Amazon is the country’s largest and most sophisticated online retailer, but it still runs largely on manual labor. Scattered around the country are massive warehouses staffed by workers who spend their days picking objects off shelves and putting them in boxes. During the holiday season, the company calls on a huge reserve army of temporary laborers.
The work is repetitive and physically demanding and can pay several dollars above minimum wage, yet Amazon is requiring these workers — even seasonal ones — to sign strict and far-reaching noncompete agreements. The Amazon contract, obtained by The Verge, requires employees to promise that they will not work at any company where they “directly or indirectly” support any good or service that competes with those they helped support at Amazon, for a year and a half after their brief stints at Amazon end. Of course, the company’s warehouses are the beating heart of Amazon’s online shopping empire, the extraordinary breadth of which has earned it the title of “the Everything Store,” so Amazon appears to be requiring temp workers to foreswear a sizable portion of the global economy in exchange for a several-months-long hourly warehouse gig.
The company has even required its permanent warehouse workers who get laid off to reaffirm their non-compete contracts as a condition of receiving severance pay. When Amazon shut down a massive warehouse in Coffeyville, Kansas, earlier this year, hundreds of employees lost work. One laid-off warehouse worker, who earned just over $12 an hour unloading inbound freight at the Coffeyville facility, showed The Verge a clause in her severance agreement that admonished her to “fully comply” with the noncompetition agreement. This worker wished to remain anonymous because of a non-disclosure agreement she signed with Amazon.
Starr, who reviewed the Amazon agreement, said that while attorneys may differ in their interpretations on which services count as having been “supported” by a warehouse employee, the 18-month duration seems “incredibly long,” especially for a temporary job. In the case of a stint lasting three months, the restrictions would stretch six times longer than the actual length of employment, Starr noted in an email. “A restriction like this could only be credible if the type of information the individual learned in a short time could be very damaging to the firms.”
Yet Garden, the Seattle University law professor, notes that such a contract being legally enforceable may in fact be entirely beside the point in a low-wage workplace. “One way to look at this is as a kind of invidious approach to having workers sign a contract that is very likely to be unenforceable,” Garden says. “Knowing that people who have been working for 10 and 11 dollars an hour are not going to be able to hire a lawyer to fight for them later on.“
And this last bit is what these non-competes are all about: preying on the weakest and least knowledgeable of their employees in order to maintain a state of serfdom.
It makes Walmart look like Ralph Nader.
Here’s hoping that there is a lawyer out there who can find a way to use the RICO law against the motherf%$#ers.