Since 2010, Amazon has worked hard to create attractive job opportunities in Cape Town for German-speakers, but at what cost to the individual? Young people from all over Europe pack up their lives and move to a country they know nothing about, often landing themselves in difficult, expensive and unexpected circumstances.
For the past five years, Amazon’s offices in Cape Town have encouraged German-speaking foreign nationals to come and work in tech and customer support, resulting in long hours with low pay and little to no support. Young people from first world countries such as Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Germany are easily enticed to pack up and spend a year in a country they often know nothing about – and the reality isn’t quite what they expected.
“I’ve never been to Africa before, so I really couldn’t imagine what to expect,” said an employee from Switzerland. She began working at Amazon last year and when she first started out in customer service, she thought it was the “worst thing ever”.
“I came from a whole different field, so while we always had the support we needed when we started, it’s hard if you have no idea what you’re doing.” She and dozens of others were thrown “straight into the deep end” when they started working on the floor at the start of the festive season, with very little training.
Foreign employees’ dreams of long, lazy days spent on Cape Town’s famously beautiful beaches, living in the ultimate city-centre apartment, the novelty of working for one of the world’s best companies and exploring Africa are quickly replaced by most of their time spent holed up indoors at work, or often in difficult and expensive living situations, while their salaries and overall job satisfaction is based on a single, badly-phrased question, posed to customers at the end of every interaction with an Amazon employee: “Did I solve your problem?”
This evaluation system – called the ‘How’s my driving?’ link – is essential in improving customer service, but problems experienced by customers aren’t always Amazon-related and are sometimes entirely out of employees’ control – something as common as bad wi-fi can tie the hands of an employee, who may have helped, but did not ‘solve’ anything. Receive too many no’s and the opportunity to earn more and work a more regular shift starts to decrease.
“Sometimes you just have to accept the no’s,” said a retail-based employee from Belgium.
It’s all about the stats
The data, according to a former German-speaking employee from South Africa, is collected in real-time and displayed on a screen, where everyone can see. Teams often feel “manipulated” into comparing stats and constantly need to make sure that they are not falling behind. This evaluation system does not make it easy to provide more contextualised feedback, making it difficult for the employee to defend themselves in a situation.
Often, the more experienced customer service agents (CSAs) find it easier to focus on getting good stats by merely solving part of a problem, while ignoring the root cause. According to this employee, who left the company about two years ago to pursue a different career, “This means the customer will be calling again next month, but the immediate query is solved and their stats will look favourable.” He admitted that employees are not allowed to tell customers that the ‘survey’ affects them in any way: “Management tells you to change the subject if asked.”
Today, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, generating $178-billion in revenue in 2017, but when billionaire Jeff Bezos started the company in 1999, it was just an online bookstore. In 2016, an analysis found that Amazon accounted for 43% of all online sales. It increased significantly, from 33% in 2015 and 25% in 2012. Meanwhile, Bezos’ fortune rose to $112-billion in 2018, with the biggest single-year gain ever.
According to one of the Swiss employees we spoke to: “Our CEO is the richest man in the world and I, working in one of his call centres, struggle to even get sick leave. It’s just a ridiculous relationship.”
The average starting salary – for foreigners – can range anywhere from R11 000 to R16 000, but it all depends on how good your stats are. When she was approached by a recruitment agency to apply for the job, this same Swiss employee was guaranteed a salary of about R16 000 and was told that she could find good, safe accommodation in the CBD for R4 000 to R5 000.
“I was shocked at the price of housing when I started looking, and it was only when I was signing the contract that I realised I’d only be earning R95 an hour.” Her rent is about R6 000 a month, excluding things like electricity and internet. She also has to account for transport, food and other living expenses, on a salary that is closer to R11 000 each month.
The Cape Town office supports customers buying from the amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and amazon.de websites, which covers the North American, UK and German markets. The time zone allows for the company to provide 24-hour global customer service.
“The shifts and all of the time changes are the most difficult and draining part of the job – it’s exhausting,” said a South African employee who has been with Amazon for over two years now. “It’s problematic how shifts are created, and everything [including shift allocations] is performance-based, but the more you can work, the more opportunity you get.”
At Amazon’s Cape Town branch, you can work either five or four day shifts. When you work five days a week, you get two consecutive days off (these are “hardly ever” a weekend), three 15-minute breaks and a one hour lunch break. Working four days a week is much the same, except you get an extra day off sometime in between as well as two consecutive days. Employees pull nine to 11-hour shifts at a time and everyone gets just seven minutes of “personal time” each day, when they can run to the bathroom and grab something to eat.
A customer obsession
In 2015, a New York Times piece critiqued the company’s use of stack-ranking as a method of rating. It essentially forces managers to grade teams on a curve that rewards the top performers and pushes out those who don’t do as well. More than a year later, Amazon announced it was launching a new review process that emphasised employees’ strengths as opposed to their weaknesses. However, leaving a lot of that up to customers – who may leave an interaction annoyed, angry or frustrated, despite an employee’s best efforts – remains a problem at the Cape Town office.
According to a former employee, “The CSA always has to take the blame and explain themselves to the customer and their team lead, or manager. It feels like you’re constantly justifying your actions to everybody.”
One of the first things you learn as a new employee is the company’s Leadership Principles, which, according to Amazon itself, aren’t exactly “inspirational wall hanging”. Number one: Customer obsession. The guide reads, “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”
According to an employee in the South African department, customers sometimes receive financial concessions in order to appease them and smooth over issues.
“People don’t realise how many concessions we make for customers when they complain,” he said. “And it isn’t technically our money, but it feels like it could be.”
He is also alluding to the fact that the company utilises business process outsourcing, which contracts third parties to handle operations and aspects of specific processes. Customers often have difficult experiences with cheaper outsourced services and solving those problems can take the form of what feels like a bribe.
“You have people working in the Philippines or Romania and it’s a lot cheaper, but they often only do the bare minimum and it’s our job to clean up the mess.” That money, he said, would be better used upskilling local or foreign German-speaking employees. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”
My African dream
It isn’t only foreign nationals who are having a hard time working at Amazon Cape Town. A former employee from Austria said that while she enjoyed her job – especially towards the end – she is fully aware of how difficult it is for the company’s South African employees.
“We, who are brought from abroad to work in South Africa have an easy life at Amazon compared to the actual South Africans.” She said it was frustrating to hear about locals doing exactly the same jobs, in the same building, in worse working conditions, “for half the salary I received, fearing they might get kicked out if their performance is not good enough”.
Many of the people we spoke to confirmed that they knew of at least a handful of South Africans who fell victim to Amazon’s “churn and burn” reputation. Foreigners almost always start out as permanent employees, because they come to the country on working visas, facilitated and paid for by Amazon. By contrast, many locals start out as temporary employees and have to work significantly harder to maintain good stats, in order to keep their jobs and move into permanent roles.
Another summed up the salary situation by saying, “Ultimately, I don’t want to work for a huge corporation and one of the richest men in the world … that exploits people in foreign countries.”
Amazon does provide some relief, medical cover for example, but with a one percent VAT increase having kicked in at the beginning of April 2018, employees – local and foreign – have still suffered. An employee in the digital department said: “A lot of food has gone up, the price of fuel has gone up and medical aid has gone up, but my salary has stayed the same.”
Asked if they would recommend the experience to others, most of the people we spoke to said both yes and no. It was described as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, an “easy job abroad” and a “good choice for foreigners who simply want to experience Cape Town”. Many of them had good experiences at the company in the form of speedy promotions, small salary increases, supportive managers and a relaxed environment, but they all mentioned things like being overworked, underpaid, extremely stressed, depressed at times and “crushed by the constant competition”.
So why does Amazon continue to favour importing German-speakers instead of providing further training and upskilling locals? South Africa’s unemployment rate is approaching 30 percent – is this the example that one of the world’s most valuable companies should be setting?
COMMENT FROM AMAZON: Attempts were made to contact Amazon via email, phone, social media and in-person at their Cape Town offices. Questions were sent to the company regarding the practice of encouraging German-speaking foreign nationals to come and work in South Africa. They had not responded by the time of publication.
Philip Kramer is a writer, furniture-maker and veteran Cape Town-based DJ, obsessed with all things tech. Follow him on Twitter @PhilipDKramer
Roxanne Joseph is a digital and data storyteller, Open Data advocate and occasionally, calls herself a journalist. Follow her on Twitter @rox_jos