So, how have you set about completing your Christmas shopping as the holiday season approaches? Did you brave the scuffles of Black Friday in search of the ultimate in-store bargain? Have you subjected your computer to the minefield of cookies when chasing the lowest possible internet prices on Cyber Monday? Or are you the sort of person who waits to see what offers are available at the late-night petrol station on Christmas Eve?
Most probably you will plump for the least stressful option. And what could be easier than kicking off your shoes, firing up your mobile device, having a quick surf and pressing the purchase button every now and again? The presents will arrive the next day – perhaps already wrapped to save you the bother – and you won’t even have needed to break sweat.
‘Hurray for internet shopping,’ I hear you cry. Those nice people at Amazon have created a virtual market that allows us to avoid all the pushing and shoving, all the claustrophobic crowds, all the ritualised elements of having to run with the retail mob. They have conjured up an experience devoid of stresses and strains, delivering Christmas to your door as they go.
That, in any case, is the image appearing in the adverts for the online retail giant. Did we ever really fall for such a sanitised version of events, though, when considering how our purchases moved from A to B following the click of a mouse? Even if we did, or even if we were unaware that there was anything of importance to consider, it is now impossible to sidestep such potentially troubling questions. Last month’s Panorama exposé of working practices at Amazon distribution centres means that we can no longer plead ignorance.
Warehouse whistleblowers are a relatively recent phenomenon. Stories appeared earlier in the year, for instance, revealing that certain supermarkets were electronically tagging their workers to try to enforce productivity. Now the BBC has placed a journalist in an Amazon distribution centre to show how its workers have to carry around a countdown clock which records every element of task completion against a specified time limit. This is constant monitoring; it is deeply intrusive and deeply disciplinary.
It also means that the stresses of finding the right Christmas presents do not magically disappear through the advent of internet shopping. They are simply displaced. Consumers can hide behind the mirage of a stress-free experience, but only because the anonymity of the online retail world allows them to pass on those pressures to other people. Warehouse workers are not just generically on the clock but have the prospect of a countdown clock reaching zero stalking their every move. This is physically damaging for them, as they permanently have to strive to meet one target after another. It is also psychologically damaging, because the targets are set specifically so that failure is an inbuilt feature of being at work.
The new ghosts of Christmas present are therefore clearly lined up for all to see. They take the form of warehouse workers paid bargain-basement wages to be pushed to their physical and psychological limits just to make the process of gift-giving easier for us.
What to do in such circumstances? Is it possible to carry on as before whilst maintaining that our consciences are clear when trading through Amazon’s online platforms? Are the stresses imposed on those who work within its distribution centres a price worth paying for ensuring that friends and family have gifts to open this Christmas at minimal cost to our own discomfort? Or will the Panorama programme persuade us to go back to the old-fashioned way of braving the scrums if we decide to withhold our custom from the online retail giant?
History does not record the terms and conditions enjoyed by Santa’s elves, but it does now reveal the treatment of the Amazon workers helping us to manage our hectic routines this Christmas. Given, though, that a little learning is often a dangerous thing, does it really make our lives easier knowing what we do today about the unseemly side of the warehouse? Physically, yes – because it is clearly still a lot less hassle to purchase gifts online. The terms and conditions of warehouse workers raise important ethical issues, however, concerning the harms that are produced when shopping like this. The way ahead is paved with complex ethical dilemmas and is far from straightforward to navigate.