Amazon’s ‘worker cage’ has been dropped, but its staff are not free

André Spicer
An Amazon warehouse in Peterborough. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images

A cage for workers on wheels. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. It’s not. In 2016, Amazon filed a patent for a device described as a “system and method for transporting personnel within an active workplace”. It is actually a cage large enough to fit a worker. It’s mounted on top of an automated trolley device. A robotic arm faces outwards.

The worker cage was designed by Amazon’s robotic engineers. It was intended to protect workers in Amazon’s warehouses when they needed to venture into spaces where robot stock-pickers whizz around. Amazon’s worker cage was quietly patented and only came to global attention thanks to the diligent digging of two academics. When the workers’ cage started to appear in newspaper headlines, Amazon executives declared it a “bad idea”.

Amazon may have dropped the plans, but that should not come as a surprise. The company doesn’t need a robotic cage for workers – it already has one of the most all-pervasive control systems in history. In its huge warehouses, workers carry hand-held computers that control their movements. A wristband patented by the company (but which is not yet in use) can direct the movement of workers’ hands using “haptic feedback”. Stock pickers in Amazon warehouses are watched by cameras, and workers have reportedly been reduced to urinating in bottles in order to hit their targets, and they are constantly reminded of their productivity rates. Investigations by journalists have also exposed a worryingly high level of ambulance call-outs to Amazon warehouses in the UK.

Delivery drivers working on contract for the company are closely tracked and monitored by a system which sets extreme targets that workers must hit. In the US, Amazon drivers are suing, claiming that they often work many hours of unpaid overtime. The relentless targets have reportedly led to unsafe driving. Some say that to keep pace they were forced to defecate in bags which they kept in their delivery vans.

Workers in Amazon’s headquarters also face unrelenting control. An investigation by the New York Times found that executives were expected to be constantly available by email. Office workers were monitored by their co-workers as well as their bosses, by means of a special system that allowed employees to anonymously assess any other employee. This feedback was taken into account when the company decided who could keep their job and who they would let go. The result was a workforce constantly attached to the firm. One employee spent her entire vacation in a Starbucks just so she could deal with demands constantly coming in from headquarters. Another employee says was told she was “a problem” after taking time off to look after her dying father, and was blocked from moving to a less pressured job.

Amazon justifies this system of intense worker control on the basis that customers win. I recently sat through a fascinating seminar on the digital transformation of the economy. One panellist described how great it was that he could ask Alexa – Amazon’s virtual assistant – to order food for his dog and it would arrive the next day. While he (and his dog) may have been pleased with Alexa’s help, it ignores the fact that there are many others who are clearly harmed. There are the exhausted workers in warehouses, the speeding delivery drivers, the executives on the edge of a mental breakdown running the whole system.

But there are also companies in Amazon’s supply chain that are completely reliant on it for business. This means Amazon is able to dictate the terms for these companies. There are the many thousands of companies, small and large, that have been driven out of business by Amazon. And the US government supports companies such as Amazon by giving some of their employees food stamps to top up meagre wages. But I think the satisfied dog owner is also potentially harmed by the fact that his entire home life can be tracked and listened into by a corporation whose capacity for conducting surveillance operations far surpasses anything that the Stasi would ever have dared to dream of.

The problem with Amazon is not that it has considered patenting a wheeled cage for workers; the real issue is the company’s increasingly tight grip on entire sectors of the economy. Consumers might benefit, but many others are losing out. For that reason, some are calling for a radical rethink of how “platform companies” such as Amazon are regulated.

We would not just be asking whether they benefit their consumers who find it easier to order dog food. Instead, we would need to ask whether they benefit the broader public good. That would mean considering the impact they have on workers, suppliers, investors, competitors, national governments and much more. If we started to ask these questions, it is unlikely we would continue to see gigantic companies that dominate whole sectors of the economy as such a good idea.

• André Spicer, a professor at the Cass Business School in London, is the author of Business Bullshit