On Tuesday, Amazon announced the purchase of Kiva Systems, a company that makes warehouse robots like the ones already being used in inventory and logistics-heavy retailers like Zappos and Staples. This new development comes at a time when Apple has been under fire for its labor practices in its Chinese factories, and concern continues to grow about how big name retailers are failing to provide humane working conditions for their manufacturing employees in the name of affordable products. While Apple may be in the spotlight right now, we shouldn’t forget that just months ago Amazon was also called out for the unfair and often brutal working conditions it subjected its shipping employees to. But in less than six months, Amazon has become increasingly sensitive to the issues and is exploring various remedies such as this latest measure involving robots.

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Like many popular online retail warehouses, Amazon’s are located in low-income areas with little commercial development and a heavy dependence on logistics and industry. This economic environment gives local residents few employment opportunities and little choice but to take the ones offered to them. Last year, Amazon’s Lehigh Valley warehouse was ousted for subjecting employees to working conditions that bordered on inhumane — claims were made that temperatures reached up to 102 degrees F inside the factory during the summer months. And because the company’s logistics system is so heavily reliant on human labor, employees were required to undergo physically trying work day-in and day-out in order to meet the company’s stringent quotas. Even today, “pickers”, as they are called, must scramble around the warehouses in a position many have only been able to classify as a “warehouse wage slave”.

While the nature of the job has changed little, there are opportunities and a need for change — and Amazon sees this. Amazon is beginning to realize the shortfalls of its system, and on Tuesday it announced the purchase of Kiva Systems, a company that makes warehouse robots. These robots are a force multiplier for workers that enable one person to do the work of many without moving around so much. If the implementation is successful, company workers will see exponentially higher-quality working conditions.

While a whole host of issues still remain — including worker contracting, benefits, fair compensation, and with the introduction of the new technology, the disappearance of jobs — this move is an important marker for fair labor practices, and proves that public scrutiny and concern is an important catalyst for change. As we see here and with the public outrage that has arisen in response to Apple’s practices, American consumers have real power to improve labor abuses. After all, our dollars are what are keeping these companies open.

Image: (cc) adamramblings


Lead image: Ken James