Back in the day the various UK development agencies fixated on, fetishised even manufacturing when they went out chasing foreign direct investment. This reached its apogee with Chunghwa picture tubes, the central belt facility custom made to build cathode ray tubes just as the world discovered flat screen technology. Lessons were presumably learned until now it seems any new job is a job worth having. Except, is this really the case given the companies Britain now bends over backwards to attract?
The contrast between two things are prompting these questions. One was attending the Radical Independence conference on Saturday, the other is the BBC expose of working in an amazon.com fulfilment centre. Ignoring the actual proposals to sort things made at the conference, one of the key demands repeatedly made was for more decent sustainable jobs, a perfectly reasonable request when you consider amazon.com.
Now, the BBC thing is all very well, it will, I’m sure, highlight lots of nasty employment practices just in time for Christmas then be forgotten thereafter give or take some handwringing. Except the global chat about amazon.com has for years now made clear it's a ferociously shite employer. Here, for instance, is an article about how Amazon set up a fulfilment centre in the US without air conditioning that got so hot emergency medical personnel were on standby to take workers suffering heat injuries to hospital (whether they get their pay docked after passing out from heat exhaustion isn't clear). Here you’ll get a flavour of how amazon.com’s aggressive employment policies are being contested in Germany where trade unions are actually listened to unlike as opposed to here where amazon.com’s anti-union stance is easier to impose. So even without the BBC it was already clear that as an employer amazon.com is bad for your health and your wealth.
Then there’s the wee thing you notice about where amazon.com locates its fulfilment centres. In the US this includes Baltimore - as in The Wire, as in post-industrial urban decay and high unemployment - which was so eager to get the centre it handed over $35m in enterprise zone tax credits, $5.5m in Maryland tax credits, a $1.25m loan on easy terms and discounts from the local utility company. Here, amazon.com has fulfilment centres in Gourock (I think they mean Greenock really) and Swansea i.e. our own hot spots of post-industrial urban decay.
So how much taxpayer funded aid did amazon.com get then to set up shop in Grerenock/Gourock and Swansea? And where else exactly would they have gone if they hadn’t set up shop there given its not as if their actual customers are moving anytime soon i.e. if amazon.com wants to sell to the West of Scotland and Wales, then amazon.com needs fulfilment centres in the West of Scotland and Wales (or bigger centres employing more people elsewhere i.e. no net gain in employment whatsoever). And hang on a mo, so is amazon.com getting millions of taxpayer moolah to do something it’d have to do anyway at the same time as it dodges paying British corporation tax, like how’d that work then?
Unfortunately, politicians aren’t much of a guide because they still sound like they’re lumbered with a Chungwa Picture Tubes mentality. Like when David Cameron responded to amazon.com opening 3 new fulfilment centres by saying “I am delighted that Amazon will create thousands of new jobs … this shows that the UK has the infrastructure and talent to continue to attract major investments from leading companies such as Amazon,” I think what he actually meant to say was that:
1) amazon.com wants to maintain and improve its access to and ability to service tens of millions of profitable customers in one of the world’s richest online economies
2) and to a lesser extent, by doing so it limits the scope for any potential (initially) UK focused rivals to emerge given by definition the amazon.com business model of selling online in itself doesn’t convey a sustainable competitive advantage whereas a logistics infrastructure does.
I think that was what he was meaning anyway, its hard to say other than amazon.com needs access to the British economy far more than Britain needs amazon.com.
So amazon.com, lovely. It dodges taxes, it treats the majority of its employees like shit and - am guessing - it gets big taxpayer handouts to set up warehouses it’d have to set up anyway. I think I;ll be doing my Crimbo online shopping a wee bitty different from now on until amazon.com starts providing “decent sustainable jobs” (with this presumably involving Jeff Bezos spending less on space ships and a wee bitty more on air conditioning and, heaven forfend, wages).