Big Brother Is Watching Amazon and Walmart Warehouse Workers

Both Amazon and Walmart invest massively in highly invasive technological surveillance of their warehouse workforce — surveillance that then enables the hyperexploitation both companies’ workers are subject to.

Employees gather online orders at a Walmart market fulfillment center in the back of a store in Grapevine, Texas, on October 10, 2023. (Dylan Hollingsworth / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Last month, the New York Times published an article headlined “Walmart Wants to Teach Store Managers Compassion.” The piece is about the company’s “Manager Academy,” a leadership-training program that began in July 2022; it features shockingly little discussion of the company’s infamously anti-worker practices.

I criticized the article’s manifold omissions at the time, pointing to some of the many problems with Walmart’s treatment of workers up and down its global supply chain that you didn’t learn much about in the Times’ coverage. The company employs an enormous workforce in its warehouses; Amazon’s warehouse workers have received the bulk of recent attention from those concerned with workers’ rights and safety, particularly with respect to worker-surveillance technology, of which Amazon is a pioneer. But a new report from Oxfam shows that Walmart’s warehouse workers endure the same problems as their counterparts.

“At Work and Under Watch: Surveillance and suffering at Amazon and Walmart warehouses” investigates both Amazon and Walmart. The latter is the largest private employer in the United States, with a domestic workforce of 1.6 million, while Amazon has 1.1 million workers (though that number doesn’t include its legions of drivers who are not classified as Amazon employees). Though much attention has been paid to the exploitation of workers at Walmart’s 4,616 stores, there is less coverage of the warehouse workers who remain crucial to its operations, and where surveillance fits into the Walmart model.

That should change: after all, the two companies’ labor practices are intimately connected. Shortly after Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, he began poaching Walmart executives, hoping to build upon the older company’s cheap-labor, high-volume logistics operation. First was Rick Dalzell, a Walmart IT leader who oversaw the company’s data-warehousing initiatives; Bezos made him Amazon’s first chief information officer. Robert Davis, a key early architect of Walmart’s fledgling e-commerce operation, decamped to Amazon.

In their 2018 study of Walmart, sociologists Adam Reich and Peter Bearman coined the term “Walmartism,” defined as an arbitrary authority combined with a “penetrative system of observation, measurement, and feedback that constrains both workers and managers — a system assembled from technological innovations unavailable to Walmart’s nineteenth-century counterparts.” The same year Reich and Bearman’s book was published, Walmart won a patent for new surveillance technology that would allow management to eavesdrop on workers, monitor customer interactions, and closely track employee performance. With such extensive surveillance of its workforce, it’s hard to believe the company is unaware of the conditions its workers are laboring under.

Drawing on the National Survey of Amazon Warehouse Workers and the National Survey of Walmart Warehouse Workers and supplemented by qualitative ethnography and interviews with workers, “At Work and Under Watch” looks at how these workers experience technology-enabled surveillance at the two megacorporations. (For a sense of the companies’ size, their combined revenue totaled $1.85 trillion in 2023, roughly the same as Saudi Arabia’s GDP). Mishal Khan, the report’s author, finds that “regimes of measurement, surveillance, discipline, and data collection deployed by both companies unduly punish workers, stifle worker voice, and have negative impacts on worker health, safety, and well-being.”

“They know exactly . . . when you are working, and when you are not,” a Walmart warehouse worker in California tells the researchers. An Amazon worker in North Carolina compares the experience to Netflix’s Squid Game, stating that “Every three days, first responders are called to [our] facility. And when I say that it’s like [Squid Game], you see co-workers, you see friends, some workers have relatives, you see relatives who pass out, who are taken out of their facility on the stretcher.” If you get injured, a Walmart worker in California explains, it is “almost always your fault. Management would not negotiate this with you at all. You would be penalized for it because they would deem that you were working unsafe and ignore all the other possible reasons for why you got injured.”

A greater proportion of both Amazon and Walmart workers say that the speed at which they work is measured in detail by company technology all or most of the time: 72 percent of Amazon workers and 67 percent of Walmart workers, compared to 58 percent of workers in another survey from 2023, covering the warehousing industry as a whole. Similarly, 77 percent of Amazon workers and 62 percent of Walmart workers report that technology can “tell if [they] are actively engaged in [their] work” always or most of the time. That’s compared to 47 percent of workers in the industry as a whole.

This level of surveillance isn’t just about monitoring; it’s the foundation for relentless speedup. Three-quarters of Amazon workers and 74 percent of Walmart workers report feeling pressure to work faster at least some of the time, and more than half of the workers at both companies report that their production rates make it hard for them to use the bathroom at least some of the time.

Women workers at Walmart were significantly more likely to express anxiety over whether they could keep up with the production rate without risking their health and safety, bringing to mind previous reporting that finds that some female warehouse workers at Amazon develop urinary tract infections (UTIs) as a result of the time crunch that keeps them from using the restroom. (Women at both companies also report significantly higher rates of severe pain across all areas of the body than men did; at Amazon, Latina women report the highest injury rates.)

About half of workers at both companies report feeling burned out from their work. More surprising, however, is that while 41 percent of Amazon workers say they’ve experienced some level of dehydration over the past three months, 91 percent of Walmart workers experienced dehydration. The alarming statistic suggests that Walmart’s policies regarding break time and the availability of water in its warehousing operations are woefully, dangerously lacking.

All of this monitoring impedes the collective organizing that could begin to rectify the hyperexploitation to which Amazon and Walmart workers are subject. Almost half of workers at both companies agree that they “talk less to [their] co-workers than [they] want to because [they] are concerned about being monitored.” As one Walmart worker in California told Oxfam, “Occasionally, you would get to talk to people, but it’s . . . really discouraged because if you spend too much time talking, . . . it will eat into your . . . productivity time.”

Walmart’s retail enterprise is radically transforming in the wake of the pandemic, with the company expanding its e-commerce operation and shifting its supply chain and logistics outlay, including by adding robotics to its warehouse floors, to meet skyrocketing online demand. As one Walmart worker in the report puts it, “the robots are treated better than human beings.” Once the blueprint for Amazon, the company is now in turn looking to reshape itself along the e-commerce giant’s model. That should be of concern to all of us.

The Oxfam report recommends a host of changes to both companies’ policies, many of which aren’t a surprise: commitment to respecting workers’ right to freely associate and organize, reevaluating productivity quotas, publicly disclosing workers’ compensation claims and how many such claims the companies object to, committing to ceasing or significantly reducing their use of surveillance technologies to enforce unsafe quotas, and adopting comprehensive policies that address racial and gender disparities among their workforces. That’s all well and good, but as the report’s findings show, neither Amazon nor Walmart will make those changes voluntarily.

Rectifying such dangerous working conditions will require workers forcing both companies’ hands. But both Amazon and Walmart spend a fortune on anti-union consultants, fighting worker organizing as ruthlessly as they fight for control of the retail market. While elected officials in a few states have passed legislation shaped by warehouse workers’ concerns about unsustainable productivity quotas, retailers have fought such regulations.

There are additional legislative solutions to chip away at this quagmire: passing the PRO Act to increase penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights and ease the process of unionizing; the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act, which would protect workers against occupational exposure to excessive heat; bills to protect workers against invasive surveillance technology and to enact comprehensive paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave that covers all workers; and an increase in funding for federal agencies like the National Labor Relations Board, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But few of these measures have adequate backing from elected officials, more concerned with pleasing Amazon and Walmart’s lobbyists than they are with the health and safety of their purported constituents. It will take much more sustained organizing across both companies, and with the unified backing of the labor movement, to achieve such changes.

“You just have to understand that . . . not only is there a really exploited worker . . . behind those packages that are coming to your door, but that it doesn’t have to be that way,” an Amazon worker in Massachusetts says. As another puts it, “I feel like we’re living through . . . a Gilded Age where these people are getting so wealthy and consuming so much wealth, and what you’re seeing is that none of that wealth is trickling down to the people who made it happen.”