American retail is dying. Malls are decaying, empty big box stores are creating eyesores for communities, and more than 8,000 stores closed in 2017, the most since 2009. But not all retail is dying; Amazon is doing just fine. In fact, this past Cyber Monday was Amazon’s biggest shopping day ever. But someone had to pack all those boxes, and the reality is, it’s whoever Amazon can pay the least. That means: the elderly and vulnerable.
Amazon needs thousands of temporary employees to manage its seasonal business boom, and many of those employees come from a program known as CamperForce, which recruits retirees as temporary workers. This seasonal jobs program draws on a pool of retired people who live in their RVs. The program offers employment for 3-4 months doing the picking, packing, storing, and receiving in warehouses, plus a campsite so employees can easily arrive for their next shift.
The average Workamper, who is in their 60s, 70s or 80s, walks as many as 15 miles a day moving boxes around a windowless, million-square-foot warehouse filled with heavy machinery. They earn around $11.50 an hour with no benefits, although in some locations the final wage turns out to be much less. In the UK, workers have to pay for a “bus benefit” that renders their pay below minimum wage.
Getting seniors to spend their golden years doing physically demanding migrant labor — with mandatory overtime and two unpaid 10-minute breaks per 10-hour shift — is a trick of both good marketing and bad finances. Amazon brands its CamperForce with a veneer of fun, calling the traffic jam on the last day of work a “taillight parade” and handing out T-shirts and other merchandise with the CamperForce logo, a silhouette of an RV bearing the Amazon “smile.” Former Workampers promote the experience in paid affiliate blogs and YouTube videos, collecting $125 for every new worker they refer.
But for seniors without a pension or large savings, it may be their only option. After the 2008 economic collapse, seniors who lost their retirement savings or saw their homes go into foreclosure became prime recruits for Amazon. Another prime recruiting stop: Homeless shelters.
While life behind a cash register, interacting with challenging American consumers, is by no means easy under the best of circumstances, Amazon warehouse workers report grueling, dehumanizing, and dangerous conditions, with few worker protections and numerous worker humiliations. Workers routinely experience plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, and repetitive stress injuries, in addition to warehouse accidents.