Amazon requires warehouse workers to wait in long lines, without pay, to be searched for stolen goods before they are allowed to go home. The company has been repeatedly sued for this practice, only occasionally with success. Given this and other labor abuses at Amazon, is it ethical to buy merchandise from the company?

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

4 responses »

  1. John Hooker says:

    As consumers, we often find ourselves doing business with a company that engages in unethical practices. Voices in the media and elsewhere call upon us to boycott the company to convince it to mend its ways.

    This kind of advice is basically useless. An individual consumer can’t boycott a company. Sure, if a group of consumers act together, they can have influence. But I am not a group of consumers, and you are not a group of consumers. We make decisions for ourselves only, not for some imaginary group. So what is an individual consumer to do?

    From a utilitarian perspective, I should refuse to do business with Amazon if this would create more net expected benefit than otherwise. But I have no reason to believe it would. Amazon has about 250 million active customers at any one time. My little purchase decisions have absolutely no effect, zero, zilch, on Amazon’s labor practices. Refusing to do business with Amazon may assuage my personal guilt feelings and create utility in that fashion, but I can also avoid guilt feelings by analyzing the issue as I am doing now. Refusing to purchase from Amazon may actually reduce total utility, because it means that I have fewer purchase options.

    Given that the utilitarian argument collapses, I can’t think of any reason why I have an obligation to avoid Amazon, even if other companies are more ethical. Doing business with the company is clearly generalizable and violates no one’s autonomy.

    One of the frustrations of being a consumer in today’s world is that we are complicit in a system we don’t like, but our individual consumer behavior has absolutely no effect on that system.

    On the other hand, some people are in a position to influence Amazon’s behavior as individuals. These include company executives and board members, regulatory officials, legislators, union leaders, and even employees (who can bring suit). They should consider their utilitarian obligations.


  2. Not Now says:

    The workers may have a choice to work elsewhere. The protocol they are subjected to could be considered part of the “cost of doing business”. The demand on their time may be comparable to if a company relocated to a location that requires a longer commute to work. Most likely there are more clear cut abuses out there to make an issue out of. If you are interested in being ethical you could put a little time into exploring them. You might have to boycott all the major gasoline companies etc.
    Regarding the reply- If a large number of individuals choose to do business with a more ethical company than the less ethical company then the scope of ethical lapses occurring will be reduced proportionately. The effect could be increased by steps to increase public awareness including posting reviews, putting up blogs or such. The ultimate degree of influence can be negligible, but it could be large. Look at the one guy in Libya(or was it Tunisia) that was a catalyst for the “Arabic Spring” (for better or worse).


  3. whoisthey34 says:

    I don’t accept the premise of the question, describing Amazon’s practice as “abuse,”
    as well as the gratuitous mentioning of other unnamed “labor abuses.”
    If employees are told the conditions of their employment when they are hired, there is no ‘abuse’. Once there, if they don’t like the practices of the company, or if the company violates a pre-hire agreement, a range of recourses are available to them.
    The options available for offended customers are given in the previous answers, which amount to: You can’t have your cake and eat it too.


  4. John Hooker says:

    The issue was: given that there are labor abuses at Amazon, what should customers do about it? This is the issue I addressed. The above comments question whether Amazon’s practices are abusive in the first place. This is a different issue, but let’s examine it.

    The comments maintain that Amazon’s conduct is OK because employees have a choice to work elsewhere. This kind of argument is popular, but it proves too much. It shows that a company can do anything it wants to employees who choose to stay. They may stay because other jobs are even worse. Even if they are not worse, the fact that employees choose to stay doesn’t show that any treatment of them is ethical. It shows at most that they are making an irrational choice.

    Detaining and searching employees after they have clocked out may be a violation of labor law. This is a legal question that must be investigated. One can’t simply dismiss it by saying that employees who don’t like it can go elsewhere. If the practice is illegal, it is ungeneralizable and therefore unethical.

    There is also a utilitarian problem with Amazon’s conduct. The fact that employees are pilfering merchandise is a sign of very bad morale. Better labor relations would result in greater productivity as well as satisfied employees who don’t need to be searched. It is not so much the searches themselves that are unethical, on utilitarian grounds, as Amazon’s management practices in general.


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