Weighing the cost of convenience

Does it matter how workers are treated when their employer makes my life so much easier?

Weighing the cost of convenience

This past year, I was determined to beat the Christmas rush. I started my gift list well in advance, and decided I’d fully embrace the convenience of the online experience by ordering much of the merchandise through Amazon and a couple of other retailers online.

And it definitely helped. With work super busy before the holidays, I had little time to stroll through the malls looking for inspired gift ideas, let alone actually buy any items. Instead, I could scroll online for the best selections and buy several presents in one evening, to have them dropped at our house within days.

For the most part, it worked out really well. The deliveries came when expected, nothing was taken from our front porch, and there were only a couple of items that didn’t turn out as planned so they had to be returned.

It definitely was convenient and lowered my stress levels. However, I didn’t give much thought to the delivery drivers making my Christmas shopping season that much easier. That didn’t happen until I came upon a Toronto Star article recently by investigate reporter Brendan Kennedy. He went undercover as an delivery driver working for Amazon in late 2019 and provided a sobering report on the setup, describing the considerable pressure workers face to meet very tight deadlines, along with inconsistent safety practices and training, uneven shift scheduling, low pay, infrequent breaks and higher injury rates.

Not surprisingly, there’s a push for unionization along with union challenges of some of the practices, such as who exactly controls the workers -- the retailer or third-party contractors.

Reading all this, it’s hard to feel comforted by the convenience of the delivery service. Yes, it reduced my stress levels considerably and made a big difference for my holiday season, but at who’s expense? While I realize many of the delivery drivers are happy to have the work, there are apparently some questionable tactics involved.

Of course, that could be true --- and we’ve heard the rumours -- of other behind-the-scene jobs, such as high-pressure call centres or even sales jobs. But this is an issue I’m contributing to, should I continue to use the service.

There’s also the whole argument for supporting local business. In our neighbourhood, tucked between the Danforth and Beaches in Toronto, there are plenty of smaller employers that are struggling or have closed, leaving many vacant storefronts. I like to think we do our part to combat the issue, buying fruit at the green grocer, olive bread from the bakery, and salmon from the fishmonger (sounds a bit like a Dickens novel) along with treating ourselves to the odd meal out at a local restaurant.

But when it comes to buying the bigger-ticket or more elusive items that aren’t available nearby, it’s hard to fight the urge to pop open the laptop and make a few purchases from the comfort of my home, instead of dragging myself to the crowded mall and slogging through the crowds.

And if I stop using services like Amazon, will it really make a difference? Of course, that’s the convenient argument when it comes to environmental or social issues and how we should respond – “What’s the point in giving up plastic straws? It won’t really make a difference,” “If I buy fair trade chocolate, there will still be non-fair-trade chocolate companies that don’t give workers a living and sustainable wage.”

But all those little steps can slowly but surely add up, and get people to change their ways. We’ve seen how the power of social media can make employers change their ways.

Of course, there are probably lots of employers that treat their employees poorly unbeknownst to me, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore less-than-worthy practices when I know about them. It’s also hard to draw the line – when exactly does an employer become a bad employer that doesn’t merit my support?

Maybe it’s because I cover HR, so I know a little about what can make for a good employer, but I find it hard to justify my reliance on any company that makes work so challenging for its workers.

No, I’m not yet ready to commit to going cold turkey, but I will definitely plan to cut back – if not cut out – using such a service for the next holiday season (I rarely make online purchases otherwise). Even if that means planning my Christmas list in September… sigh.

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