Post 5 - Flying with Falcons / Bezos & Amazon - Closer to the Truth?

Part 1 - Flying with Falcons

If you could have tea and cake with anyone not alive today, who would it be? Only one restriction, they can’t be someone you’ve met before.

This was a questions I batted round our woodland lodge in Center Parcs, as one of our evenings drew to a close. I was being treated to a lovely break by the staff of my Cancer Hospice, Dorothy House.

Some replies ranged from Nina Simone, Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Jane Austin. I thought Jane Austin was a clever one from my nurse Catrina. This was because she said it’d not only be interesting to meet the great author, but to have an opportunity to speak to someone from a different century. A chance to really understand the attitudes of the period.

Being simple, I chose Roald Dahl. If he was the tinderbox that lit my passion for reading and writing, then the guilty spark was struck by my 2nd Year teacher Miss Hodgkins. She did a marvellous job of reading us his stories, and possessed an uncanny knack for creating different voices. It must be said that her Centipede, from James and the Giant Peach, probably has no rival in Heaven or on Earth.

Not only that, Mr Dahl had an extraordinary life. From a fascinating childhood, working in East Africa, serving as an RAF fighter pilot in the Mediterranean during World War 2, to writing macabre stories for adults, and then finally children’s books.

If presented with such an opportunity, I’d be eating my cake, and drinking my tea slower than a hipster abusing free Wi-Fi from a coffee shop.

Just in case you were wondering, I have actually written about falcons in this post. I’m just enjoying setting the scene first, as life isn’t just about falcons.

Center Parcs

It was my first ever time at Center Parcs. For those of you not in the know, it consists of lodges in a heavily wooded area, with daily activities, restaurants, and nature walks in abundance. Cars are strictly banned outside of arrival and departure times. Hence there is a slower pace of life, unbridled by traffic fumes and noise. You will rise awake to the sound of birdsong, and inhale crisp forest air into your lungs.

However, due to the constant presence of humans, the wildlife can be boisterous at times. One of our lodges was menaced by raft of ducks, who were tapping on the glass doors to demand food.

Dorothy House is a Hospice that looks after terminally ill patients. I sometimes think of it as a night club from a parallel universe. One where everyone except the most hammered people are refused entry by the doormen. A lot of people receiving their care suffer from cancer, but there are others who are suffering who are also in need of genuine help. Jokes aside, they are an efficient, hardworking and very compassionate group of humans. They do excellent work, and we’re very lucky to have them.

They run an annual trip to Center Parcs to give the patients a holiday in a very supportive environment. For some, this may be their last, or one of their last such trips. There is a high ratio of nurses and healthcare workers to each patient, and the patients do not have to worry about the logistics of their situation.

This also gives the patients’ families and carers an opportunity to have a break and rejuvenate themselves. The strain put on carers is often overlooked, but they require support too.

The care and support they provided was exemplary. As a result, I felt very loved and carried throughout the whole week.

The Unusual Suspects and Echoes of the Empire

Our group of patients was a pleasant, and varied mix.

I shared a lodge with Bill, who is retired. He had an interesting and eclectic career in the mechanical trade, mining in Zambia, and did a stint in the British Army (Royal Engineers) to name but a few. Despite his many years of life experience, he was excellent at navigating his phone and tech devices. A great example that one can never stop learning.

Claudette is a kind and gentle soul, and originally from the warmer island of Jamaica. Despite living and working in the country for over two decades, she still has a delightful Caribbean lilt to her voice. This is accompanied by her lovely smile. She told me about an excellent café in Bradford on Avon, that makes possibly the best jam, cream and scones – and what order I should eat them in. I’ve since forgotten the name of the café, but am looking forward to giving some a try.

Peter is a retired mechanical engineer. Like me, he gained his degree from the University of Bristol. He’s spent a long career in industry, and in academia at the University of Bath. He’s also recently authored a university level hydraulics textbook, which he showed me a copy of on the internet. We were both speed demons on our mobility scooters, usually racing ahead of the others like rebels without a cause. If you were thrust into a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland (Mad Max style), then you’d be lucky to ride with Peter.

Taj is a woman of many talents. She was a secondary school English teacher, and had a successful career in Epidemiology before that. She is a fine example of an excellent mentor, and still has students who keep in touch with her. I would have loved to have had a teacher like her at school. Except I already did, in the form of another fantastic English teacher called Mr Marston. Taj has the same ethnic background as me, with her ancestors also originating from Punjab in Northern India. Her three children are roughly ten years younger than me, and she has a lovely Weimaraner (German Pointer) to keep her company.

Rob is a cracking fellow, profoundly upbeat and the life and soul of any party. I think everyone who crosses his path is glad to have met him. He’s a couple of years older than me, and has five young children and a wife. He used to have a more hands on career as a tradesman in a timber engineering products firm, and on different construction sites. I could easily picture having a good laugh at work with him, whilst getting the job well done.

I only met the second Rob briefly, as I was making a beeline for a mid-afternoon nap when I met him. He was a friendly gentleman, but unfortunately didn’t get a chance to speak with him more profoundly, as he only did a day trip. He did mention he shares a strong interest in protecting trees and the natural world, which means he has a place in my good books.

Dolly is a warm hearted and easy going Australian, with children a decade older than myself. I was fortunate to meet her charming husband Ian who drove her down, who is also Australian. After living all over the country, their last home down under was in Sydney. However, the UK is home to them now. She was my wonderful partner in crime for the falconry and owl experiences, which I’ll be discussing shortly.

One thing that touched me about this group, is that it felt like a snapshot in time. Almost like an echo from old Britain’s Commonwealth or Empire. The faces of migration have changed in recent years, with cohorts arriving from Eastern Europe, The Middle East, parts of Africa, and elsewhere.

Yet the composition of our group has been woven together more intimately in history. The nationalities represented served alongside each other in both World Wars. In World War 2, this ranged from North Africa (including pivotal battles such as El Alamein), the Mediterranean, Western Europe, and Asia.

Post war migration from The Commonwealth arrived from these countries. The history of the British Empire is complex, and events and attitudes (during and post Empire) haven’t run as smoothly as most would have liked them to. In fact, that’s a polite and massive understatement. However, I don’t want to touch this topic with a twenty foot bargepole. At least not in this article.

Despite all of this, I was left deep in thought by seeing how much evolution and integration had occurred over the past 70 years. Seeing how different our lives are now, compared with the people at that time such as my parents and their generation. What would we be like if we’d met in the 1920s, 40s, or 60s?

I was left delighted by the genuine warmth and goodwill shown by everyone to one another, including from every single staff member. This was regardless of who we were, or what challenges we were all facing.

Falconing

As alluded to in the title of this post, we got around to participating in some bird of prey experiences. Dolly and I went completely bonkers, and booked two. One was a falconry experience on the Thursday morning, and the other was an owl experience during the afternoon. These were very short in duration (only an hour each).

This contrasts with the half day falconry experiences I’ve previously been on. I’ve also been on an actual foraging and falconry weekend course, where we camped wild, and had the opportunity to hunt real prey with a Harris Hawk. More details about this later.

I guess this was fair enough, due to the lower energy and mobility levels I have now, compared with times past.

The falconry session was excellent, and Dolly and I really enjoyed it. The sky was virtually clear, with the sunlight dappling through a protective circle of noble Beech trees.

The scene was very peaceful. To be honest, I was content enough just to be there – birds of prey or not! The rest of the group stood attentive and asked intelligent questions, whilst Dolly and I were comfortably sat on chairs provided. Gaynor, our kindly accompanying nurse, took photos of us during key moments.

Selfie with an owl. I can’t remember which one.

Selfie with an owl. I can’t remember which one.

The falconer brought out a selection of different birds. These were an owl called Bilbo (great name for an owl), a male Kestrel, a Saker Falcon, and a Turkey Vulture. Each was encouraged to fly towards our gloves around the circle. They were allowed to remain perched on our gloves for a few moments, so we could admire up close.

The Turkey Vulture was a heavy bugger, but also a hilarious character. He frequently ignored the falconer, looking for random scraps on the floor. Once he completed the circle, he even wondered off back to the aviary on his own!

There is something very thrilling being around a bird of prey. At least to me. They are beautiful to behold, and possess such strength and power. Yet they can also be very light and delicate at the same time.

My favourite was the Saker Falcon. Humans have been hunting with these birds for thousands of years. We were told that the relationship with this falcon was where the art falconry was founded (although I suspect Golden Eagles may contest this). The falcon remained tethered to the falconer, but he did transport it from person to person, in order for us to handle it.

A Saker Falcon sitting on my glove.

A Saker Falcon sitting on my glove.

This wasn’t done out of spite towards the bird. The falcon in question is used regularly for live hunts. It therefore has a strong prey instinct that is matched only by its prowess. There were a number of plump pigeons lazing in the tree branches above, perhaps not comprehending what danger was lurking beneath them. I have no doubt about what havoc the falcon could have wrought, if it was high enough up to dive down upon them. It is a serious bird of prey, and needs to be handled with respect.

A special moment occurred with this falcon. During its group gyration, it shed one of its primary wing feathers. Primary wing feathers are situated near the front of the bird’s wing, and are narrower on the leading edge than the trailing edge. On secondary wing feathers, this effect is less pronounced. Tail feathers are evenly balanced. This makes them better suited for braking during landing, or to help quickly change direction of flight.

Seeing as the feather would have ended up being trodden into the forest floor, I was allowed to keep it. I was very happy with my acquisition. I now had a falcon feather to add to my collection of eagle feathers (which all happen to be gifts). A feather from a falcon that probably symbolises the first hunting bond between human and bird.

After receiving the feather, I felt a bit guilty, and thought I should have given it to Dolly instead. In spite of that, as she finished her turn handling it, the falcon ruffled its wings and dropped another one right in front of her!

Owl Experience

The owl experience later was somewhat underwhelming after the falconry. If the participants of the falconry experience could be described as Royal Marine Commandos, then the punters at the owl experience were more like Dad’s Army. Suffering from dysentery.

Owl.jpg

I’m being a bit harsh here. However, there was a seeming lack of courtesy to not talk over the instructor, and not being able to follow some of the basic instructions (such as being able to form a circle when asked). There were some children present, which probably contributed to this. However, they are blameless at that age – we were all kids once, and I’m guessing I could have been much worse!

I’m actually glad the children were present. It’s an amazing opportunity to see such animals so close, and from an early age. Who knows how that will spark their curiosity, or steer their paths later in life. The closer that future generations are to the wilderness will hopefully mean they will value it more, and be more willing to protect it. A very important take away in the tech saturated world of today’s kids.

My nephew Oliver was mad about birds of prey, owls in particular. I’ve taken him to a half day experience for his birthday in 2016. For his 11th birthday, I was organising for him to shadow a falconer a day. This is so he could get a more accurate and intimate encounter with the birds, with activities ranging from cleaning out the aviaries, to learning how to fly, handle, feed, and weigh the birds (so they can be maintained at hunting / flying weight). Well I was – I now know he’s gone off falcons now, and is into kayaking and sailing instead!

Hunting with Hawks

My own ultimate falconry experience however, was not experienced within the confines of a Center Parcs resort, oh no.

It was actually back in 2011, when I was living some of my most riotous days in London. I’d enrolled in a foraging and falconry course during that spring. This involved camping in a forest for the weekend, whilst we were taught how to identify edible plants, nuts, fruits, and roots. That part of the course was an eyeopener alone. I’ve never viewed the natural world in that way before, and could barely identify any species of tree (unless it was an apple tree with apples on it).

Foraging & Falconry course with Lily, a Harris Hawk. Taken in May 2011

Foraging & Falconry course with Lily, a Harris Hawk. Taken in May 2011

Over time, and more courses, the forest turned from being an amorphous mass of green, to being more like a home, and a supermarket. A supermarket, because I know was beginning to appreciate what was in it, and what I could use it for. A home, because it became less foreign, and more inviting place because of this knowledge.

An old expression is that the more you know about the forest, the less you need to carry to live, survive, and enjoy being in it.

The other part of the course was hunting for live prey with Harris Hawks. I apologise to those of you whom are vegans or against hunting. Note that this was done to put food in the pot, as well as the obvious learning experience. If you don’t feel comfortable reading on, please feel free to skip to the next section. However I don’t think my description is too traumatic, and I haven’t included any gory details. If comparing this to a film rating, think of it as a PG or 12. I’d consider the 1972 children’s novel / animated film Watership Down to be more psychologically scarring.

For the rest of you, our prey was a colony of rabbits.

As far as I’m aware, female birds of prey are larger and more aggressive, so they are best suited for the hunt. That’s not to say the males are inept (they’ve evolved over millennia just fine). However, if you want to pack your biggest punch, you need a lady on your arm. That’s a falconry joke I just made up, as you launch the birds from a falconry glove on your hand (or arm). Get it? No? Ok…

Our avian huntress was called Lily. She was a bit of a gambit, as it was also her first time on a real hunt. Harris Hawks are native to the Americas, thriving from South Western USA down to Chile. They tend to hunt in groups, whilst other birds of prey hunt alone, or sometimes in pairs. Harris Hawks are intelligent and easier to train and handle than other birds of prey. This makes them relatively popular with falconers.

After getting to grips with the basics of handling and flying Lily, we drew for the ferret.

Hostile looking man with a shifty looking ferret down his trousers.

Hostile looking man with a shifty looking ferret down his trousers.

The purpose of the ferret is to ferret out rabbits. A ferret is a weasel-like animal that weird men sometimes put down their trousers for a laugh, or for money. Hence I don’t trust them.

I once worked with a belligerent architect who also looked like a ferret. He also used some sneaky weasel tactics to get what he wanted. Maybe my trust issues come from that dude. I’ll discuss it in my next therapy session.

I can’t remember what this particular arsehole ferret was called, and I can’t say I trusted him.

Let’s call him Roger. It sounds like a name an untrustworthy ferret would have. It also has vulgar connotations for something else I won’t describe here. If you’re unfamiliar with the shadier parts of the English vocabularly, I’d recommend googling “roger British slang” or “getting rogered British slang” to see what it means. It will make the rest of this post far more entertaining.

When Roger scuttles into a rabbit warren, the idea is to scare of one or more of the rabbits so they make a run for it into the open. Once this happens, the idea is to launch the hawk and allow its instinct and experience to take over.

If the hairs on Roger’s back are standing up, then that indicates the presence of rabbits. It’s important to pay attention to this, as some warrens turn out to be abandoned.

When launching the hawk, it’s best to stand uphill of the warren for a few reasons.

-          One, to ensure that the rabbits don’t see you and change their mind about leaving the hole.

-          Two, it gives the hawk additional height to swoop down onto the prey.

-          Three, it prevents the rabbit from thwarting the effect of Two, by preventing it from running back uphill.

General view of the hunting area. The rabbit warrens we were working were on the left hand side near the trees. The second warren and drainage ditch are off camera, on the opposite side of the valley.

General view of the hunting area. The rabbit warrens we were working were on the left hand side near the trees. The second warren and drainage ditch are off camera, on the opposite side of the valley.

After Roger slithered into the dirtiest hole he could find, we waited. It seemed to take longer than I was expecting. Had something gone wrong? Would we have to grab a shovel and dig this little troublemaker out?

A few moments later, a grey figure shot out of a different hole. In a flash, the hawk was released. A breath later, the rabbit was firmly within its talons. Appearing like lightening the falconer was on the bird, and got her to release the rabbit alive. Despite having the daylights scared out of it, the rabbit was seemingly well, and scurried off.

The reason for the release was that the rabbit was too young. This is not only an ethical consideration, but also good hunting practice. A juvenile rabbit will not have had a chance to breed and reproduce for more prey, so hunting them would deplete the stock. In addition, there is far less meat than on an adult. Therefore additional hunting effort, and consequently more lives need to be taken for the same amount of food.

Soon after the rabbit ran away, a second rabbit bolted out. I was holding Lily this time, but in a split second I decided not to launch her. Nevertheless, she tried to rocket off my glove. I had to hold extremely tightly to her jesses (leather tethers around her talons), as I could feel her raw power trying to break free. I held her for the same reason as the first one – the rabbit was too small.

Blurry photo of Lily in flight, chasing after the third rabbit. The instructor in the black t-shirt is trying to flush the rabbit out from the drainage ditch.

Blurry photo of Lily in flight, chasing after the third rabbit. The instructor in the black t-shirt is trying to flush the rabbit out from the drainage ditch.

Third time, we got lucky. Roger, being the devious bastard that he is, managed to flush out a fully grown adult. It zipped down the field, and towards a drainage ditch lined with vegetation. Lily meant business as she shot into the air and after her quarry. The power, grace and beauty of the predator in flight was jaw dropping.

Despite getting to the relative safety of the vegetation, Lily owned and menaced the skies above. There was another warren nearby, sheltered by trees on the opposite side. The Promised Land of a hunted rabbit. After receiving some “encouragement” from an instructor, the rabbit darted from its cover, and bounded up the hillside towards the other warren. Not one to take any crap from a rabbit, the hawk made a fearless dive towards it…

Regardless of the impressive swoop, Lily narrowly missed her quarry, and the rabbit hopped off towards safety. End result; Rabbits 3, Harris Hawk + Ferret 0.

We weren’t able to catch any rabbits with the hawk that day (I blame Roger), but it was nevertheless an awe inspiring experience.

After Center Parcs, and reminiscing about this hunting experience (and other falconry encounters), I’ve been looking into different centres where I can get involved. I’ve seen one location that looks after both a Golden and a Bald Eagle. These birds have immense spiritual and historical significance, and hence I’m in two minds about them not being free. I’m also a lot weaker in my arms than the days when I was athletic enough to do handstand push ups. Hence, I don’t honestly expect to handle one – let alone fly or hunt them! Yet I’d love to spend time with one close up.

We’ll see what happens…

Part 2 - Bezos & Amazon - Closer to the Truth?

Unfortunately I’ll to pluck you out of this feathery paradise, to discuss a man who has been in the news recently. He and his firm continue to crop up in conversation, and I feel compelled to write about it.

His name is Jeff Bezos. You may know him better as the founder and CEO of Amazon. He’s been a multi-billionaire since 1999. He’s currently the world’s richest person, with approximately $150 billion of wealth, correct as of July 2018.

The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel. A mean and miserly businessman called Scrooge is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. This is in order to warn him and change his ways to being more generous and kind hearted towards his workers and the rest he comes into contact with. He eventually heeds the message, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel. A mean and miserly businessman called Scrooge is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. This is in order to warn him and change his ways to being more generous and kind hearted towards his workers and the rest he comes into contact with. He eventually heeds the message, and everyone lives happily ever after.

In spite of his unparalleled wealth, I noticed that he didn’t make the America’s Top 50 Philanthropists List in 2016. Nor did he make America’s Top 20 Philanthropists List in 2017. He also hasn’t signed Warren Buffet’s and Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge, in which the world’s most wealthiest pledge to donate more than half their fortunes away to good causes. If he did sign up and donate half his wealth, he’d still have $75 billion left over to play with.

It’s October 2018, so we’ll have to wait a few months to see if the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future will pay him a visit.

I genuinely hope the future will see a genuine shift in his and Amazon’s behaviour. If he does, I’ll honestly be the first to sing his praises. The world needs as many warm-hearted influential people as it can get. Better to have him feel included, and welcomed as part of the team, instead of the apparent status quo.

In the meantime, I’ll try to present the referenced information as clearly as I can, so you can form your own opinion.

The Seduction of Amazon

Almost everyone loves getting a package from Amazon. Including me. One of my office highlights was when Norm, Chris, or Ezra (old friends at my old job) would roll round to my desk in SF with a parcel.

It was like father Christmas arriving. Except if you placed enough bank notes into his big white beard, he wouldn’t bother to check if you’ve been naughty or nice.

I admit it’s a great service. As well as useful items, you can buy all sorts of nonsense that the most diseased imaginations can conjure up, and have it arrive at your door within a day or two. You even get “free” postage and online films if you’re a Prime member. I’ll be honest and admit I was a satisfied customer.

This is all well and good.

Except that many would argue it really isn’t. Their claim is that there appears to be a chain of exploitation, from warehouse workers, delivery drivers, office staff, and industrial manipulation of international tax codes. That’s if you believe whistle-blowers, national tax authorities, and government officials over the press releases of Amazon.

Is Amazon Paying Enough Tax?

As everyone finds tax affairs absolutely riveting, let’s lead with this first. My view is looking at cold hard numbers. Cases brought by tax authorities can be more objective and clearer cut, than ongoing reports of mistreatment.

The Financial Times (FT), does an excellent job of providing clear and detailed information on the matter. Some of you may not be aware of its existence, but it is regarded as one of the top (if not the top) newspapers for quality financial news. It’s staple reading for many in the financial services industry. Many newspapers focus on juicy nonsense topics of the day, which makes me regard them as a method of control. However, the FT can actually help an astute reader predict what the world is likely to look like in a few months or even years down the line.

I’ve used this as my main source for the tax based information and economic data, as they appear to have the most profound and balanced analysis. I’m a subscriber, which means I can get behind the paywall. Nonetheless, you can still view a limited number of articles for free if you register your email address (or email me directly, as I can send 10 free articles a month to friends). Otherwise, you’ll have to read this blog, and take my word for it.

The FT writes that Amazon has claimed it only made a profit of €10 million in the EU, based on revenues of €60 billion. I haven’t got my zeros mixed up there. They’re claiming that their business had an average profit margin of 0.02% over roughly a decade.

Amazon’s corporate structure within the EU. As discussed in the text, €4 billion of tax shielded royalties were shifted around it’s structure to to reduced it’s taxable profits from €4 billion to €10 million. This has resulted in legal cases from the IRS and EU, in order to bring this back into the tax net. Source: European Commission

Amazon’s corporate structure within the EU. As discussed in the text, €4 billion of tax shielded royalties were shifted around it’s structure to to reduced it’s taxable profits from €4 billion to €10 million. This has resulted in legal cases from the IRS and EU, in order to bring this back into the tax net. Source: European Commission

How did Amazon argue this? In 2004, Amazon set up its “Goldcrest” tax structure between the EU, US, and various subsidiary companies. This allowed them to juggle tax shielded royalty payments of €4 billion between a complex grouping of its subsidiary companies. This €4 billion was closer to their EU actual profits over the corresponding period. The EU investigators determined that Amazon improperly cut EU profits by inflating inter group royalties that were protected from taxes.

I’ve included a chart from the European Commission. I find this confusing to read, let alone fully understand what on Earth is going on regarding the internal flow of profits, payments, and tax protected royalties.

€2 billion was eventually repatriated back to the US where it was treated as profit and was taxed. However €2 billion remains at large. As far as I know, is being sought by both the US and EU tax authorities. I haven’t found any information to determine whether more funds have been creatively hid, or avoided via further schemes and loopholes.

On a side note, Amazon’s UK subsidiary had approximately £2 billion in revenue in 2017, reported a profit of £72 million, but only paid £1.7 million in UK tax. Note that its tax bill was reduced from £13.9 million to £1.7 million via share based awards.

The above is technically legal. Yet, is it morally acceptable that the world’s second most valuable firm (valued at $1 trillion) is paying virtually no corporation tax in some of its largest jurisdictions? Granted, they are providing jobs, but they are arguably squeezing out smaller competition, whom tend to pay closer to the UK Corporation Tax rate of 19%.

This is one of the reasons why I’m no longer an Amazon customer, at least until they clean up their act. I admit my actions are scarcely a drop on the ocean. You might even think, “what’s the point?” Nevertheless, I don’t want my money enriching a corporation that minimises what could have been spent on schools, hospitals, social care, etc. I still shop online for convenience - just not with Amazon.

All is not lost though. There is renewed momentum across the EU to curb this type of behaviour and introduce a Tech Tax. This would affect firms with annual revenues greater than €750 million globally, and €50 million within the EU. The idea is to place a 3% tax on revenues, until a global agreement can be reached. This revenue based approach is aimed at preventing firms from manipulating tax loopholes as they’ve currently been doing. Consequently, the 2017 UK tax take from Amazon could have potentially increased from £1.7 million to £60 million.

Thanks for hanging in there with the dry tax matters. Falcons, rabbits, and ferrets are definitely more interesting. Yet if we don’t understand the numbers, we can easily be taken advantage of (in all walks of life).

Is Amazon Cleaning Up Its Own “Mess”?

For this next question, I’d like to circle back to Jeff Bezos. Despite appearing to lack any serious charitable inclination vs his billionaire philanthropist peers, in September 2018 he announced he wanted to donate $2 billion to good causes, which is approximately 1% of his wealth. This would be directed towards alleviating homelessness, and establishing pre-schools for low income communities. This is a laudable goal to be pursuing, especially if it lifts people out of poverty.

Though confusingly, Amazon was fighting hard against a tax from the city of Seattle towards alleviating homelessness as recently as June 2018 - even postponing a planned office expansion, and threatening it altogether with cancellation. It’s a funny old world.

In an ideal world, donating charity is an honourable act. However, I can’t help viewing it in a different light.

Imagine if you’ve cooked an elaborate meal in a kitchen, but used every single pot and pan. You’ve also thoroughly trashed the floor and surfaces. After lots of people have complained to you for a long time, you then go ahead and clear up a few pans, but still leave most of your mess. Afterwards, you look around expecting everyone to like you, because you made a relatively small effort to pitch in.

It’s interesting to note that the US government (IRS) was seeking $1.5 billion in unpaid taxes from Amazon, which is creeping close to the charitable donation figure proposed by Bezos. This could purely be a coincidence.

Yet the mess I’m referring to is not only the aggressive tax avoidance issues, but also the worker exploitation in the US, UK, and other countries. By fostering poor working conditions and paying low wages in the first place, it could be argued he could do better by not contributing to these problems in the first place. The expressions “prevention is better than the cure”, and “charity begins at home” spring to mind.

Is Amazon Paying Its Workers Enough?

US Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has recently championed the cause against Bezos and other firms, by introducing a Senate Bill to prevent low pay and exploitation. It’s actually called the Stop BEZOS Act, which stands for “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act”.

Sanders has cited that thousands of Amazon workers (and those belonging to other large corporations) have been receiving government assistance known as Food Stamps, and/or other benefits such as Medicaid and public housing. This means that despite being in employment, their income is so low that the government is obliged to help them to literally put food on their tables.

If a firm is aggressively avoiding tax, but then expects the government to top up their worker’s income because they are paid so little, does that sound like a world we want to be living in? Bernie doesn’t seem to think so.

As recently as Tuesday 2nd October, Amazon has announced that it’s increasing its minimum hourly wage to $15 in the US, and £9.50 in the UK. This is excellent news, and welcome for workers. I hope it lifts many of them out of requiring Food Stamps, and improves their quality of life.

On balance, the GMB union in the UK has claimed that half of the pay rise will be offset by removing other worker bonuses. Amazon has confirmed this to be true. Whilst the UK workers will be better off overall, it kind of smacks of giving with one hand, and taking away with the other.

A Financial Analyst firm has suggested that the pay rises weren’t a stretch for them to achieve, as it would represent less than 1% of Amazon’s $235 billion revenue predicted for the year. So why wait till now to be generous? Are they fearing July 2018’s Prime day strikes being repeated over the coming Christmas period, as some have suggested?

It’s also interesting to note that the US and the UK have low levels of unemployment, which is already putting upward pressure on wages, and making it more difficult to retain and hire staff. Target and Costco, two of Amazon’s US competitors, were quicker announcing they would increase their hourly wage to $15, albeit these won’t come into effect until 2020.

For the US in particular, competition for attracting warehouse workers is becoming heated, as they and their rivals are usually concentrated at transportation hubs, and hence have a more localised labour pool to draw from.

Higher pay also takes the edge off workers trying to unionise. Especially those in its Whole Food’s organic chain, whom are resisting the shift in culture towards the norm at Amazon. Therefore, it looks like Amazon faces stiff pressure to raise wages from fundamental issues they are facing in their business, and not necessarily out of compassion for their employees.

Note that the same article states that the minimum wage increases were not extended to other Amazon workers in European countries, which have higher unemployment rates (and hence lower wage pressures).

Jeff Bezos’s press statement doesn’t refer to these topics, stating “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead”. Bezos’s words suggest that the myriad of factors written above had little to no bearing on Amazon’s decision. Without being able to see into his hairless head, his true reasons may remain unknown.

Regardless of what the main source of motivation for this is, I concede it is a modest shuffle in the right direction. It should be welcomed as larger pay pay packets will genuinely help people.

At the risk of sounding like a bitter sod, my personal view is that there a lot more that can be improved upon. I hope this pay rise is followed by more decisive steps, and that these steps arise from a genuine shift in perspective and compassion towards those who are making Amazon’s business a success.

Yet before we get starry eyed about pay increases, remember that this is entirely separate to the issue of Amazon avoiding its moral tax obligations. To be crystal clear, this does not signal a change in its aggressive tax avoidance practices I referenced earlier. Nor does it seem to directly affect the potential worker exploitation issues raised in the next section.

Is Amazon Exploiting its Workers?

There appear to be numerous accusations of worker exploitation by Amazon, ranging from zero hours contracts (no contract employment for those in the US), poor health and safety, firing workers for attempting to unionise, overworking, etc. It should be noted that ambulances have been called to UK Amazon warehouses approximately 600 times over a period of 3 years.

I won’t bore you by describing these reports further in here, but I’ve listed the various topics with referenced links. Just in case you want to do some further reading, and to know I haven’t invented unsubstantiated stories in a fit of rage.

These cover the period 2013 to 2018. Note that perhaps there may be more article worthy incidents, however note that Amazon has also been accused of bribing its employees with gift vouchers to write positive statements on social media.

Accidents at Amazon - Guardian 2018 Article

Poor Working Conditions - Guardian 2018 Article and Guardian 2013 Article

Poor Working Conditions for White Collar Staff - New York Times 2015 Article and The Independent 2015 Article

Worker Exploitation, Low Pay, and Union Busting - Guardian 2018 Article

Great Power Comes with Great Responsibility

Despite the large weight of articles and information I’ve referenced, this may all be one big misunderstanding or occurring in isolated pockets. You never know, all these people making complaints could all be mistaken. This seems to be the general underlying message of many of Amazon’s responses, so it’s up to you read them and determine what you believe.

Yet given that these complaints have consistently been reported for years, across multiple nations, affecting such a wide range of issues, and continue to crop up, I can’t help think that there isn’t smoke without fire.

An important lesson to Peter Parker (Spider Man) from his uncle Ben. The quote has been variously attributed to Voltaire and former British Prime Minister Henry Lamb.

An important lesson to Peter Parker (Spider Man) from his uncle Ben. The quote has been variously attributed to Voltaire and former British Prime Minister Henry Lamb.

I also think those who wield great power also wield great responsibility. I heard that expression first from Spider Man’s deceased Uncle Ben. So much power and potential to do help humanity is concentrated in such few people, and one in particular (I’m referring to Bezos, not Spider Man). However instead of diving head first into this, it seems that avoiding tax, exploiting its workers, and pursuing a space travel hobby have been higher on the priority list Does it really have to be this way?

Though Amazon appears to be gradually taking steps in a more moral direction (albeit after being heavily pressured), it appears to have much further to go.

If it chooses to pursue this path, I sincerely wish them the best and support their endeavours. It will only serve to make the world a better place, and I shouldn’t complain about it. Yet from their track record, it’s not clear whether they will build on this, or whether they are simply being opportunistic.

We can only hope. In the meantime, I’ll avoid sending my cash in their direction.

As I mentioned before, this is just my understanding based on the sources of information I’ve referenced here. It’s up to you what opinion to form. If it happens to agree with mine, then it’s also up to you if you want to reward such behaviour.

My mate Dave once told me, every time we spend money, we cast a vote for the type of world we want to live in. The choice is in your hands…

Thank you for listening.