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The costs of filling that basket… December 1, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, The Left.

here’s a piece in the Observer on Amazon that is well worth reading in relation to its work practices and just how its operations function and what the implications of same are. The description of work practices, lack of recognition of unions, tax affairs and so on is not news, but it puts it together in a neat encapsulation that should cause pause for thought.

Some key sentences:

“We are the most customer-centric company on earth,” we’re told in our induction briefing, shortly before it’s explained that if we’re late we’ll get half a point, and after three of them we’re out. What constitutes late, I ask. “A minute,” I’m told.


It’s taxes, of course, that pay for the roads on which Amazon’s delivery trucks drive, and the schools in which its employees are educated, and the hospitals in which their babies are born and their arteries are patched up, and in which, one day, they may be nursed in their dying days. Taxes that all its workers pay, and that, it emerged in 2012, it tends not to pay. On UK sales of £4.2bn in 2012, it paid £3.2m in corporation tax. In 2006, it transferred its UK business to Luxembourg and reclassified its UK operation as simply “order fulfilment” business. The Luxembourg office employs 380 people. The UK operation employs 21,000. You do the math.

Brad Stone tells me that tax avoidance is built into the company’s DNA. From the very beginning it has been “constitutionally oriented to securing every possible advantage for its customers, setting the lowest possible prices, taking advantage of every known tax loophole or creating new ones”.

And this:

Just as Amazon has eroded 200 years’ worth of workers’ rights through its use of agencies and rendered a large swath of its workers powerless, so it has pulled off the same trick with corporate responsibility. MPs like to slag off Amazon and Starbucks and Google for not paying their taxes but they’ve yet to actually create the legislation that would compel them to do so.

That last is crucial. Nick Cohen’s old quote about the power of the state remaining paramount even in this period and yet being underused (I paraphrase) is one I’ve repeated time and again – and here’s another couple of thoughts from him from over the Summer on this very topic. Amazon acts in certain ways because it is permitted to do so. This doesn’t exculpate it. There are businesses that operate in markedly different ways, even while putting profit at the centre of their activities. But – and yes, neo-liberalism, is the proper term, whether in its social democratic or conservative incarnations has permitted this state of affairs to develop. As Amazon will no doubt correctly point out, it works within the constraints of labour and all other laws, while running rings around them.

It’s amazing how pervasive Amazon can be. Let’s not forget the Kindle. And it’s also important to reflect upon how in cities and towns books stores and DVD and music stores have retreated. I was at Tesco in Clare Hall for the first time ever this weekend and there was a small franchise selling a few books and that was it. Tesco itself sells a very limited range. Likewise with music and so on. It’s a strange dynamic where in some respects the market retreats, or transforms, from the physical space and yet manifests itself in larger comprehensive but deeply problematic ways, as the article outlines. And this is – ironically – a significant problem for other much smaller businesses. The article notes how one supplier even though they refused to use Amazon had the giant use their name. They’re suing. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

One last thought. Look at the description of work practices, of taxation approaches and so on. One analysis in the article suggest that that is unsustainable, but I wonder. I have the sense that actually relatively minimal changes could be introduced that would still allow the company to make significant profits, one need only list some of the areas where its approach seems perverse… low quality safety shoes etc. It would be more difficult but it wouldn’t be impossible. The question is why it doesn’t. The answer to that gets to the heart of all that is wrong with the model.

I’ve found that establishing contact individually online with book or DVD sellers is often easier and offers close enough or better prices and at least there’s the sense that one is minimising exploitative aspects. Any recommended workarounds other people use?

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1. fergal - December 1, 2013

Is it next to impossible to get a vaguely critical article on multinationals in this land. The IT had a glowing piece on Google and its free dinners for employees yesterday in their supplement.I ccould probably provide free dinners for everyone on CLR id I only paid 2.5 per cent tax. Their employees are called Googlers.
John Drennan has an article on Adams today and mentions “a young country of Google employees”, how many people work there…….2,500. Where are the remotely critical voices in the media?

Jonathan - December 1, 2013

Drennan also says that Sinn Fein have to woo ‘Superquinn Moms’ as well as their traditional base of those who consume ‘chips, Dutch Gold, and batter-burgers’. As with Google employees, Superquinn Moms (and Dads) are a fairly small portion of the population, however: “Tesco remains the dominant player in the Irish market, with more than 27pc market share. Dunnes and SuperValu have more than 40pc of the market between them, and Superquinn has just under 6pc market share.” http://www.independent.ie/business/irish/superquinn-beats-rivals-with-boost-to-sales-figures-29167798.html

Brian Hanley - December 1, 2013

Very revealing use of language there from Drennan; ‘chips..Dutch Gold and batter-burgers’. Is there an Irish Owen Jones out there whose noting all of this? This is the type of high intellectual analysis that makes Irish political correspondents revered throughout the world of journalism.

Eamonncork - December 2, 2013

Don’t knock Drennan. He came up with the exclusive story on the eve of the last election that Gerry Adams probably wouldn’t be elected in Louth. It would have been easier to swallow half a dozen batter burgers than swallow that one.
Agree with you on the Owen Jones point, the fallacy of Ireland being a classless society where ‘we’re all in it together’ has masked the most vicious and pathetic snobbery. Enabled it in fact. Because if I look down on someone, and there’s no such thing as class, it must just be their fault for being a scumbag.

Tomboktu - December 1, 2013

Plus: how many Google employees in Dublin are immigrants, hired to provide Google services to their home countries?

2. CL - December 1, 2013

Amazon has still to make a profit, I think, but its stock price keeps rising. There have been a number of strikes at Amazon in Germany.
“The feedback we’re getting is it’s like being in a slave camp,” said Brian Garner, the dapper chairman of the Lea Hall Miners Welfare Centre and Social Club, still a popular drinking spot.
The quote is from a piece in the FT a few months ago. Very grim reading.

3. dmfod - December 1, 2013

It’s possible to find most popular books online for free so since I got a Kindle I have almost completely stopped paying for books, which isn’t quite what Amazon had in mind! Otherwise I go to the library or if I want to buy someone a book as a present, Chapters, which at least is not a huge chain.

workers republic - December 1, 2013

There are good books , new and 2nd hand for sale at stalls in Temple Bar, Bantry and other open air markets , at reasonable prices. Last Sunday (24th) I got some rare books, I was ‘hunting’ a long, at 2nd hand stall at Killmichal .
I always found public libraries very helpful.
Companies that treat workers the way Amazon do, should be boycotted. I wouln’t support them in principle.
Also, Solidarity Bookshop is excellent for political books and you could be lucky there for 2nd hand general books.

Michael Carley - December 1, 2013

If you’re in Dublin, Books Upstairs on Dame Street is good (especially for obscure political feuds) and the Secret Book Shop on Wicklow Street.

When I was last in Dublin, I remember thinking that for a city of a million people, it doesn’t have many bookshops. There are Easons, Hodges Figgis, Chapters, Books Upstairs, Connolly Books, the newish one in Temple Bar, and precious little after that other than second hand and charity shops.

WorldbyStorm - December 2, 2013

+1 Michael, it’s very depressing how few there are and it’s got little to do with ebooks I suspect.

WR, some British Labour Party MPs have started a boycott of Amazon, and there’s also a boycott by ethical groups concerned about workers rights, or it could be they all support the same campaign.

Michael Carley - December 2, 2013

It’s been true for a long time. I remember the ones that used to be on the quays, one on the corner of Merrion Square, and that one near Baggott St bridge, but they’re long gone. Some of the local shopping centres would have ones which were perfectly good for what they were, but I think it’s a long time since there has been a really good middling sized bookshop in Dublin: say a large version of Books Upstairs, but not a supermarket like Hodges Figgis.

Dublin, my Dublin, …

workers republic - December 2, 2013

good to hear that!

Eamonncork - December 2, 2013

Not wanting to be too Consumer Guide about this. But anyway.
I was in Galway today and went to Bell Book and Candle which is a second hand book, music and DVD shop next to the Crane Bar. Got some great stuff at cheap prices. But more than that I was reminded of why it’s important to have a local shop rather than all the business going to some multi-national.
A guy came in to check out a guitar and played Anji by Davy Graham rather well (no easy task), another guy came in to enthuse about the Blades gig and someone else to ask for advice on buying a motorbike, A woman came in looking to buy a Black Sabbath vinyl album for someone’s birthday and someone got rang on their mobile while they were there and heard they’d got a job.
There was a real feeling of community about the place. I don’t know the guy who owns it or anything about it but it’s well worth a trip if you’re in Galway. In the long run people need contact with other people. Browsing through a shelf is a far more enriching experience than scanning your Amazon recommendations.

Michael Carley - December 2, 2013

It’s true, especially for anything `cultural’. Amazon will only sell you what they already know you like. My local bookshop here has sold me things I would never have considered on my own. With the Sound Cellar I got to the stage where I was simply handed CDs and told `that’s what you’re listening to this week.’

4. sonofstan - December 2, 2013

Book Depository are cheaper than Amazon, usually, and only sell books – they appear to be ethical, and are very good on academic texts. I share the despair at the shortage of bookshops in Dublin, but it’s not due to illiteracy or the internet – it’s the cost of commercial rents in the city centre that make it all but impossible for anything other than clothes shops and hairdressers to survive. Where I am, it’s much worse: in a town the size of Galway, there’s a crap Waterstone’s and that’s it, and the surrounding towns are no better, apart from one gem of a second hand bookshop run, from the looks of it, out of sheer devotion and in a house I guess they own: and this in the richest corner of England outside central London. The point made in the Amazon piece above needs to be amplified: for all the jobs they provide, subtract the jobs lost in devastated high streets where variety and interest have been replaced by charity shops and Poundlands.

prettyinpink - December 2, 2013

Sorry to inform you that Book Depository was bought out several years ago… by Amazon.

WorldbyStorm - December 2, 2013

As was Abebooks too. That one caught me a while back. Alibris is okay, ebooks.com too.

This is kind of handy and while my main concern is workers/sustainability and environment it has very comprehensive overviews. Too comprehensive in some ways, it’s hard to know in some instances if there’s any company that’s halfway decent.


Eamonncork - December 2, 2013

You’ve convinced me. Out goes Amazon. Is Alibris kosher as regards working conditions for staff? Ethicalconsumer recommends Betterworld but they don’t have such a large selection, and it’s the difficult to get books I shop for online.

5. Eamonncork - December 2, 2013

One of the things which struck me reading about Amazon is how unnecessary this draconian stuff is. Does it much matter when you order a book or DVD whether it gets there on the Monday or the Wednesday anyway? This time and motion stuff is to a large extent is less a means to an end than an end in itself. I’d imagine it is pretty useful in cowing the workforce.
According to The Nation there were around 1500 protests at Wal Mart on Black Friday and over 100 arrests.

6. CL - December 2, 2013

Saw a report a report this morning that Amazon is going to use drones for delivery. Amazing.
Strand bookstore in NYC has a huge selection.

FergusD - December 2, 2013

I heard there was a proposal that Transport for London were going to sell/let underground ticket offices to Amazon as pick up points for their parcels. This because TfL plan to do away with all manned ticket offices on undergound stations – machines only. Nobody to ask if you are a confused visitor then?!

Somewhat off topic rant – airports are now shopping malls. My nearest has the command “Relax and shop” (surely a contradiction) on the electronic displays of departure information if your flight is more that about 30 minutes from departure. The boarding gate is only displayed at the last moment, presumably so you can “relax and shop” until the last moment and then dash like a lunatic to the far end of the building. I had to help a very confused elderly Spanish gent with little English who couldn’t find his way through the maze of “duty free” shops you have to navigate to get to the departure lounge. It is all so cynical. I just want to get on the ‘plane and go with the minimum of fuss – is that too much to expect of an airport?

Rant 2 – recent news item that UK private debt is the highest since 2007 and in the trillions. We are told consumer spending is the key to ending the recession (because teh state musn’t spend apparently), so as wages and salaries keep falling in real terms that must mean people must be persuaded to borrow and spend. Haven’t we been here before? How did it work out?

On strike tomorrow over pay – I am very pessimistic of the outcome.

que - December 2, 2013

saw that. Cant see it ever happening. Guaranteed people would try take them down. But isn’t it weird to think that the idea is even coming close. Brave new world.

7. Ed - December 2, 2013

I came across this site just the other day when ordering a book; the idea behind it seems to be to allow people to get books online while also supporting independent bookshops; a percentage of what you pay goes to your local shop, or to one you select yourself (my percentage went by default to a place on Muswell Hill because that’s nearest to where I live; if I’d known you could select one yourself I guess I would have picked Housmans).


Seems like a good idea; hasn’t expanded to the Free State yet as far as I can see, when I did a search for participating bookstores in Dublin, the nearest results were in the North and on the Welsh coast.

And +1 Eamonn on this next-day delivery crap—whenever I order a book online, it’s usually going to go into my pile of a dozen or so that I intend to get through over the next while (I already have enough unread books to last me easily to the end of 2014 and probably 2015 too); I can’t imagine a situation where I’d absolutely definitely need a book tomorrow and not the day after or the day after that.

I’ve always made a rule of not buying anything off Amazon if I could get it in a bookshop, even if I had to pay a few quid extra; I spend far more in bookshops than the average person so they won’t be going bust on my account at least. The trouble is, Amazon does give you access to a whole rake of obscure out-of-print titles that you otherwise would be extremely lucky to stumble across in a very good second-hand store, most of the books I’ve bought through Amazon fall into that category. But if there’s an organized boycott in place now, that’s a pretty strong case for blanking them altogether.

Does anyone know—most of the time when I’ve bought books through Amazon, it tends not to be from Amazon themselves, but from a smaller online retailer selling through their site; how does the revenue share break down between them and Amazon in cases like that?

dmfod - December 2, 2013

Bookfinder.com is really good for letting you know everywhere on the web that sells any book you’re looking for and it automatically calculates in the postage and currency conversions for you. Very handy for avoiding Amazon for harder to find books.

8. Dr. X - December 2, 2013

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