Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images / Protocol
June 16, 2021
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Good morning! This Wednesday: Amazon's many problems, Andreessen Horowitz launched … a blog, Jack Ma has a new hobby, and the Chromification of Windows.
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The Big Story
Amazon is not having a great couple of weeks.
First there was the news from the Strategic Organizing Center that Amazon's warehouse injury rates are about 50% higher than the national average (and double that of Walmart's, its closest competitor). Then, if anyone was still skeptical about Amazon warehouse working conditions, The New York Times put the questions to rest yesterday with an 11,000-word feature investigating Amazon's treatment of its workers. Finally, the White House topped it all off by naming Amazon's biggest foe, Lina Khan, as chair of the FTC, where (as we laid out on Monday) she'll be well-positioned to launch her antitrust crusade against the ecommerce giant.
But about that worker treatment...
Amazon's own internal workplace technology makes all of its problems worse, which is probably the biggest takeaway from the NYT's novella. The HR filing systems and apps are often overwhelmed, breaking or glitching because of the sheer amount of unanticipated requests for support.
- There aren't that many people on HR teams compared to the number of workers, so the company directs almost every complaint through its worker-facing app.
- Workers often get stuck in an infinite loop of automated chatbots and email systems, unable to seek resolution with an actual human being. (There's a bit of a theme here: Amazon has long faced criticism for failing to invest in tech that it doesn't deem important, like the Prime Video, Kindle and Goodreads interfaces.)
- This leaves many employees without any resources to seek help, including those looking to get help with proper pay, disability, benefits or leave approval.
Amazon's fulfillment center turnover rate is way higher than that of its competitors, and it seems to be deliberate. Company leadership reportedly believes that people get lazier and less motivated over time, so guaranteed pay increases end after three years of work, and new incentives are added to get workers to quit.
Amazon also doesn't promote many workers to manager level; instead, the company tries to hire college grads as managers. This is again in direct contrast to Walmart's business practices, where a majority of managers are elevated from lower-level and lower-paid positions.
- Some senior managers are now reportedly worried that as Amazon continues to grow (it will likely become the U.S.'s largest employer in the next few years), it will be unable to find the number of people it needs because of how fast it's burning through the eligible workforce.
All of these management problems still don't steer everyone away from Amazon. For the majority of workers, these hurdles don't change the reality that the job is easier to get, better-paying and offers better benefits than almost anything else available at similar experience and skill levels.
I sat down with one fulfillment center worker, Allegra Brown, last week to talk about why she's stayed at work despite chronic pain caused by her job, and she summed it up pretty well: "Honestly, if you think about it, I could leave this job, the problems are still going to be there. It's a good job," she said. "It's just the stuff that happens. If they fix the problems like that, if we weren't so overworked like that, it pays decent money. It's not bad."
People Are Talking
Right-to-repair for tractors isn't like right-to-repair for phones, John Deere's Jahmy Hindman said:
- "I think the difference with the Apple argument is that the iPhone isn't driving down the road at 20 miles an hour with oncoming traffic coming at it … Do you really want to expose untested, unplanned, unknown introductions of software into a product like that that's out in the public landscape?"
The tech industry should focus on getting rid of passwords, Microsoft's Bret Arsenault said:
- "We had a motto to get MFA everywhere, in hindsight that was the right security goal but the wrong approach. Make this about the user outcome, so transition to 'we want to eliminate passwords' ... It turned out that simple language shift changed the culture and the view of what we were trying to accomplish."
Jack Ma is lying low and learning new things, Alibaba's Joe Tsai said:
- "I talk to him every day. He's actually doing very, very well. He's taken up painting as a hobby, it's actually pretty good."
On Protocol: Andreessen Horowitz launched Future, its new in-house media platform. Which is really just a blog, but somehow became a controversial one in tech-media circles. Either way, Marc Andreessen's first post is a good one.
KMD Partners bought Liberty Bank. KMD is also CreditNinja's parent company, though it and Liberty Bank would remain separate companies under KMD's watch.
The Linux Foundation is planning to hold events in person again this fall, and said it will require all attendees to prove they're vaccinated.
Krafton is going public. The maker of PUBG plans to raise up to $5 billion, which would make it South Korea's largest-ever IPO.
In Other News
- On Protocol | Policy: The antitrust fight is moving to the smart home. Lawmakers warned Amazon and Google on Tuesday that they don't want to see the companies take over the smart home device market, and Sonos and others warned that that's exactly where things are headed.
- Apple Podcast Subscriptions and channels are now live, after some delays and complications. Meanwhile Spotify continues to just buy up the podcast charts, this time spending $60 million on "Call Her Daddy."
- Airbnb's "safety team" is basically a crisis management firm. The team takes the worst things that happen to guests — especially women — and tries to do what it can to reduce harm and prevent them from happening again, often on the condition that the hosts and guests stay silent, according to a Bloomberg investigation.
- On Protocol: The U.S. and EU have formed a new council to discuss tech- and trade-related issues, including standards related to AI development and the Internet of Things.
- Apple is scaling back its health ambitions. For years, the WSJ reported, the company experimented with becoming a full-fledged health care organization, but has since decided to focus on selling health-focused devices like the Apple Watch.
- On Protocol: MacKenzie Scott is giving away $2.7 billion to nonprofits, in addition to the $6 billion she gave away in 2020. She's setting precedents for charitable giving not just because of the amount (the $8 billion total rivals even most large charitable foundations) but also because she doesn't set restrictions on the use of her gifts.
- On Protocol: Mapbox is unionizing, making it the latest in a long string of tech companies to join the Communications Workers of America.
- Is this Windows 11? Leaks of a new design for Windows are starting to float around the internet, and there's some definite Chrome OS inspiration here. But it's still mostly just Windows.
- Shop Pay is coming to everyone. Merchants on Facebook, Instagram or Google will be able to use the checkout system even if they don't otherwise use Shopify.
One More Thing
Your new headshot
Have you noticed all those cartoon-character avatars starting to pop up on Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere? They're all coming from the same app: Voila AI Artist, which can Disney-fy your mug in any number of ways.
Per Snopes, there are some data-security concerns to be aware of, so be careful what you do and share. But as long as you're comfortable with it, Voila is a fun tool, especially if you're looking to update your profile pic while still in the throes of no-haircut, all-sweats, why-put-my-contacts-in quarantine life.
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