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Amazon is the new factory: warehouse labour and worker resistance

SPS Seminar
21 May 2019, h. 15.00

Speaker: Alessandro Delfanti (University of Toronto)
Discussants: Bruno Cattero (Università del Piemonte orientale) and Annalisa Murgia (Università degli Studi di Milano)

DEMM Seminar Room ( II floor, via Conservatorio)
Department of Economic, Management and Quantitative Methods
Via Conservatorio 7, Milan

Amazon fulfillment centers store the commodities that are sorted and  shipped when consumers order them online. Each employs thousands of  workers. Through interviews with workers and union organizers and  participant observation I analyse workers’ interaction with automation  and their strategies of resistance. Workers experience digital technology as an agent used to control and speed up human labour. Algorithms allocate tasks, for example guiding workers through the  shelves. Robots select and move shelves to bring them closer to workers.

Under these conditions of production, workers face pressure to work faster and under flexible schedules. A recent wave of mobilization and unionization has brought these issues to the public fore.

To make sense of Amazon I refer to theories of technical and class  composition in industrial capitalism. Deskilling processes made possible  by automation allow Amazon to tap into a mass of unskilled workers. As a result, the company can deal with a high worker turnover and increase its ability to quickly respond to peaks in online orders. In turn, labour unions struggle to communicate with the new subjects that compose  the workforce. Finally, Amazon imports cultural elements from the American digital corporation model, yet the internal division of labour seems to be aimed at making employees accept irrational hierarchies and workplace discipline. Management incentivizes obedience and faith in Amazon’s culture. Analysing Amazon in the light of the continuation of  processes that have long characterized industrial capitalism is key to imagine a future more just for the digital economy.

10 maggio 2019
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