Workshop Talks: Workers not robots

October 26, 2015

From the November-December 2015 issue of News & Letters

by Htun Lin

The workplace at is making employees physically and mentally ill according to an explosive expose in The New York Times of Aug. 16.

WorkshopTalksSlug“‘Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,’ said one employee….Even as the company tests delivery by drone and ways to restock toilet paper at the push of a bathroom button, it is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”


The Amazon workplace as described by employees is one of constant speed-up, pushing employees beyond their capacity without empathy. Elly Baker, a union leader, responded to this expose in The Guardian (Aug. 18): “It’s hard, physical work, but the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh. You can’t be a normal person. You have to be an above-average Amazon robot all the time.”

“Employees’ working and personal lives were tracked and quantified, with their movements, productivity and successes or failures being constantly measured, while managers were forced to rate their employees and fire their lowest-scoring workers.” The fact that this Times article got more comments than any other ever had, revealed its pervasive—and usually unreported— truth about the workplace.

At Kaiser HMO too, we’re tracked and measured obsessively. It’s an assembly-line mentality. Workers are mere appendages to the machine. Individuals’ lives are sacrificed at the altar of the company. Kaiser is like Amazon, where the running joke is: “When it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”


Amazon sells things. At Kaiser, we’re supposed to deliver healthcare. Yet in both shops the bottom line is king—even healthcare has been transformed into a commodity. Marketing health insurance as a “product” lords over the concrete delivery of healthcare.

At Kaiser we have a company union like in China. The union rep, now with the new title “Labor-Management-Partnership Liaison,” sits across the table next to the boss, like a tribunal, during disciplinary hearings for “attendance violations” like calling in sick, using your contractual sick time, even with a doctor’s note.

Amazon carries this lack of empathy further with workers who get sick. When they return, still recovering from miscarriages or cancer treatments, they are told they will be put on a performance monitoring program. Without improvement they are invited to leave and are told the place would be more productive without them.

One thing Kaiser obsessively monitors is “customer satisfaction.” They collect “satisfaction-survey” data that rates our “empathy” level towards the “customer” (we don’t call them patients anymore). These metrics are a cover-up for a total lack of empathy. We’re told to always wear a toothy grin even while we’re simultaneously hitting the patient at bedside with a huge co-pay bill, or serving them an eviction notice that says they’ve overstayed their welcome. If they refuse to leave, there is an additional bill at the rate of $3,900 per day!


Healthcare is not a product. It cannot be reformed under these deformed conditions where both workers and patients are treated as objects, with no real empathy, and where scientific data is used for deception. Empathy is hardly possible under capitalism, where health insurance marketing is a predatory sport.

Workers everywhere suffer work-related mental anxieties and physical stress under what Marx called the “despotic plan of capital.” The working conditions at Amazon and where I work are eerily similar. Indeed, working conditions in the U.S., as across the world, are becoming similar to that of Chinese manufacturers like FoxConn. Marx’s concept of socially necessary labor time means there’s a global standard for despotic control of production.

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