Jeff Bezos has been all over the news lately for a multitude of reasons. The Amazon CEO recently became the richest man in the world, topping charts with a net worth valued at $112 billion (is that even a real number?). Now, Amazon is looking to build a second headquarters somewhere in the United States, and cities are clamoring for it. Amazon is the United States’ fourth-most valuable company by market capitalization and was responsible for nearly half of all U.S. online commerce in 2017. Amazon is literally everywhere, Wesleyan included. Everyone wants a piece of Amazon, and with it, a piece of Jeff Bezos.
Because of Amazon’s remarkable growth, Bezos has recently been acclaimed and applauded. A few months ago, he donated $33 million to a scholarship fund for Dreamers. Media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNBC laud Bezos almost as if he were a god. But is Bezos as great as we make him out to be? And if he is not, why aren’t more major news outlets reporting on his philanthropic decisions (or rather the lack thereof)?
The average Amazon warehouse employee makes $28,000 a year. Conversely, in 2017, Bezos made $19.3 billion dollars, which is roughly $36,000 a minute in 2017. That means it takes Jeff Bezos about 48 seconds to make what his warehouse employee makes in an entire year. Just think about that disparity for a second (or 48 of them).
And that $33 million he donated to Dreamers? Maybe we should hold our applause: a $33 million donation by a man worth $112 billion is the same as the average middle-class American (the median net worth per adult, according to CNN, is $45,000) donating $13. Not as impressive as it may seem.
We have yet to get much insight into Bezos’ other philanthropic plans, if they are present at all. However, he is the only one of the top five billionaires in America who has not signed Buffett’s giving pledge. As of eight months ago, he had donated just $100 million to charities. That is only 0.001 percent of his overall wealth. Anyone who makes that much money and donates so little should at least raise the eyebrows of a few investigative journalists.
Despite this, major news outlets have left Bezos almost untouched. In a review of 190 articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, FAIR.org, a national media watch group, found that The Times and The WSJ have almost completely avoided any critical piece on Bezos. Furthermore, The Post, which is owned by Bezos, has followed suit, even going as far as writing articles in “positive/fawning” tones in almost half of their Bezos-related articles. (In articles about Amazon or Bezos, they do acknowledge his ownership status.)
One of the only critical Amazon pieces that could be found in those three major newspapers was published by The New York Times in 2015, over two and a half years ago. The article shares many troubling stories related by Amazon employees, including accounts of people who worked 80-plus hour work weeks and were still not living up to the Amazon standard. Many of the employees at Amazon saw the pressure getting to people firsthand. Bo Olson, who worked in book marketing, said he saw nearly every person he worked with cry at their desk.
Jason Merkoski, who worked on the Kindle, said the joke at work was, “when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”
This is the environments Bezos’ employees are working in. There is no follow-up article in The Times, but nothing has indicated that conditions at Amazon have changed.
Being the richest man in the world, perhaps you would expect Bezos’ employees to be treated well, too. That is far from the truth. Aside from the story in The Times, there have been a few more recent accounts by Amazon employees about working conditions. The Guardian recently published a story about Aaron Callaway, who was paid just $22,000 a year to shift 250 items an hour, barely able to take a bathroom or water break.
Additionally, given Amazon’s incredible growth, you may at least expect some job security. You’d be wrong. Amazon now plans to lay off hundreds of employees. One Amazon manager in Seattle relayed to The Seattle Times that, “people are in terrible shape…[and] there is so much stress on campus.” For a company that has posted record-breaking growth, the workers seem to be unexpectedly removed from the success the company is feeling overall.
Given the way his employees are treated, and his lack of philanthropic donations, it is more than a fair question to ask why Bezos is not doing more to help those in need. (No, Jeff, giving out bananas does not fulfill your charity quota.) Most likely, the answer is that he simply does not care. It comes as no surprise that a person with that much money is so out of touch. But if public pressure can force him to change his ways, even if it is inspired solely to save his image, many lives can be improved.
There are many things a man with the net worth of Bezos can do to help the world. Last year, in what was hopefully the first step toward a more generous Bezos, the Amazon CEO asked Twitter for philanthropic ideas. There were almost 50,000 replies to the tweet, which shows that, more than anything, there is no shortage of things he could be donating his money to. Climate change (saving the actual Amazon), disease research, and paying off student debt are a few that stood out. But maybe it would be best for Bezos to start with his own employees and work from there.
Donating money is not going to completely change the world. Bezos does not have the ability to alter the world’s imbalances. There were poor people before him, and there will be poor people after he dies (if he ever does). However, with billions of dollars, Bezos has the opportunity to improve the lives of countless individuals. Until then, Bezos deserves the blind admiration of none.
Rafael Goldstein is a member of the Class of 2021. Rafael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.