Amazon isn’t going to save local economy
When it comes to foreign-owned megacorps, this is a very friendly town. Build a big warehouse that will employ 600 people at a wage 40 cents an hour over the minimum, and you get the prime minister, a flock of MPs, various provincial cabinet ministers, and sundry city councillors to come out and cheer you on.That was the reception we gave Amazon Monday at a sod-turning for its east-end warehouse. A good-news announcement always draws politicians like flies, and this is a good news announcement, mostly.Ottawa needs more jobs in the east end, and the Amazon project will provide them. The question is, how excited should we get?While Monday’s announcement could have created the impression that the new warehouse was quite a coup for Ottawa, it’s actually one of nine the retail giant operates or is building in Canada, and it’s not the biggest. Still, it’s the largest industrial building in the history of Ottawa, which tells us quite a bit about Ottawa’s industrial history.It’s a stretch to say that the bulk of the jobs Amazon’s new warehouse will provide are those good, middle-class jobs politicians are always talking about. A warehouse worker can earn just under $30,000 a year working a 40-hour week. Coun. Steve Blais, a strong supporter of the project, argues that if two of these workers were a couple, then their combined income “would put you in the realm of the national average.” Actually, still $10,000 under the median household income, but a job is a job.Despite the high politician-to-job ratio at this announcement, the new jobs add up to less than 0.1 per cent of the total jobs in Ottawa- Gatineau.Adjust the excitement meter accordingly. Amazon’s critics attack both the working conditions and the nature of the corporation. It’s true that the company expects people to work hard and meet quotas, but that’s not much of a criticism.This would seem like a basic employment expectation. It’s called productivity. If people don’t like the working conditions at Amazon, they don’t have to work there.That said, there is something slightly unseemly about Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, driving his workers as hard as he can for as little as they will accept to show up. That’s capitalism in action, but it isn’t pretty. In the bigger picture, the Amazon warehouse here is unlikely to be the economy-expanding blessing it is being depicted as. While Amazon is creating jobs, studies elsewhere show Amazon hiring is only a partial replacement for the jobs lost in traditional retail.Whether Amazon benefits communities depends on whether you value local business and face-to-face interactions over keyboard commerce. With unemployment in Ottawa at a 30-year low, Amazon hiring makes it tougher for local businesses looking for workers. That’s good for workers, not so great for employers.While there are valid criticisms of Amazon’s business model, it is a success because we consumers love the convenience and prices it offers. If we were repelled by the way Amazon operates, it would be out of business.Amazon will continue to spread its tentacles around world commerce.That’s happening whether or not Ottawa gets a crumb of the Amazon pie. By all means, let’s take our crumb but let’s not pretend it’s anything more.It is a bit sad to see our political leaders cheer an Amazon warehouse as if it were an accomplishment of the highest order. In what other country do you get the national leader to show up for a warehouse groundbreaking ? It might have been justified if this had been the home of some expanding Canadian company that was using our technology to sell goods to the world.Instead, it’s a place for an American company to sort out the stuff we buy. You can’t build an economy on that. As a country, we need to aim higher.
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