Shopping on a budget means that I bargain hunt. Sometimes I take more joy in the price I paid for an item than in using the item itself. (I’m looking at you, $2 can-opener). But during the winter holidays, even my most hardcore coupon-clipping can’t save me from living in the red. Online shopping—with its free shipping, free returns, frequent sales, and swift delivery—has become my saving grace.
I’m not alone. In 2012, 47.5% of American shoppers during Black Friday weekend shopped online. But for every “Twilight” saga DVD box set I order online at a bargain, an underpaid American worker in a windowless warehouse pays the price.
The stuff we order from online retailers lives in warehouses. As online sales spike between October and December, these warehouses hire as many as 4,000 additional temporary employees.
Believe me: as a recent college grad in a depressed economy, I really like the word “hire.” But the jobs created by the internet order fulfillment industry aren’t the jobs you want — they’re the jobs you reluctantly, nervously take when you have no other options. A 2011 investigation of an Amazon warehouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania revealed that workers fainted from heat exhaustion while working mandatory overtime. The employees who went home to escape the 100-degree heat got fired. Forget China and India; this story plays out in retail warehouses across the United States.
Like all environments with automated and heavy machinery, retail warehouses are mine fields for potential hospitalization and disfigurement. According to recent Mother Jones story by a writer who took a warehouse job for research purposes, if the environmental hazards don’t get you down, the emotional stress will. The writer reports that one advisor at an Ohio chamber of commerce told her: “[Internet retailers] need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they’re gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they’re gonna increase the goals. But they’ll be yelling at you all the time. It’s like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You’ll see people dropping all around you.”
The likelihood of injury increases as employees feel pushed to work faster. Add any number of dependent family members—especially kids—and our willingness to push ourselves reaches dangerous heights. The closest of these internet retail warehouses, in South Carolina, pays workers minimum wage, $7.25 per hour.
Raising the federal minimum wage to more than $10 per hour, as legislation before Congress proposes to do, would mean that workers running themselves ragged in windowless warehouses could rely on their paychecks to put themselves a little farther from the poverty line.
What You Can Do: Tell your Congressional representatives that you support a fair minimum wage. And the next time you’re ready to click on an online purchase, remember that “free” shipping costs something. Think twice and shop local.