Amazon's Jeff Bezos rolls up his sleeves

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Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, recently spent a week working on the floor of a Lexington, Kentucky distribution center. Although Amazon has been tight-lipped about his activities in the warehouse, The Lexington Herald-Leader says that the "short guy [with a] bald head, biggish nose, broad smile and friendly eyes" who looks "like a friendly leprechaun" toiled alongside his hourly workers in order to get a better feeling for their routines, complaints, and lifestyles.

It seems likely that he got an earful. Amazon just closed three such warehouses, which it calls "Fulfillment Centers." Some of the 215 workers who recently got their walking papers in Munster, Indiana, Red Rock, Nevada and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania will be given the option of transferring to other warehouses, but most will simply get their three weeks of severance and benefits that expire at the end of May.

Amazon's warehouses have a pretty rocky reputation. The Guardian, a British newspaper, recently noted that staff often don't get enough time for breaks, are given reprimands for being sick, and are given back-breaking quotas to fill.

Perhaps most importantly, Amazon's Kindle reader is the first step in a process that could lead to the closure of the very warehouse that Bezos is visiting. If he is successful in establishing the primacy of electronic books, the need for employees to fill physical book orders will evaporate. While Amazon's other sales will enable some warehouses to stay open, there is no doubt that its current business plan will lead to the elimination of many jobs.

To Bezos' credit, he has jumped into the lion's den, putting himself at a disadvantage as he works alongside the lowliest of his employees. Beyond that, his refusal to allow photo-ops or even speak to the press about his time on the warehouse floor speaks volumes about his sincerity. That having been said, it remains to be seen if Amazon's distribution network is only designed to offer 'fulfillment' to its customers, or if it has some interest in its employees as well.
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