Sweatshop conditions at Amazon.comWhen you think of "sweatshop" work conditions, overseas factories and 60 Minutes exposes come to mind. But untenable work conditions in Pennsylvania -- at one of America's most beloved retail companies?

That's right. Some American Amazon.com (AMZN) employees have complained about sweatshop-like work conditions at the company's fulfillment center in Breinigsville, Pa., this past summer. In addition to alleging that temperatures rose to more than 100 degrees inside the warehouse (sweatshop, indeed), they also claim they've been overworked, told to step up the productivity, and that many of the workers are just temps, lacking sick pay and other benefits that could temper the tough expectations.

Such allegations could cast a pall on the joy of receiving an Amazon.com package on one's doorstep; they also bring up some disturbing thoughts that should make U.S. corporate leaders feel a bit hot under their designer collars.

Amazon.com's response pointed to the high temperatures this past summer on the East Coast, and the fact that it shelled out $2.4 million on "urgently installing industrial air conditioning units" in four facilities, including the Breinigsville center, all of which were working by late July or early August. Amazon.com also said that 850 of the temps at the Breinigsville center have been switched to full-time status this year.

The end of Amazon.com's response said, "[T]hose who know us well don't doubt our intent or our focus on employee safety."

The statement rings false given the aside in Amazon.com's note about the decision to shell out for air conditioning: "This was not mandated by any governmental agency, and in fact air conditioning remains an unusual practice in warehouses."
Really? Shouldn't companies operating in a supposedly decent society be required to provide simple air conditioning in a warehouse environment?

Just Do the Right Thing

This story may not be as much about Amazon as it is about U.S. corporate management teams getting a grip on themselves. Cutting costs should never, ever include subjecting human beings to uncomfortable or even brutal work conditions, whether it's here at home or abroad.

And let's face it, many American companies have shipped the "problem" of investing in decent work conditions overseas to save money and keep the ugliness out of our own backyards.

Things could get awfully hot for corporate managements who think that just because certain basic comforts aren't mandated by law, they're somehow unnecessary or simply "nice to have" instead of "need to have." Profiting from workers' misery is no way to run a good company.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax does not own shares of Amazon.com. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Amazon.com.



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