same. The lowest-ranking members are then fired, while the highest-ranking members get massively remunerated. It sounds like a harsh yet practical way to weed out the useless. In reality, it turned Microsoft into a den of paranoia, backbiting, and aggressive office rivalries.
The trouble is that stack ranking doesnt allow any nuance. Youre either above average, average, or about to get fired. So if a team consists of three geniuses, one of whom is slightly less brilliant than the others, stack ranking still means that the not-quite-so-brilliant guy will get shown the door. Since ranking is subjective and decided by the managers, the only way to ensure that this doesnt happen is to constantly undermine your coworkers.
When this was practiced at Microsoft, many employees spent more time stressing out about office politics than actually working. According to former employees, this culture was responsible for thousands leaving the company in disgust. To their credit, Microsoft abandoned stack ranking in 2013.
Sweatshop Labor, Deadly Fires
Of course, not everyone in a companys supply chain is working in the US. Plenty of firms outsource their labor to cheaper countries. In some cases, this benefits the local economy and provides jobs. In others, as with clothing giant H&M, it results in children working in appalling sweatshop conditions.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch visited some Cambodian garment factories used by H&M and the Gap. In one, they found that nearly a third of the workforce was children employed illegally. Life in these factories isnt fun. Mass outbreaks of fainting are common. When workers try to agitate for better pay (in 2014, they demanded a measly $160 a month), the government breaks up meetings with violence. Its the last place youd want to see a child.
H&M has outsourced to dangerous sweatshops to make their clothes. In 2010, a factory they used in Bangladesh burned to the ground, killing 21. Fire safety equipment in the building was deemed useless. A few months before the blaze, an H&M audit had given the place the all clear.
Insanely High Accident Rate
Back in 2003, a mischievous rumor surfaced that Disneyland Paris employees hated their workplace so much that they referred to it as Mousewitz. In subsequent years, things only got worse. A 2010 report by The Independent revealed that Euro Disney was a corporation riven by suicides, harassment, and a terrifying accident rate.
The article claimed that six-day workweeks were the norm among everyone from ticket sellers to the guys in Goofy and Donald costumes. At the same time, pay was barely above the minimum wage, even for those working highly skilled jobs. Harassment was also alleged to have taken place, which one militant union linked to two recent suicides (although the parks moderate unions disputed this).
This had nothing on the stratospheric accident rate. At the time of the report, Disneyland Paris was suffering 1,500 industrial accidents a year1 for roughly every 10 employees. Thats a higher rate than construction, a trade notorious for workplace injuries.
When the article came out, Euro Disney promised to improve working conditions. It didnt stop the negative headlines. In December 2013, an employee tried to commit suicide by dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself on fire in the middle of the park.
Depressed Wages, Reliance On Food Stamps
Walmart is Americas favorite punching bag. It sells low-quality merchandise, pushes other shops out of business, and has been found guilty by the EPA of environmental crimes. It also pays its workers starvation wages, costing the taxpayer zillions.
For years, Walmarts business model has been to pay its employees as little as possible. In 2013, workers held mass demonstrations to demand $25,000 a year or more in wages. If you dont have any sympathy for people running households on such pitifully low pay, you might have some concern for the effect this has on your own wallet.
That same year, the House of Representatives found that a single Walmart store cost the taxpayers $1 million a year in food stamps and public assistance programs due to these low wages. Multiply that by 5,000 stores across the US, and it begins to look like a serious problem.
Thankfully, it looks like this ingrained culture of super-low pay is beginning to change. In summer 2015, Walmart hiked the wages of 100,000 employees. While their pay still falls short of what campaigners say is necessary, its a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, the move still managed to anger all of the employees who missed out on a raise.
Works Interns Like Slaves
Many people dream of getting a job in high finance. Forget the bad press that bankers get, the life of an investment guru is energy, glamour, and excessive financial rewards. But you should only go into this line of work if youre really ready for it. Banks do seemingly everything in their power to give their interns a mental breakdown.
This manifests itself in a hyper-Darwinian culture where only the craziest survive. In the city of London, interns have reported working days of 1620 hours and a culture of abuse where you exist only to get screamed at by emotionally wrecked superiors. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to the bad nine-to-five, where you start work at 9:00 one morning and finish at 5:00 the next morning. Anecdotes swirl of taxi drivers picking up workers after one of these all-nighters, dropping them home, and then waiting outside so they can shower, change, and go straight back in to work.
One of the worst for this is Merrill Lynch. In 2013, an intern died after working three 21-hour shifts in a row. Although his death was caused by epilepsy, the coroner noted that exhaustion may have triggered the fatal seizure. Its not the only time that illness has been linked with a banking job. In 2012, a University of Southern California researcher published the results of a decade spent following two dozen entry-level investment bankers. Without exception, all of them developed a serious, stress-related illness.
Child Workers In Dangerous Conditions
Apple is so notoriously evil that we once managed to fill an entire article with examples of their psychopathy. But that was way back in 2013, and times have changed. Since then, theyve gotten even worse.
In December 2014, an undercover investigation by the BBC found that workers in Chinese factories that made outsourced Apple products were trapped in appalling conditions. Employees were being forced to work 60-hour weeks and sometimes to go without a break for up to 18 days. There was no option to refuse night shifts, and it was forbidden to sit while working, no matter how tired you were. Dormitories were badly overcrowded, and opportunities for sleep were minimal.
The investigation also looked further down the supply chain, at the Indonesian mines supplying the factories. Despite Apples commitments to ethically sourcing minerals, the BBC found children working in appallingly dangerous conditions. Landslides frequently killed miners, and kids as young as 12 were living in fear for their lives. In their defense, Apple claimed that they were buying from these mines in an attempt to drive changes on the ground.
Sweatshops, Fires And Torture
Clothing retailer Sears is notorious for their use of overseas sweatshop labor. In late 2012, they were revealed to have been outsourcing production to a Bangladesh factory that killed 112 when it went up in flames. Go back further into their past, and things get even grimmer.
In 2003, horrendous working conditions were discovered in a Samoan factory used for outsourcing by Sears and JC Penney. Workers (mostly from Vietnam and China) were taken to the factory at a cost that left them deeply in debt. They also had their pay cut on the slightest provocation and received about $500 for nine months work. Food was so scarce that 251 people had to subsist off a single 1-kilogram (2 lb) chicken at mealtimes. When workers complained, management shut off the electricity, making temperatures soar to dangerous levels.
Worst of all, the investigation found that torture had been used to keep workers in line. In November 2000, the factory owner authorized management to make an example of a Vietnamese seamstress. In front of her coworkers, she was dragged from her workstation and had her eye gouged out with a plastic pipe.
When the revelations broke, JC Penney announced that it would financially compensate those involved. Sears refused to give them a single penny.
Youve probably never heard of Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge. Lucky you. As of August 2015, they were the first people to be taken to court for modern slavery crimes in British history.
As owners of chicken-catching company DJ Houghton, the pair presided over a grubby little empire of squalor and terror. Their head gangmaster Edikas Mankevicius hired fellow Lithuanians, who were debt-bonded when they arrived in England. A bonded laborer is required to work for extremely low wages as a way to repay a loan. With such low pay, the person is unable to repay the loan and so becomes a slave. The DJ Houghton workers were also herded into bedbug-infested accommodations, starved, beaten, and threatened with fighting dogs.
Their work was even worse. At the best of times, chicken catching is a grubby job that involves herding thousands of chickens by hand into cages. Under the supervision of Mankevicius, workers put in 120-hour weeks for well below the minimum wage. Chances to wash, dress, or eat between jobs were nearly nonexistent. The only sleep workers got was in the van headed to their next job. Injuries were routinely ignored. One man who broke his ribs was denied medical attention and had to call his own ambulance when he discovered he couldnt breathe properly. Another suffered an eye injury that went untreated.
Off duty, they were subjected to intense psychological and physical intimidation. Workers were punched to the ground for no reason. Their meager wages were docked for forgetting to clean a coffee cup. It was a level of abuse that bordered on torture, and it was happening in the sleepy English county of Kent.
Sadly, this story doesnt have a happy ending. After police intervened, Mankevicius escaped to Lithuania. Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge have never been punished. Disgustingly, when the story broke, the local media chose to portray the couple as the victims. As for the modern-day slaves suffering under their tawdry reign of terror, they have yet to receive a single penny in compensation.