Amazon: The True Price of Cheaper Textbooks

When buying textbooks, it is no secret that ordering online is often the cheapest way to get the same material. Because many students live on a tight budget, cutting costs on textbooks has become a priority for many. Amazon.com has rapidly become one of the biggest online buyers and sellers of textbooks (along with just about everything else). They allow individuals to sell back their books for more than the university bookstore will buy them back for, not to mention providing books at a much lower price than the on-campus resources.

A few people may jump to the conclusion that textbooks are more expensive to boost university profits, but this is not the case. We must then ask, why is it so much cheaper to buy textbooks online than at the bookstore here on campus? The answer lies in the basic laws of our market. When costs decrease it is either because the labor has become more affordable or the product has become cheaper to make. The textbooks are sold to Amazon and our very own MSU bookstore at relatively similar prices. Therefore we must deduce that there is a difference in how the two businesses’ laborers are treated.

In the case of Amazon, difference may be too slight a word. The cheap and reliable services Amazon delivers comes at a high price for the staff members. Amazon employs some 20,000 people at their busiest time of year, the Christmas season. This number may seem high, but the most of the workers are temporary staff that work for minimum wage and are let go after the holidays. The staff members are called pickers and, as their title suggests, they rush around the one of Amazon’s warehouses, which are the size of 11 football fields, and pick our textbooks (or whatever else we ordered) from their endless sea of shelves.

How do the pickers know where the items we, the consumers, ordered? Satellite navigation computers in the pickers’ scanner, which they all carry, guide them through the warehouse. These scanners do not simply give staff directions, however, they give them time limits. If they run late, they gain points which increase their chance of being fired, or not hired on as permanent work. For example, one staff member was reaching his products on average every 37 seconds, which was four seconds longer than the rate Amazon wanted from him. This resulted in a meeting with his manager. Staff members work 10 to 11 hour shifts with an hour break for lunch. This lunch break is shortened, however, by the airport security checkpoints staff must pass through when leaving the workspace, as well as the random searches they must undergo. Several reporters have gone undercover in the Amazon warehouses. All report walking at least six hours every day, with the night shifts reaching 11 hours. One woman was fired because her scanner’s records indicated she was not being productive for a few minutes of her shift, according to her manager.

Clearly, the speed staff moves on the floor matters, but it is not the only thing that is timed. Once a staff member punched in to work two minutes late, causing him to earn half a point in the Amazon point system. He became sick at work and had to leave early another day, which also caused a half point. To put this in perspective, if you rack up three points in a three month time period, you are fired. That is less than three sick days, if you’re never late, for every three months of work.

While Amazon proves an incredibly affordable and convenient resource for consumers, knowing their worker treatment policies we must question what the unspoken costs of their cheap products really are. Amazon is an embarrassing example of using exciting and rapidly advancing technology in a way that dehumanizes workers and attempts to make them the machines they use. All the while, the monopoly Amazon is quickly gaining on the market is causing small businesses around the U.S. and the world to close their doors. Their smaller market, capital and tendency to treat their workers like human beings make it impossible for them to compete.

Refusing to buy from Amazon may not be practical for everyone, and they remain convenient, but nevertheless this information should be taken into account as college students and university staff alike move forward in our book purchasing and assignment. By supporting local shops and bookstores for our needs, not only are we keeping our money and market local, we are not giving our money to the multi-national giant who can’t even manage to give their staff a water break. Is that worth the $15 savings on your textbook?