On Tuesday, Amazon launched a new local delivery service called Flex. Starting in Seattle, the online retail giant will be relying on a labor force of contract workers to deliver packages around the city, sometimes in as little as 60 minutes. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of Flex's "quiet" rollout, said on Monday, "Amazon.com Inc. is joining the 'gig' economy."
But this is hardly Amazon's first foray into the on-demand space, and the company has relied on contract labor to accomplish all kinds of tasks for years. In order to dominate the online shopping market in the way that it has, Amazon owns warehouses all over the country. Some of these are staffed in part by Kiva robotics systems, but many more of them are staffed by contract workers. Amazon has been embroiled in a number of lawsuits over the treatment of these workers over the years, regarding both their treatment and their classification. Most recently, contract workers in a Los Angeles warehouse that works with Amazon (among other retailers) are striking, claiming unfair conditions. (While the striking workers don't actually work for Amazon, a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board found that companies working with a contractor — known as joint employers — can be held responsible for work conditions if they exert a certain level of control.)
Amazon has also long relied on contract labor to power Mechanical Turk, a platform on which workers complete microtasks (such as transcription or answering survey questions) in exchange for, often, cents on the dollar. Mechanical Turkers work on their own time and can pick up gigs instantaneously, which makes them on-demand workers; the only thing that differentiates them from Flex delivery people is they aren't paid hourly and they don't provide local services.
But other Amazon contract workers do provide local services. Back in March, Amazon launched Home Services; through the platform, homeowners can select, say, a locksmith, book them for their services, and pay online immediately via Amazon. Home Services workers, who are prescreened, are yet another cheap, distributed, digitally procured workforce that Amazon relies on.
If "gig economy" is the term we use to describe a work arrangement in which geographically diffuse independent workers are paid piecemeal for completing tasks, then Flex is hardly the first time Amazon has taken a stab at it. What Flex is is a jab at local, on-demand logistics companies like Uber and Postmates — but, of course, Amazon is already a logistics company, so that's hardly a new thing.
Amazon has built its empire by constantly experimenting with ever more efficient arrays of couriers, drivers, pickers, packers, shippers, manufacturers, and various other stops on the consumption pipeline. Flex is just one part of a much larger engine that has for years been churning toward a more algorithmically perfect future model for the distribution and sale of goods and services. It's simply erroneous to pretend this is the first time Amazon has squeezed its labor force for even faster execution and lower costs.
And in fact, in an email, Amazon said about as much. "I would say we see this as no different than the myriad of technologies that Amazon has developed that empower success, whether that's Fulfillment by Amazon, which allows third-party sellers to sign up to sell on Amazon and we store their inventory and ship their products, or Kindle Direct Publishing, which allows any author to design and publish a book on their own," Amazon's Kelly Cheeseman told BuzzFeed News. "In the case of Amazon Flex, the service works in concert with the advanced logistics systems and technology that Amazon has been building since day one."