We can’t let Amazon run free and choke our commerce

In the US, Amazon workers have to wear motion sensors and urinate in bottles. In the UK, ambulances are called to Amazon warehouses every two days as workers are injured or collapse from fatigue.

The $US1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion) behemoth distorts supply chains, slashes margins and warps the economy. It’s not just a threat to individual businesses, it’s a threat to our entire economy.

Labour and responsible capital must now band together before Jeff Bezos’s black hole swallows everything.

We understand a call for unity between business and unions might seem strange.

The TWU, for example, has been taking very public industrial action over the last few months against Australian freight operators like Toll, Linfox and Startrack. But the capacity that workers have to stand up and fight is precisely why we need to preserve such companies.

In short, we can bargain with them. However imperfect, the likes of Toll and Linfox or Coles and Woolworths are coherent corporate identities. They can be scrutinised and held to account by unions, parliaments and courts. The community, consumers and regulators have leverage. Each party can keep the other in check.

Amazon is something entirely different. It’s still finding its feet in Australia, but one thing is certain: if we leave it unchecked it will spread like lantana. If we let it choke Australian commerce we will shift from a thriving and diverse business ecosystem to a bland, pitiless monoculture.

To understand this threat you need to move past the description on the banner. Amazon is not really just an “online retailer” or digital marketplace. Amazon is not Kmart or David Jones on the internet.

It is a mega-exchange platform grafted on to a low-cost, gig economy supply chain and logistics operation. Amazon doesn’t just defy wage bargaining. It bypasses it entirely.

Consider Amazon’s unprecedented growth in the US and globally. Between 2015 and 2021, Amazon’s market capitalisation increased almost sixfold, from $US318bn to $US1.864 trillion. In the US, Amazon’s share of online commerce is at least 39 per cent. But that’s a conservative estimate.

This “gatekeeper” of e-commerce commands 74 per cent of trade across a range of products.

Amazon has overtaken FedEx to become the third-largest package courier, accounting for a fifth of deliveries. This heft allows Amazon to play governments off against each other and seek out the cheapest tax arrangement available.

Seattle, for example, backed down on a plan to tax big corporations to pay for homeless shelters.

In the US, Amazon paid no federal tax in 2018, and in that year paid the Australian government just $20m despite revenue of $1bn.

Amazon trades on very American cultural myths and tropes. It morally justifies the appalling treatment of the workers in its supply chain through the American idea that one day the delivery driver could be a millionaire. Australians have long seen through this nonsense. We have always understood such stories are outliers, and can never justify treating workers like dirt.

Our industrial system is based on the fundamental idea that no job is beneath dignity, and every type of work deserves respect.

This cultural clash defines what’s at stake now. Fundamentally the question is this: do we believe Amazon is so brilliant it deserves to become a monopoly retail player, worth trillions of dollars? Has Amazon earned the right to overwhelm legislated rules and cultural norms, while its CEO – whose wealth exceeds the combined bottom 39 per cent of the US – waves to us from space?

Amazon is often held up as a free market triumph, but in truth it represents a failure of capitalism. Capitalism works best when it encourages competition.

An innovative, vibrant retail sector demands many players each trying to outcompete the other in terms of what they can provide the customer. A lopsided retail and freight industry is a threat to all of us.

A standard Australian firm that pays legal wages, superannuation, leave and attends to workplace safety can’t compete with a leviathan that splinters jobs into gigs, and fails to even nod to human factors such as a living wage or sexual harassment. Amazon slays its rivals not because it’s good, but because it avoids the rules they have to play by.

The most straightforward way to deal with this is hardly revolutionary. We don’t need to nationalise Amazon and seize its assets. We just need to make sure the rules are written such that they apply to Amazon too.

And this is where employers and labour can come together.

Unions and employers need to join forces to fight for regulation that sets minimum, binding standards to level the playing field to support both workers and responsible employers. They would prevent the emergence of a dominant player that can smash labour, intimidate governments and overwhelm regulators.

Some will argue that this is a return to the 1970s. But the game has changed since then. Without a level playing field there will be no one left to bargain with.

Michael Kaine is the national secretary of Transport Workers’ Union, Gerard Dwyer is national secretary of SDA (the union for workers in retail, fast food and warehousing), and Daniel Walton is national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union

This story was originally published in The Australian

Date: 26 Nov 2021 Publication: The Australian Author: Michael Kaine Gerard Dwyer Daniel Walton

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