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Brown Box

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - 06:46 PM

You order some stuff on the Internet and it shows up three hours later. How could all the things that need to happen to make that happen happen so fast?

 

It used to be, when you ordered something on the Internet, you waited a week for it to show up. That was the deal: you didn’t have to get off the couch, but you had to wait. But in the last few years, that’s changed. Now, increasingly, the stuff we buy on the Internet shows up the next day or the same day, sometimes within hours. Free shipping included. Which got us wondering: How is this Internet voodoo possible?

A fleet of robots? Vacuum tubes? Teleportation? Hardly. In this short, reporter Mac McClelland travels into the belly of the beast that is the Internet retail system, and what she finds takes her breath away and makes her weak in the knees (in the worst way). Producer Pat Walters and Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store, a book about Amazon.com, assist.

*****This podcast contains some language and subject matter that might not be appropriate for young listeners******

Correction: In the podcast Mac describes Powell's online order fulfillment process. When we contacted Powell's they told us that over 90% of their online orders are filled in their own unionized warehouse, not outsourced. The audio now reflects that fact.

Guests:

Mac McClelland, Brad Stone and Pat Walters

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Comments [116]

Ender J. Hayden from Oviedo, FL

I was interested by this podcast, being someone who orders some things online, I was shocked when I heard the condition that these people had to work in, just to get whatever I had ordered. The conditions that the workers are under are interesting to me. There is anecdotal evidence of how poorly these companies are treating their workers, but I wonder if they are the same today, or if the quality has been upgraded. I would have to see the conditions myself in order to be sure that they are as bad as they say. But this podcast has made me think how warehouses ship things to you. Now I will second-think when ordering online, due to the possible conditions of these workers.

Oct. 19 2014 12:00 PM
Brian Ramos from Belgium

I was quite unhappy with this broadcast, particularly given the high standard set by the other Radiolab stories I've listened to.

At the start of my career, I worked in several different warehouses, a small-package distribution hub, and on a holiday gift basket assembly line (as a "temp" laborer, not a supervisor or manager). While the work is physically demanding and provides a low wage, I found it fascinating. It ultimately led me to become a logistics engineer-- I now design and implement logistics IT systems.

While I personally cannot identify with the guest's portrayal of warehouse work, her perspective was very unsurprising--if a journalist commissioned by Mother Jones to write an expose on warehouse labor conditions came back with a positive perspective on the work, no story would ever be published. But the guest's perspective is not my primary objection. My deep disappointment came from Radiolab's poor coverage of a topic with such great potential.

Two key elements that were sorely missed from the story (already mentioned by other commenters):

- The role and nature of Temp Agencies, particularly with regard to how they prevent unionization
- The rapid growth of robotic distribution technology and warehouse automation (e.g. Kiva Systems)

Lastly, it was quite misleading to position this as a story about e-commerce. Nearly all packaged products in the US are passed through the same warehousing processes, regardless of whether they are purchased online or in-person.

I would be thrilled if Radiolab took a second-shot at the subject matter, but this time with the broad and varied perspectives characteristic of the show.

Jul. 22 2014 02:58 PM
Laura from Salt Lake City

Wow. After reading the comments, I now realize that Radiolab listeners are much more narrow-minded than I would have assumed.

As far as the plight of the pickers: One of the main underlying factors in their mistreatment was that they worked for a Temp Agency, which is more or less legalized slavery.

Jun. 17 2014 01:20 PM
Laura from SLC, UT

Wow. After reading the comments, I now realize that Radiolab listeners are much more narrow-minded than I would have assumed.

As far as the plight of the pickers: One of the main underlying factors in their mistreatment was that they worked for a Temp Agency, which is more or less legalized slavery.

Jun. 17 2014 01:18 PM
Laura from SLC, UT

Wow. After reading the comments, I now realize that Radiolab listeners are much more narrow-minded than I would have assumed.

As far as the plight of the pickers: One of the main underlying factors in their mistreatment was that they worked for a Temp Agency, which is more or less legalized slavery.

Jun. 17 2014 01:18 PM
LBUR46 from SLC, UT

Wow. After reading the comments, I now realize that Radiolab listeners are much more narrow-minded than I would have assumed.

As far as the plight of the pickers: One of the main underlying factors in their mistreatment was that they worked for a Temp Agency, which is more or less legalized slavery.

Jun. 17 2014 01:17 PM
LBUR46 from SLC, UT

Wow. After reading the comments, I now realize that Radiolab listeners are much more narrow-minded than I would have assumed.

As far as the plight of the pickers: One of the main underlying factors in their mistreatment was that they worked for a Temp Agency, which is more or less legalized slavery.

Jun. 17 2014 01:16 PM

Wow, people need to loosen up. You can't play it for your teenage daughters? What are you trying to protect them from? You can be sure your daughters have touched themselves all ready. You're delusional if you think otherwise. A bit of swearing? So what. It's just a bit of swearing.. grow up... stop under estemating the intelligence of your kids. If you raise them right, they'll know when and when not to swear. Oh and someone mentioned that swearing added nothing. Maybe you think it added nothing but for me, it's people talking as they really do. It's realistic talk...people swear... you can't shelter your kids from reality all your life!!
I thought people that listened to Radiolab are smart.

Jun. 04 2014 04:08 AM
Lori

COME ON! Radio Lab. So disappointed. Not only was swearing totally unnecessary, but the politics toward the end of the piece make all kinds of PC assumptions about your listeners. I am all for a little "gee whiz" piece, but please don't overly politicize it. Also, Heaven forbid, someone have a goal and make their numbers by working hard. That might rob them of the satisfaction of doing a job well - wouldn't want that. People don't vote the right way when they have something to be proud of....I LOVE RL, but this kind of stuff won't keep me donating.

May. 29 2014 12:13 PM
Brian from Newton, MA

Dildos were completely irrelevant to the episode and made it one I cannot share with my teenage daughters. The constant reference to them reduced the potential audience, and the "parental advisory," while appreciated, makes it clear that Jad realized the listenership would be reduced, which is perplexing. Same goes for hearing Mac say "Fuck!" and Pat referring to a "box of shit." These words and topics added nothing useful at all to the subject of the piece and detracted from it's effectiveness. I am a longtime listener, from the very first episode, and I love the show. I like to share it with my children, and it bothers me that so often I can't for reasons that are completely extraneous to the subject matter being discussed. You have done very good shows on subject matter that most people would consider inappropriate for children, and that's totally fine. I just don't get it when you do a show on how internet orders are fulfilled and exercise such poor editorial judgement that a father can't share it with his daughters. Why would you seek to reduce your audience? The bigger issue is that both children and adults need the sort of high quality, interesting, and educational programing that RadioLab so often creates, and RadioLab is the sort of show that parents and children can and should listen to, and talk about, together. Please give more thought to *not* needlessly limiting the show by editing *in* unnecessary and offensive distractions.

May. 11 2014 03:28 PM
Sarah

I remember reading the original Mother Jones article back when it was published. Since then, I have thought about it every time I order something online and have since minimized the amount of ordering that I do. I am really glad that RadioLab picked up the story so that it will hopefully get more people thinking.

May. 11 2014 06:43 AM
blke omecm

As someone who has worked as a FedEx package handler (which I guarantee is 5x harder than being a picker) as well as a few factory jobs, this story was really obnoxious.

All factory jobs are like what she described, and most are much harder. This is just what happens when a pampered woman reporter goes and does a real job and she thinks it was so difficult that she needed to write a book about it.

Tens of millions of Americans work jobs like this every day, including old 60 year old women, as she said. Yes, these jobs, are hard. The fact that she thought it was worth writing a story about, just shows how pampered she is.

You think walking around leisurely in a well lit warehouse is difficult? HA, then why do 60 year old women do it?

Try working as a package handler at FedEx. There are no old people there. Everyone in that job is a young fit male. Ex-marines said working as a FedEx package handler was harder than bootcamp. As a package handler during peak season you will be RUNNING around non-stop for 4 hours, loading 500 boxes per hour, and each one you have to check the zip code, against a mental list of the zip codes which are for that truck, and then load properly in the truck so it won't move. You load an entire semi-truck solid full of boxes in a 4 hour shift.

And I haven't heard anyone writing a book about how hard that is. This lady is a joke.

May. 02 2014 11:40 PM
Bob

I order paper towels and toilet paper from Amazon. Why? Its cheaper than the grocery store. End of story. Why wouldn't you order something that is cheaper, delivered to your front door, and the exact same brand and product as the one you normally buy?

Apr. 30 2014 02:54 PM
ex-isle

I’m not necessarily surprised by the fast-paced environment set in these warehouses in order to get the work done. Generally the job itself seems to work for some, while for others, like Collins, it proves to be, at times, too intense to reach that minimum of 170 items per hour. Towards the end of the podcast you can’t help but feel somewhat wary of that possible future online purchase you plan on making. Taking into consideration the conditions the workers could be under (for example the lack of air conditioning at the amazon warehouse), not to mention the likely stress (mainly for those who have a harder time handling the job in comparison to others). I can only hope that conditions for these warehouse workers are brought to light and are improved.

Apr. 11 2014 11:45 PM
Goose from Straight outta Compton

All that talk about "the mechanical sensei" thats insane talk about being efficient, this reminds me of several movies one for instance maybe... Terminator? or Oblivion "Are we an efficient team?"

Apr. 11 2014 06:56 PM
t47 from FL

It's amazing how advanced and convenient online shopping has become. It surprise me to hear that these warehouses are so disorganized and have very poor conditions. I guess this is the opportunity cost for convenience This definitely needs to get fixed, but I do not think the solution is to boycott. Online shopping has become way too important to people so laws or even labor unions can be created to fix these problems.

Apr. 11 2014 06:03 AM
slc2015

This is interesting. It is amazing how fast the world around us has become. I have received packages the next day before and am always surprised at the speed of its arrival. Apparently you order a product, then that order goes to a giant warehouse. The fact that that warehouse is completely organized by sections and there is an item finder who looks for your purchase is amazing. The process is very intense. It’s fast moving and uses time against the item pickers. Some employees are being mistreated. Warehouses can be very hot and employee health was in risk recently. Some employees are overworked. This definitely isn’t a system for everyone.

Apr. 08 2014 04:31 PM

This was a very thought-provoking segment. I'm shocked to hear that the storage houses are so disorganized. However, I do not agree with the guest speaker in saying that ceasing to buy products on the internet will fix the terrible conditions of workers. Most goods in stores were brought here from other nations where the laborers are working in dreadful environments; we just don't have to face the terrible truth because we don't witness it first-hand.

Apr. 02 2014 08:12 PM
Nancy from Kansas

To all the complainer, Really? If it offends you turn it off. I've heard worse on TV. This is adult radio, is it not? Your kids should be listening to fun kid stuff not adult radio programs. Also, there was a warning before the program.
Why don't you get past the word dildo and listen to the story. Anytime you order on line, the people who fill the orders work very hard. So I can secretly buy dildos on line.

Mar. 19 2014 04:10 PM
Jan from El Dorado Hill Califorina

I am a faithful listener, and definitely NOT a prude, however I did find the language and over use of "dildo" extremely inappropriate. If the goal was to be hip and cool, it achieved quite the opposite. Generally the content of the show make you think, and is geared to many ages which is a great thing, but luckily I was not listening to the show with my kids in the car. Use better judgement next time guys!

Mar. 16 2014 04:54 PM
Jad

To all complaining about the swearing:
Did you not hear the disclaimer Jad (not Chad) gave at the beginning?

Mar. 08 2014 06:26 PM
Frank from Boise, ID

Dudes, that's it. Time for me to start "iPodsDildosDiapersD*ckPills dot com*
Plus, I am absolutely a feminist, progressive type dude and because I respect the hell out of Mac McClelland, I feel that it does NOT make is disrespectful for me to point out that hearing her say "dildo" a bunch of times is a turn on. Her bad*ssness makes her smokin' hot. As does her smokin' hotness.

Mar. 06 2014 10:34 AM
Kat from Canada

For a picture of of one of the warehouses and an update on workers getting due labour standards.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/03/supreme-court-amazon-workers_n_4890940.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000063

Mar. 05 2014 08:19 AM
Dan from Minneapolis

Should we be so shocked that blue collar work is demanding? Should we be so shocked that if a warehouse picking system expects an item to be present, but it is not, that there needs to be a process to verify and rectify any process issues that led to its absence? Should we be so shocked that unskilled workers are not treated exactly the same as white collar office workers?

I've worked in a fulfillment environment. The journalist who covered the story strikes me as having led a coddled, sheltered existence. Life is tough. This is not generally a career for people, and it is not the sort of job in which you can let your mind wander. It's a cut throat business that serves price conscious buyers. A journalist with no real background in this arena lacks the context to fully understand what she is subjecting herself to. Smart as she may be, she missed the forest for the trees in a few moments when describing the processes at work.

Mar. 03 2014 08:29 PM
Brad Gleeson from Portland OR

Brown Box : Realize I am late to the comment party here, but have to say I was a bit shocked while listening to the podcast episode "Brown Box" with my 12-yr-old daughter on the way to school. I heard Chad say "shit" and thought, hmm that's odd. Then the reporter he was interviewing dropped an f-bomb. I thought, wow, never heard that from an NPR-type program before. Then I heard the story about picking "Dildos" and couldn't switch the channel fast enough. (Listened to the rest after dropping her off - did we really need to refer to Dildos 20 times?) When did this language guideline change?

Really sad because Jillian and I used to enjoy listening to the show on the way to school instead of here pop radio station where language and themes can be a challenge. I don't consider myself overprotective - I let the first two curse words slip by - but now I can no longer play your podcast with her in the car unless I have heard the eposide first. Guess I need to find a new podcast for us to share. :>(

Mar. 03 2014 02:02 PM
Jennifer from NH

Are you sure you guys don't do stand up because I found this piece hysterically funny (not sarcasm). The beeps, the curses, the whole monotony of the human condition--I found myself LMAO. It was horrible and humorous all at the same time. Nailed it-- Bravo!

Mar. 03 2014 09:25 AM

Why is the entire episode based on McClelland, who can't remember if her picking device beeped or not. I thought you guys were going to grill her about why picking was so difficult for her. Then she says it couldn't have been her fault because she's from the Midwest and went to Catholic school, and you guys drop it. Thankfully, you spoke with someone who worked there currently, not someone who worked there for a bit so they could write a story, like McClelland. This didn't seem like journalism. Seemed like I was listening to you guys be charmed by this young woman. For example, if you're going to talk about dildos, lets discuss their prevalence, their history, the statistics, why people order online, etc.. And why no economist? Isn't that what this issue is really about?

Mar. 02 2014 06:25 PM
Thomas from Jersey Pine Barrens

What an outstanding episode! I could listen to Mac all day long, so down to earth. Keep up the good work.

Mar. 02 2014 11:09 AM
Abby from NH

Hey Jad and Robert
KEEP DOIN YOU, it's your podcast- swear as much as you please. Dildos and vibrators and other words like that are part of a topic people should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to talk about/listen to; incorporating them into casual topics like such should hopefully, one day, help people to feel as comfortable as you are.

Thank you so much for your podcasts, I'm actually using this one as a resource for a paper I'm about to write! You two are stellar, keep up the fantastic work

Feb. 25 2014 11:23 PM
george senda from martinez ca

there's really no reason to use this kind of language in a podcast unless you drop a hammer on your foot or something. there's too much of this kind of stuff out there as it is.

Feb. 24 2014 04:33 PM
Chad Sullivan from Portland, OR

I can't believe people are on here complaining about swearing and not about the labor practices revealed by the show. Thank you radio lab for this doing this story. The only shortcoming I heard was a lack of mention of union organizing, which has worked in Germany and is being attempted elsewhere, to rectify some of these practices.

Feb. 24 2014 04:24 PM
WB from Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States

I love swearing as much as anyone (well, not as much as Steven Fry http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_osQvkeNRM). It doesn't play well on air, however. And while it is interesting that dildos and vibrators are such sought after goods, it comes across as cheeky (or worse, childish) in situ.

TAL seems to have a good policy on swearing--only do so when it conveys contextual insight or meaning (as in its 129 Cars episode). The New Yorker magazine is more liberal, but it still only uses curses when they contribute to the tempo or temperature of a piece. "Motherfucker" is a polysyllabic gem, but loses all punch upon repetition. I understand the impulse to keep the dialogue conversational, but remember to keep it classy.

Feb. 24 2014 02:44 PM
Steve Muller from Boulder, CO

As an avid listener and financial supporter of the show, I was very disappointed and annoyed with this episode. I did not appreciate the explicit language or specific product examples used to illustrate how operations work in these warehouses. Personally, I think they were an unnecessary distraction to what was an otherwise interesting story that is relevant to understanding how things work in a world that many of us interact with in our everyday lives - the very type of story that I really appreciate coming from Radiolab. Radiolab has not needed to be "edgy" to continue to be the quality program that it has been for so long.

As you may suspect, I do have young kids and I do like to listen to podcasts while driving with them. My son and daughter, who are nine and seven years old often enjoys listening to the show as well. I do not feel that I can listen with them anymore. This show was just not appropriate for them to listen to and did not have any warning of the content (fortunately they were not listening along with me at the time I was listening to this particular podcast). At the very least, you should give adequate warning of such explicit language and content. If I experience this problem in the future, then I will opt to no longer financially support you program.

Feb. 24 2014 01:47 PM
Rick from 21702

This isn't the first time I've heard a show about crummy fulfillment warehouse working conditions. Good thing, too. Between the incessant "I was like ...", "They were like ... ", "It was like ..." and the sandpaper creaky voice of McClelland I found myself tuning out.

Feb. 23 2014 07:04 AM
Peter from The Netherlands (with more gold medals than you xD)

Is this episode sponsored by diapersdotcom?

Wow, just wow... I'm a loyal listener from The Netherlands (except for the podcasts where Fox sponsored these broadcasts) and what's the deal with the swearing? If I want to listen to that, I pick a program named "American [insert profession here]" and listen to the constant bleeping. I do not expect this in an educational show. The whole dildo thing is not really a biggie, but that's because I'm Dutch I guess. When kids ask here "what's a dildo?" Parents say that they are too young for that and told to go play outside and be a kid. Parents do not have an obligation at all to explain eeeverything.

Then there are the people that say "yeah, there is a warning in the beginning of this episode", which is correct, but the general tone of this episode is way off the normal path that Radiolab walks on.

And instead of complaining how bad the workplace is, maybe it is an idea to actively engage in doing something about it or live with it. Apparently it is normal to work under slavery conditions in the US. Right? Normal? Really?

My last comment is that when you order everything online, you basically take money away from small businesses. Sure, it's cheaper and more convenient (Read: lazy) but please spend that one extra dollar at a local business.

I hope the next episode will be fun/interesting/educational again. :)

Feb. 21 2014 05:27 AM
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Feb. 19 2014 01:54 PM
Jonathan

In the Black Box show, we learned the magic that takes place when making a Radio Lab episode. Take the Mother Jones article McClelland wrote in 2012 and broadcast it in 2014 nearly word for word including the swear words and dildo references. McClelland mentions paper towels in the article so the announcer pretends he buys paper towels during the intro and the joke will be even funnier when McClelland says it later. In this forum, many people asked how were the items delivered in 3 hours as was stated in the show intro. Well they were not, that was just in there to get the audience more interested. Treating employees inhumanly is an important topic. But Amazon will probably reply, "That was 2012, we don't do that anymore. We have now replaced the human robots with real ones."

Feb. 18 2014 02:40 AM
Learningisglorious from Vietnam

I like the way that you express, very interesting.
Shopping online is amazing!
People now can save a lot of time and energy.
We can purchase items which do not have in the local area.
The distributor can sell more products and increase competitiveness.
It will change the way that people shopping.

Feb. 16 2014 12:49 AM
Patrick J from Portland Oregon

Wow. Where to start. As a long time employee of the Powell's Books shipping and fulfilment department I feel the need to clear some things up. Powell's DOES have a fulfilment center; there are pickers, shippers, boxers, and unboxers. The work force at Powell's is educated, diligent and well compensated. A small number of orders do come from a third party source (i.e. Ingram) but for the most part our books are picked and shipped by union employees with all the perks that being union involves (breaks, benefits, vacation, and representation). The implication that Powell's in some way outsources the majority of our shipping to locations with questionable working conditions is as hurtful as it is untrue. if the hosts of this program have any questions regarding the working conditions of Powell's or our business partners I would direct them to contact Powell's publicity and marketing department.

Feb. 15 2014 02:05 PM
K

The Mother Jones article McClelland wrote in 2012 on this very subject is here: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor

Feb. 11 2014 02:45 PM
Vanessa

Like many others, I was disappointed by the excessive use of explicit language and content. Sure, people talk this way. But I choose not to, and I expect professionalism and maturity from my favorite podcast. And now I get to go retract my dozens of recommendations for this podcast to friends and family who have similar standards. I don't mind thoughtful discussion of serious or interesting adult topics, but just going for the fashionable low-brow is disappointing indeed.

Feb. 11 2014 12:51 PM
Random Interloper

I used to be a picker back in the late 1980s. It was nothing like this. Of course I had a grip of orders I had to fill and goals, and a foreman making sure I wasn't slacking, etc. But I also felt like a human being. What was described in the podcast sounds absolutely miserable. I wouldn't last a day -- and I was a heck of a warehouse worker back then, too.

Feb. 10 2014 07:12 PM
ash from ATL

So the totally driven, "never had anyone tell her she has done a bad job in her life" reporter thinks the system is "mean" because she didn't perform well over a three day stint? I am shocked. Was she sympathetic to the kids in her college class that called the professor mean when they got a lower grade than they thought they should?

She should be glad she has something else to fall back on to make a living, not many other people working there have that choice.

Feb. 10 2014 03:56 PM
Stephen O, MN from 55318

I worked for Supervalu distribution center in MN same job as a picker but i was a V.R. (vacation replacement) aka part timer. No benefits working 50 hrs a week we had to build our pallets in a perfect square then wrap them with clear wrap. We had a time limit as well but no count down the vocollect just told how much time it must take. The idea was to hop you could get a small order and do it in half the time which would put you at 200% then you don't have to worry about your time.

Feb. 10 2014 12:53 PM

@John, the 25 year industry veteran

While we all need to be mindful of the economic realities that drive employers to cut costs through production accelleration, I'm still left with the question: When is it right to treat fellow human beings like this?

Feb. 10 2014 11:53 AM
Lawrence Turmel from NJ

your show opened with the line"You order some stuff on the Internet and it shows up three hours later. How could all the things that need to happen to make that happen happen so fast?" but you did not ever go into that. that is the new idea of pre-shipping. you guys really need to do a show on that. yes it sucks to work in a non-labor union job. but it is the mass of meta data that lets them ship it to your house quicker. they pre-ship lots of stuff all around that people might order to get it there quicker.

Feb. 08 2014 11:27 PM
Elleiram from Chicago

I really like RadioLab, but it seems like the information that you guys have is outdated. I'm sure there's some warehouses that operate the way this reporter says that they do, but I work for a major retailer that is NOT Amazon and is affiliated with several others, and all our distribution centers use the Kiva robots to pick. The Kiva systems are actually really interesting, and I'd love to hear an update to this story that actually addressed that, because they work in a really interesting manner, and in fact there's several interesting videos on the topic.

Also, while I understand that the conditions sucked in the warehouse, her attitude regarding "why do people order stuff" surprises me... ordering online is convenient and it's useful for products people are embarassed to order (think enemas, dildoes, tampons or toilet paper for the easily embarassed) or need often and would like on subscription. Also, it's really helpful for people who are homebound.

I guess I'm just a little disappointed more than one example wasn't used, and that the technology that's currently being used isn't discussed.

Feb. 07 2014 02:50 PM

As usual, the show was very interesting. But you left out part of the speedy delivery, how does it get from the warehouse to the house so quickly? I feel like I only got half of it.

As for those who are showing righteous indignation at their children hearing swearing and the mentioning of dildos, please.

First off, we are hearing first hand accounts, I prefer it to not be censored. Secondly, it shows your insecurity as a parent.

Shielding your children from all things uncomfortable only makes them targets later on when they can't keep up. Secondly, you have to be clear to the children that it is a bad for them to say.

You have every bit of power to scrub the information that comes through.

Feb. 07 2014 01:03 PM
Darron from Michigan

Wow, there's a bit of an uproar over this one. I was taken aback by the amount of cursing. It seems to me that there's usually not much if any, somewhat following "radio" protocol. I was more surprised than offended (from living in a college town). It makes me wonder if they didn't remember to censor/edit normally or had planned on having a bit more freedom with this one for some reason but forgot to mention that in the initial recording sent out. I'm sure this was just a mix up in the post-production process somewhere that allowed it to go live like that. I still think this is overall a wonderful podcast site, although this one was a bit of a debacle. I'm really sorry for the parents, teachers, bus drivers for watching, that's not a situation anyone wants to be put in. Take this as a lesson that you can't censor life, you're not born with an FCC warning. Also as a reminder to preview EVERYTHING before sharing it with children.

As noted by others, some take aways as to the reported content:
- Not just online distribution centers work employees like dogs, it happens everywhere in unskilled labor industries. If you think you've got a better way to run the system please speak up and tell the company policy makers otherwise you'll just have to pick between sweatshop jobs and mechanization with unemployment.

- This example appears to be outdated with Amazon Kivas. I think the point was meant to be more "Think about how the magic button gets you that nostalgia t-shirt" than "These people are being worked to death, someone should do something about it."

Sorry for the long post. I love the work you guys do but please be careful in the future.

Feb. 07 2014 04:26 AM
Alyssa from NH

I worked as a picker and I can testify that the "efficient" routes they come up with are anything but. Where I worked the bins were numbered but not in numerical order because someone somewhere who had never set foot in our warehouse had judged that not having the bins in numerical order would increase efficiency once we, the workers, had made the effort to MEMORIZE the hundreds of locations. We banded together to point out how ridiculous this was to management but there was nothing our little middle managers could do, all the decisions were made far away and there was no channel for communication. I quit. I don't have a job right now. It's bad but there is a line as to what my job has a right to demand of me.

I worked that job for over 7 years. For the first five or so I made $8.10 an hour. Later I was made a supervisor and received a pay raise to $9.90. The year I started at the company was the year they did away with annual pay raises due to the failing economy.

Feb. 06 2014 11:22 PM
DJ from USA

Interesting description of the warehouse fulfillment. But did the reporter say, "F*ck!" at one point? At 4:33? I listen to the podcast, not on radio, but I never heard profanity on Radiolab. Doesn't bother me, but I think that got past the editor. Love the great stories.

Feb. 06 2014 02:40 PM
Jim from Massacusetts

Hearing this story was interesting to understand better how the whole process works but to hear that the solution for the story teller is to STOP using the internet to buy items I found laughable. Ok Ok your experience working there was horrible and conditions should be improved for the peons who do this type of work but what does not ordering from the internet stop?

As other comments have noted lots of warehouse workers are subject to the same conditions and if you care going to play this strict rule that because my situation working here sucked so I will stop using Amazon et al. then you might as well stop being a consumer period. Are you thinking about these things when you purchase food, clothing and most importantly the electronic devices you use every day? Lets face all of those items and many more are brought to your door through exploitive practices around the globe not just in the good ole USA.
Sadly the conditions probably will not change for this line of work because it will probably all go robotic in the very near future and then there will be the lament for the loss of the human touch. I guess be careful what you wish for.

Feb. 06 2014 11:54 AM
Shannon Thomsen

Sorry-did they mention what the employees are getting paid? I must have missed it somehow. And I did find the part about the heat to be disturbing, but the rest of it sounds like a day in any other warehouse to me. The use of the word dildo was very gratuitous to me...
When I worked doing directory assistance for a large phone company I was required to answer 120 calls an hour. I could not miss ANY TIME for any reason for A YEAR. I could not take vacation days or be late or even fail to clock back in after lunch. Or I was ineligible for a raise for another year from that point. Even going to the bathroom during a non scheduled time could make you short of calls. SO I have worked in an environment that was high stress with a high production quota. OH and the phone company was unionized. So that shows how much unions can do.

I don't feel outraged at the time expected or the quotas expected. I don't think it's terrible to order paper towels off the internet(except that you would probably get them a lot cheaper in an actual store.)I understand why people would do it.

Feb. 05 2014 03:51 PM
Caitlin

I remember in elementary school we were already calling each other dildos as a funny insult. Not because we really knew what it was, but just because someone heard the word and we all thought it was funny.

Learning about worker compensation and treatment is way more important than your kid hearing the word "dildo" for what will most definitely not be the last time.

Feb. 04 2014 12:20 PM
csa from NJ

very informative show as always- but Jad you didn't explain how your package gets to you the same day? does UPS have pickups later in the day for orders that come in that morning and then the box is processes in the truck or does it have to go to a UPS distribution center? i assume you live in NYC since you said "bodega", and do you know where your distribution center is? LI? Queens? curious...

Feb. 04 2014 09:17 AM
Joe from Singapore

For those mentioning unions, I worked at a Rite Aid distribution center in Michigan about a decade ago. It was just about the same as the setup mentioned here except that the orders we filed went out to stores rather than individuals (also it was quite a bit less tech savvy). It was unionized. It didn't make the giant warehouse any cooler in the summer nor allow you to punch in late nor permit you to fall short of your quota.

I don't find these expectations to be unrealistic and I thought it was a little funny how shocked the woman was that you could be fired if you're late enough times or don't meet the principle expectation of her job! I did find the situation in which the man was punished after his wife had a baby to be pretty disturbing and I agreed with the woman somewhat that the job can be dehumanizing.

Funny side note (or disturbing depending on your outlook), the union did win us two mandatory 15 minute breaks in addition to the 30 minute lunch. It was a 5 minute walk each way to the break room and we had to punch out and punch in. It ended up being more of a mandatory lap than a break.

Feb. 03 2014 10:38 AM
John

I want to start off by saying i love radiolab. Being a 25 year veteran of the transportation/warehousing/logistics industry, I felt compelled to put in my two cents on this podcast topic.

Number one, i wouldnt feel too guilty about ordering paper towels/diapers on the internet. Guess what, the paper towels you picked up at your local grocery store, walmart, target, etc were also likely case picked by somebody in a warehouse. In fact, it was probably handled by numerous workers along the way. Think about it, somebody had to put it in the warehouse, somebody had to get it out of the warehouse and atleast 2 more people had to transport it from the warehouse to the store or your front door.

Number two, the industry is brutal. While the work is tough, keep in mind that those productivity goals are created to keep costs down on the handling of items. It is a managers responsibility to drive high productivity to keep costs down. The industries constant drive to reduce cost has ultimately led them to invest heavily in technology that employs fewer workers each and every year. These companies are only just starting to scratch the surface of robotics and the elimination of even more workers. If they can pull it off, Amazon's drone program will be emulated by numerous other companies taking even more jobs away from the public. The fact is, these companies NEED to always find ways to reduce cost in order to stay alive. Did you know that the profit margin of your average supermarket is only 1%? This industry is going the way of the agriculture business, where the only way you can survive is by being a mega-farm that is thousands of acres in size. Except for a few small high-priced "organic" farms, the days of the gentleman farmer are gone.

Number three, it is extremely difficult to unionize a warehouse workforce in this industry. A large number of workers in these warehouses are day laborers and/or employees of temp agencies. Technically, they are employees of a temp agency and not the company in which that warehouse belongs. You cant unionize if you arent an employee. Also, since the work is difficult and the pay is low, most workers dont stay around long enough to attempt unionization. The turnover in this work is always high. Based off personal experiences, the unionization of a company is typically the beginning of the end for that company. I cant tell you the number of times ive heard people say they lost their jobs because a company shutdown when they unionized. They couldnt compete with non-union shops.

Feb. 03 2014 01:36 AM
joshua muir from california

I have a baby and I work in a shop and I use RAGS- I can't believe people still buy disposable diapers and paper towels.

It's like buying wastefulness itself. Find some old rags, wash them when they're dirty and when there really dirty, throw them out.

Josh

PS I am totally serious.

Feb. 02 2014 05:24 PM

@ Dave Roan, I totally agree - there needs to be some accountability from the makers of the software that drives employee to inhumane standards. Really unconscionable - since internet ordering is so huge and so profitable, workers really should organize - since they're all such huge warehouses it would be easy for them to form unions across the country - striking if need be.

Feb. 02 2014 03:41 PM
Aaron

I felt like I was listening to a Dickens novel. Oliver Twist 2.0

Feb. 02 2014 02:51 PM
bradley averick from meloncolony, new dork

very sad indeed. I am starting to wonder if the paper towels are being used less then the people who work in the warehouses that supply them. come on. what is really happening here? I mean really, whats the excuse, it's not a job that can be outsourced overseas, share the wealth jeff basos, scrooge, pre-revelation, would be taking pointers. song- 'your a mean one, mr. basos

Feb. 02 2014 12:31 PM

Diapers.com uses kiva systems ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gy5tYVR-28&feature=youtube_gdata_player ) and as such have no pickers.

Amazon purchased kiva systems over a year ago and I assume they are totally automated by now. So anyway although I love radiolab this show was balderdash.

References:

http://techland.time.com/2012/03/21/amazons-775-million-acquisition-of-kiva-systems-could-shift-how-businesses-see-robots/

http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/12/01/will-amazon-owned-robot-maker-sell-tailer-rivals/FON7bVNKvfzS2sHnBHzfLM/story.html

Feb. 01 2014 11:58 PM
Kurt Schwind

I'm one of those people that buys paper towels from the 'internet'. Nearly everything that I use one some regular basis I have schedule to just arrive at my house for me. Love it.

Feb. 01 2014 04:30 PM
ChrisN

My friend had a job like this and wrote a short story about it. A highly fictionalized version, mind you, with an amazing revenge fantasy, and a brilliant piece of writing as well (WARNING CONTAINS LANGUAGE): http://miraclejones.blogspot.com/2013/11/fulfillment.html

Feb. 01 2014 02:26 PM
Dave Roan from Chaska, Mn

Can we put a face and a name to the person that leads the creation of the computer program that makes workers comply with such cruel performance requirements. Is this the work of a sinister puppet master that think nothing if dehumanizing people in this way, or perhaps the mandate for maximum order processing speed leads a programmer to see workers as nothing more than replaceable appliances. Is it ever justifiable to treat people like this?

Feb. 01 2014 01:12 PM
sam from France

Well there's rigged market capitalism for you.
To hell with ever ordering anything from amazon (or any large company) ever again.

Everything marx said basically correct. Glad i don't live in America.

Feb. 01 2014 10:55 AM
Prayag Patil from Bolton, MA

This system that was used in the 3PL company sounds uncannily like the Sci-Fi "Manna" software in the short story about post-singularity society by Marshall Brain:

http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

I urge everyone to give it a read to see how disturbingly close this Brown Box podcast is to the first part of the fiction.

Jan. 31 2014 11:12 PM
michael

i work in an emergency department of a medium-sized hospital (550 beds), and things there can be nearly as demanding. everyone wants everything now. not in 10 minutes. it's a grind everywhere, anymore. and no improvement on the horizon.

Jan. 31 2014 10:28 PM
Yanguy from Brooklyn

Key word here is "dildo."

Jan. 31 2014 04:49 PM
Caelan Griffiths from Vancouver

Yeah, maybe warning about language up front: personally not offended. I was wondering more why Pat Walters sounds like a giddy teenager while interviewing Mac McClelland. Then Googled: she's intelligent, a brave reporter, can move pianos and beautiful...If there's such thing as a crush coming over the airwaves, I heard it today.

Jan. 31 2014 02:50 PM

Really? It was just great hearing the f-bombs being dropped as my children were in the room. Sure, maybe I shouldn't listen to the show in front of them, but I usually don't hear so much vulgarity on this show. I figured it would let up, then you start talking about dildos. Great. Thanks for that. Guess I'll just shut the show off, maybe permanently.

Jan. 31 2014 01:03 PM
eric from Fargo

Sounds like every job I've ever had. Welcome to the real world. Employers don't give a shit about you.

Jan. 31 2014 11:55 AM
Sarah

I didn't think you could hear a show jump the shark. This episode proved that it's possible. I miss the good old radiolabs before they got too full of themselves to do a quality show. It's been ages since more than one segment of an episode was worth listening to. Badly done, guys, badly done.

Jan. 31 2014 11:34 AM

It would be very helpful if people read the previous posts before offering their comments.
The original broadcast had no disclaimer.
The disclaimer was put in afterward so anyone who uses automatic itunes downloads or downloaded it early got the version without a warning.
Which means we were listening to what we thought would be an interesting episode about Amazon (some of us with our kids) when they start saying dildo over and over and over again.

Jan. 30 2014 07:47 PM
Isaac from My house

I was really, really worried, after hearing the warning and knowing the episode was titled brown box, when the intro started talking about diapers. Then I was pleasantly surprised! Loved the episode.

Jan. 30 2014 07:35 PM
Pete

I'm a regular listener who downloads the podcast on iTunes. Normally explicit content is bleeped or otherwise edited in the podcasts, but this one was not. And there wasn't any sort of disclaimer saying it was going to contain explicit content. I was very disappointed and ended up turning the podcast off after a few minutes. If this kind of language is a regular occurrence in the future, I will no longer be a regular listener.

Oh, and to all of the commenters who are saying "grow up" regarding foul language, I've found that people who are truly grown up don't use this kind of language.

Jan. 30 2014 07:00 PM
Isaac from Santa Barbara, CA

I thought this episode was great! It had a comical element I'd like to hear in more shorts. The warning from the app was sufficient, but I can understand that if it weren't present, parents may have had some unwanted and premature conversations about dildos with their kids. Thanks for the entertainment Radiolab! And it was awesome meeting you guys on top of the Hotel Wilshire after Apocalyptic in LA!

Jan. 30 2014 06:40 PM
anthony

I don't know about you guys but I could have sworn Jad explicitly warns about the content and language. But maybe that's just me.

Jan. 30 2014 06:40 PM
Jared

I thought this was a very insightful piece, thanks guys! To those of you who were upset about the swearing, there was a warning.. Maybe you missed it within the first 20 seconds of the podcast? Anyways, the swearing didn't bother me at all (even though I listen to this in a research lab), just keep doing what you do!

Jan. 30 2014 06:32 PM
james

To the journalist,

If you can't do the job, then don't do it.

Don't ask the world to lower to your standards.

Great, now we'll get some big slab of legislation and these jobs will move overseas.

Jan. 30 2014 05:28 PM
Dan from Southern California

Thanks for all of the "fuck", "shit" and assorted "Dildo" mentions in this short episode. I listen to Radiolab with my 12 year old daughter. A little warning would be nice. Disappointed.

Jan. 30 2014 05:17 PM
Dan from Southern California

Thanks for all of the "fuck", "shit" and assorted "Dildo" mentions in this short episode. I listen to Radiolab with my 12 year old daughter. A little warning would be nice. Disappointed.

Jan. 30 2014 05:14 PM
robbyt from NYC

ok, whatever about the dildos.

The audio editing and mixing is awful. The "beep" is the worst part because the sample -clicks- and is mixed too loud.

Go read some books about audio editing:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1590599055/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1590599055&linkCode=as2&tag=atlandynam-20

Jan. 30 2014 04:46 PM
Julia

My bet is that this whole swearing thing is just a test to see how we handle it. Honestly, I can understand why people are freaking out about their kids hearing "new words" and asking questions, but honestly, it's not necessary to fill the discussion area with this. The story was great and informative even with the swearing. Thanks Radiolab!!

Jan. 30 2014 04:11 PM
Chris from Nevada

"Dad, what's a dildo?" This was not a conversation I wanted to have with my daughter in the car on our way home from school. I don't care that there was an inadvertent f-bomb said under someone's breath. (I'm sure my kids have heard worse from me.) But saying "dildo" 13 times in one podcast when it had nothing to do with the story was a curve ball those of us who listen with our kids weren't expecting. If it was a story ABOUT sex toys then I would have just known not to listen to it with them around. My kids and I really enjoy listening to Radiolab, and I particularly enjoy the conversations we have afterwards about what we learned. But this episode has really bummed me out about one of my favorite things. (The Radiolab podcast that is, not dildos.)

Jan. 30 2014 01:51 PM
nu from new york

this makes me think twice about ordering online. I thought it was all automized - picking and everything. I imagined robotic arms doing the work, not people scurrying around a huge warehouse picking up my stuff in 15 seconds!

Jan. 30 2014 12:31 PM

Obviously they meant to include the warning on the downloadable version of the podcast, but for whatever reason it didn't get in there. If you were listening with kids that's a bummer, but they'll get over it and if they're old enough to listen to Radiolab, chances are it's not the first time they've heard those words.

Great episode and I actually thought the dildo talk was in context and added to the story. Can you imagine all of the ones you'd have to sort through as a picker each and every day? Also, I do not buy paper towels online, but I do buy diapers (but through Amazon b/c they're cheaper).

Jan. 30 2014 11:01 AM
Anu from Rochester, NY

Great episode. Had no idea about the schedule the pickers were on or getting penalized for bathroom breaks. The swearing and dildo talk didn't bother me. I think it was appropriate in context.

Jan. 30 2014 09:58 AM
Jose

I'm glad but also surprised to get the impression from the commenters that lots of families, kids and teachers listen to Radiolab. For what it's worth, I liked the episode like the others, but as a college student my media diet doesn't have restrictions. I thought the warning was more than sufficient, but it looks like Radiolab maybe goofed by not including the warning at first or on iTunes.

Jan. 29 2014 10:54 PM
Richard from Utah

I like the way you do your podcast's. I believe that you are diligent in how you research them and that you produce and present them in a manner that is true to the opinions of the those telling the stories. THANK YOU

Jan. 29 2014 10:33 PM
Sarah from MN

Just for the record, my dad is one of those people that buys paper towels from the internet. Lol. He says that it's cheaper that way~

Jan. 29 2014 10:18 PM
Nordr from A2, MI

This was easily the funniest podcast, and maybe segment, I've ever heard on the program. And I've heard 'em all. Extra donation, fellas. Hilarious.

Jan. 29 2014 08:49 PM
zachary from portland

There was a warning.

Also, grow the fuck up. Its language, no one is dying over the use of the word 'dildo'.

Jan. 29 2014 07:18 PM
Phillip from Oakland

Just for the record, I think the dildo reference was *essential* to the story. It was my favorite part.

Jan. 29 2014 07:13 PM
Thom from Long Island, NY

I get that people curse, and that if content is relevant, it should not be censored because of overly puritanical values. That said, I think that choosing "dildo" (of all the products sold online) was unnecessarily salacious. I'm thinking that Diapers.com sells more formula than dildos.
Additionally, the cursing was tangential to the story - Ms. McClelland didn't -need- to curse, and as a professional journalist for Mother Jones, she is expected to behave more professionally than that. For example, I teach public school science to teen-aged juniors. I curse, far more often than I should - but NEVER in the classroom. Can my kids handle cursing? Sure. Is it a big deal? I don't think so. Is it appropriate for the setting and context? Absolutely not.
If the dildo references and the cursing were integral to the story, or even just added to it, then yes, leave them in. But they weren't, and thus the disappointment.
And the disclaimer is moot - the issue is not whether or not there should be a disclaimer, but whether the content needed one.
Gentlemen, your fans deserve better than this.

Jan. 29 2014 05:27 PM
Sara from Peoria

By now it's increasingly clear you showed questionable judgment with the explicit content on this episode. One way to recover would be to update the iTunes feed like you did with the audio here. Please notify when that's done. Very disappointed.

Jan. 29 2014 04:53 PM
Bryan

What is the song used early on in this podcast?
it's a classical tune I've heard before, but can't recall the name.

Jan. 29 2014 04:31 PM

--> There is *NO* warning. <--
There are two versions of this podcast.
The version that downloaded to itunes is 19:38 with no warning.
I see that the version on this web page is over 20 minutes with a warning,
but that is not the version many of us listened to.

Jan. 29 2014 03:46 PM
damo from ky

All these people who complain about the content of this podcast must have ignored the disclaimer at the very beginning.

Jan. 29 2014 03:34 PM

This episode was horribly disappointing. I listen to Radiolab during lunch, I am an elementary school teacher. I was horrified by the language and and hope that your program will be more professional in future episodes. If I hear language like this ever again, I will be forced to stop listening during the day and will not be able to recommend episodes to my students or coworkers.

Jan. 29 2014 03:33 PM
Steve

People who are complaining about wanting a warning about the language should listen again. There is a warning!!
Oh. What happens when a kid hears language like that? Does their head explode? People talk like that. It's real.
Maybe you don't want your kids to hear it because it makes YOU uncomfortable, and maybe it makes you uncomfortable because you were shielded from it. Break the cycle, curse in front of your kids and let's raise a country full of smart, healthy, people who can discuss anything!

Jan. 29 2014 03:14 PM

Very disappointed. I play radiolab for my kids on the way to school and this one was really inappropriate. I had to stop it when you started with all of the dildo talk. Why did you do that? The story would have been the same (if not better) if you used a common toy like a Barbie as an example.

Jan. 29 2014 02:24 PM

This was not much in the way of journalism. I hope people don't jump on the bandwagon in boycotting internet commerce. People depend on the income that they receive there. If there is a real labor issue at these centers, it deserves in-depth reporting. I wish RL would stick to what it does best - interesting, thought provoking stories based on science and philosophy. Let Planet Money or TAL handle internet commerce. I also didn't get the judgement on the people who order paper towels on line. "Who does that?" asked your reporter. As if there is some moral value in going to the grocery store to buy them instead. I think it's just a matter of preference.

Jan. 29 2014 02:14 PM
Phillip Popp from Oakland

Where did that chip-music hard-bop nut cracker piece come from? It was at the very end of the podcast; where can I hear more of that music!?

Jan. 29 2014 02:02 PM
YouMakeMeMad from Angerville

The starting of this episode was purely an advertisement for diapers.com. I'm so disappointed in you guys.

Jan. 29 2014 01:18 PM
Mike from Portland

I found this to be a rather interesting episode. I love that Radio Lab covers a wide scope of subjects. This reminds me of the question "where does your food come from?" Well, part of our online connected world is "where does my stuff come from?" Yes, factories, but these warehouses are an interesting part of 21st Century commerce. For those that would criticize this being the subject of this RL Short, bear in mind that any insight into our world is a worthy subject. Also, for those that object to the language/sex toy portions, they did warn you: "*****This podcast contains some language and subject matter that might not be appropriate for young listeners******" Thanks for another elucidating episode!

Jan. 29 2014 01:05 PM
PaulW from Utah

I have to echo several of the listeners above. The topic was interesting but the random unwarned "F" word and several mentions of dildos has left me disappointed. I often enjoy listening to this show with my family that includes 4 young boys. Will I need to screen every episode now before I do so?

:(

Jan. 29 2014 12:24 PM
Aaron from houston

So a girl from the Midwest that went to Catholic school (because that means she is predisposed to work hard?) didn't like working hard and being held up to production quotas. Millions of people work hard and are held to strict production standards. How do you think the buildings you work in are made and the roads and bridges you drive your cars on are made? I will give you a hint. It isn't in air conditioned rooms. Besides, how else would we get such cheap dildos if the distribution center didn't keep it's costs down? LOL.

Jan. 29 2014 11:59 AM
a

Paul, the world is not family-friendly.

Jan. 29 2014 11:39 AM
Paul

For years I have enjoyed your podcast but am utterly disappointed in the caliber and level it sunk to in this one episode. My kids are fans but now I cannot recommend and hope they do not download this episode. Are you going for the explicit rating? Are we hoping the youth of today all know what dildos are already or is this just advertisment for amazons adult products? Wait my 8 year old doesnt know what a dildo is ok lets just have her google that...... what are you thinking? Just disappointed.

Jan. 29 2014 11:13 AM
Christine from Kansas City, MO

It upset me to hear the tone of this podcast was mainly surprise. Most minimum wage jobs that I've worked in the past (waitress, barista, bartender, hotel clerk) are extremely physically intensive and stressful. I've had more than one medical issue ( UTI, eye infection, extremely sore muscles, and tendinitis) from working these jobs and I consider myself above average in fitness and intelligence as I am a certified spinning instructor and have a college degree. Take a moment to notice sometime your service and hospitality work force works very hard!!

Jan. 29 2014 11:12 AM
Randy

This seemed like an interesting episode, but the incessant beeping made it impossible for me to listen to all of it.

Jan. 29 2014 11:04 AM
Andy Kaufman from Chicago

Our family greatly enjoys listening to your podcasts. Which, to the earlier comments, made this one a bit awkward with how explicit you made it. Seriously, it was unnecessary. The topic was interesting. The episode was disappointing.

Jan. 29 2014 11:01 AM
Ken from Chicago

What's up with all the swears and talk about dildos? Would really appreciate a warning before the show.

Jan. 29 2014 09:42 AM
Andy

Whats up with the Explicit episode. Might want to warn the parents out there about the language.

Jan. 29 2014 08:44 AM
Lars Gottlieb from Denmark

I really wonder why you don't mention the solution to this problem.
But there IS a solution, and it has existed for about a hundred years.

It's called the labor union.

Jan. 29 2014 08:31 AM

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