WORKERS SORT products at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Tracy, California early this month.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An article published lately in The New York Times described the working experience at Amazon, according to the testimonies of approximately 100 past and present employees (some of them anonymous), as more than grueling: 80-hour work-weeks, sleepless nights, around the clock e-mail communications with immediate response expectancy, encouragement of (also anonymous) peer-criticism, constant monitoring and measuring of performance, encouraging competition between employees, uncompromising demands to focus on work at the price of personal life and zero-tolerance for human weaknesses or situations of weakness.
On the other hand, employees also describe a challenging environment, that encourages creativity and excellence, on the cutting edge of customer service, that motivates the employee to the full extent of his/her capacity and beyond, and provides an opportunity – for the few survivors – to become rich. The company uses the strictest standards to mobilize and retain employees and creates no illusions as to the chances of survival except for the brightest, most focused and most persevering.
Amazon’s general manager responded by saying that the article does not portray the Amazon he knows, that he would not work in such a company and that employees with such experiences should pass their complaints to HR or management who will take steps to eliminate such phenomena.
Notwithstanding, the impression is that the competitive atmosphere among employees is a successful recipe for financial gain in a capitalist market and that there is no legal problem with such conduct, since employees are entitled to adopt such a lifestyle – or, as of the interviewed described it, to take a decade off from their personal life – as the price for economic gain. Employees left by the roadside because they cannot or will not to pay the price have no legal redress.
Needless to say, the reality described in the article warrants consideration on more levels than the legal one.
However, here are some comments on aspects of the reality depicted in the article from the perspective of Israeli labor law.
Work-day and work-week In Israel there are legal restrictions on the work-day and work-week. A work-day inclusive of overtime cannot exceed 12 hours and a work-week inclusive of overtime cannot exceed 60 hours. Additionally, there is a mandatory weekly rest and a mandatory break between one work-day and another. There are enforcement laws, including laws mandating recording of working-hours, that serve as real deterrents. In this respect the employee in Israel has no free choice to enslave himself-herself; the law protects the employee’s human dignity, even against his/her choice.
Constant measurement of employee productivity and remuneration in accordance with productivity There is no legal restriction in this regard in Israeli law. There is also no legal restriction to remunerating an employee according to the results of productivity tests, subject to the mandatory minimum wage, overtime and weekly rest pay requirements and collective agreements (where applicable).
The employer is entitled to create a workplace in which an employee is measured, for the sake of remuneration, according to productivity.
Forcing employees to cope with such a reality – though cruel and volatile – is not unlawful, subject of course to nondiscrimination and good-faith requirements.
Encouraging the deferral of family life in favor of career requirements In Israel there are strict legal restrictions on overt or covert messages encouraging the deferral of family life in favor of career requirements. The Equal Opportunities in Employment Law prohibits any discrimination against a candidate or employee due to pregnancy, family status or parenthood.
The test for discrimination is the end (or result) test and there are legal mechanisms for facilitating the proof of covert and indirect discrimination.
Reliance on anonymous peer evaluations This issue should be legally examined against the background of the principles and requirements of human dignity, increased bona-fide in the workplace and anti-defamation.
In my opinion, encouraging a culture of constant measurement relying of anonymous criticism is not compatible with said principles and requirements particularly because the employee’s peers have in a built-in conflict of interest, and it is unclear whether and to what extent they would be accountable for their opinions.
In such a culture the bottom line justifies the means of creating an inhumane workplace and dehumanizing employees. In addition, such criticism may amount to defamation as it damages the employee in the workplace (and not only in the workplace) and it is questionable whether the bona-fide defense will hold.
The restrictions imposed by Israeli labor laws are the minimal requirements for maintaining the human dignity of the employee. Those who wish to employ or be employed without such restrictions should act independently as partners or competitors and assume the risks involved.
The author is a lawyer with S. Horowitz