Working for a living

Michael Podlasek Kent

August 27, 2019
“Something about this job and many other kinds of jobs is essentially rotten.”

In Seasonal Associate, Heike Geissler documents her foray into temporary employment at an Amazon Fulfillment Center situated on the outskirts of her hometown of Leipzig, Germany. Geissler infuses this potentially bone-dry subject matter with vivacity and humor, relating with biting prose the drama of warehouse work, replete with personality clashes, snipes, and forged alliances.

Its depictions of modern labor, and how American work culture has permeated globally, raise questions about the value of workers and their role in workplaces of the future… and the present. For Seattle readers in particular, familiar with a certain image of Amazon — the Spheres and glassy high rises, free bananas, food trucks along Westlake, and funny-named office buildings — the book will elucidate how the corporation is received globally, where its presence might more closely resemble a sprawling, low-slung shed.

The book explores the motivations that spur so many people into jobs — not careers, per se, but jobs — that are utterly unfulfilling. “You’re surrounded by people simply looking for a job,” Geissler writes, “who don’t care where they work.” The distinction is between a person’s work — their preferred type of labor, for which they might independently pursue education and training, and which ideally would sustain them – and their jobs, passionless affairs that pay the bills.

Seasonal Associate is set in 2010, when the author was a mid-career novelist and translator with an aversion to the business aspects of her work. She drags her feet when it’s time to bill her clients for freelance work or to remind them of overdue payments. She struggles to make ends meet, often paying her own bills late as a result. Geissler will take any job she can find to replenish her bank account and stabilize her family’s financial situation.

An invitation arrives to apply for a short-term position during Amazon’s surge of business around the end-of-year holidays. This opportunity will suffice, and Geissler shuttles across town one autumn morning on the tram, eyeing fellow commuters and wondering who might be joining her.

Right away, working at Amazon feels like a demerit against her very identity, like “evidence of a slide down the social ladder.” She writes: “It sometimes feels like failure when you can’t live off your actual job.”

She arrives at a vast warehouse complex. Its only noteworthy architecture is a yellow concrete structure referred to as Banana Tower, whose sole function is to house a staircase that leads to a bridge that connects to the main hall. Behind the facility’s facade of sterility and order, dust collects on the leaves of plants, and indifferent employees stack wobbly towers of pallets high above cardboard boxes.

“Strictly speaking,” she says of the Fulfillment Center, “everything here is dreary and outdated and banal, and that seems to be the best disguise for a business idea to launch itself violently and expansively into the future.” Geissler broods, contemplating the value of a day’s work, lecturing her mother on ethical consumerism, and yearning for social acceptance and a bit of respect in her new workplace.

Geissler is stuck counting down the days in a job she can barely afford to leave.

Seasonal Associate is a book about obligation: to whom we feel obligated — our families and friends, our employers, and ourselves; the tortures, large and small, to which we subject ourselves; and our breaking points, the lines in the sand we are unwilling to cross, where we throw up our hands, say “enough is enough,” and walk away.

The narrative style is refreshingly unusual and well-executed. Geissler addresses readers in the second person, literally sharing her obligations with them. She informs them that they will be filling her shoes, playing the role, so to speak, of Geissler herself. “From now on, you are me,” she writes. “That means you’re female.” It also means the reader is a writer and translator, a mother with two sons and “a partner who suits you well.” Also, “You’re German, but the country you were born in no longer exists.” The obligations and frustrations from which Geissler cannot escape become the readers’ frustrations as well.

Temporary employment brings Geissler no small amount of insults and gender-related inequities. While she helps a male colleague with his computer, he places his hand on hers and says to give him a smile. Addressing the reader, Geissler says, “I’ve already mentioned that even if you’re a man, you’re a woman in this situation, and that’s the way it is.”

Over the course of the book, a lean 239 pages, including both a translator’s note and an afterword, Geissler creates space between herself and her reader. The narrator takes shape as a weather-worn and all-the-wiser version of her former self, frequently accompanying her — a voice in the back of her head — on her travails at the Fulfillment Center, though in one instance she mysteriously abandons her former self to go drinking with a friend.

Geissler’s second-person storytelling challenges the readers, Amazon and non-Amazon employees alike, to question whether sustenance — not wealth, exactly, but the mere means to sustain oneself — warrants our bleary-eyed commutes, our assumption of falsely cheery dispositions, our biting our tongues when most incoming communications feel like affronts.

What is a job actually worth?

Seasonal Associate is also about the inherent value of workers, not just as inputs in a corporation’s financial model whose toil equates to a mineable resource, but as living, breathing persons with fundamental human needs.

This book will evoke compelling questions for its readers: How do societies value labor vis-à-vis the persons performing that labor? What obligation do employers have to their employees, particularly as automation makes certain types of work obsolete? Apparently very little. It is understood the positions at the Fulfillment Center will disappear in the new year.

Understanding how or why the company acts as it does is irrelevant. So too are the minutiae of how to complete one’s work in accordance with Amazon’s protocols. “You don’t have to understand it, by the way,” a supervisor tells Geissler at one point, “you just have to know it.”

At the German Fulfillment Center, workers are trained to act as machines, albeit human machines that Geissler recognizes Amazon will in time replace with actual automated ones. When Geissler learns of Amazon’s investment in automation technologies, she is not surprised. “You’ve come to terms with your current employer like with a stagnant relationship,” she writes, “you’re just waiting for it to end. You expect nothing of it.”

Local culture and language are eschewed; at Amazon, workers must speak the global Amazon dialect. A “tote”, for instance, is a tote everywhere in the world, not a box or a crate or some other word in the regional tongue, but a tote. Derivations from Amazon’s monoculture are obstacles muddying up the path to profit.

And yet Amazon’s workers are, in fact, people with independent lives and interests and concerns that have little to do with their employer’s bottom line. What is the value of work to these people? Geissler asks: “What if the fact that everything that’s done serves merely to survive and get through life and in the end benefits only the company, what if that were to turn into the question of the benefit of the benefit?” In other words, what good does it do society when only companies like Amazon benefit from the labor they procure? If one’s job satisfies purely utilitarian needs — keeping food on the table and a roof overhead — is that not enough?

Geissler fantasizes about forming a writing group with her colleagues, and she steals moments flipping through the pages of books whose barcodes she really ought to be scanning more quickly. Her superiors assign her to a team receiving shipments of books, a team uniquely comprised entirely of women, as if book-handling were more a woman’s job than a man’s. This assignment has seemingly nothing to do with her career as a writer and everything to do with her gender.

When no shipments arrive for Geissler to process, her supervisor instructs her to sweep up a large section of the warehouse. When shipments do arrive some time later, the same supervisor is surprised to find her still sweeping, saying he didn’t see her doing the work. It seems irrelevant to him how much of the task she even completed. The value of this particular task lies not in its outcome, a neatly swept warehouse, but in keeping the machines … er, employees … working.

At first, Geissler demonstrates a willingness to play by Amazon’s sometimes ridiculous rules of conduct. But over time, she asserts herself in subtle ways. Standing outside a turnstile and waiting to enter the facility, Geissler heeds her future-employer’s commands. She writes, “You follow the instructions written on a sign, directing you to look into a camera above you as you ring the bell and wait.” Moments later, however, climbing the stairs in the Banana Tower, she commits a small act of rebellion. A sign instructs her to use the handrail. She responds: “You don’t use the handrail, you demonstratively refuse to use it, and that may be rather petty of you but it shows what kind of person you are: you don’t like taking orders, but people are welcome to ask you nicely.” The narrator Geissler compels her former-self to be a bad employee, as if doing so would reveal her humanity in a way that behaving as an automaton might not. “You ought to prove to your employer that you’re alive,” she writes.

What, finally, is the value of Amazon to the cities and towns in which it sets up shop? And to the communities of people whose collective labor fuels Amazon’s business? The book was published in its original German in 2014, based on events that took place in 2010. Some nine years later, Seattle is a new city, and so too, presumably, is Leipzig. To understand Amazon’s long-term impact on Leipzig – its economy, its culture, its built environment – would be eye-opening, a counterpoint (or parallel) to Seattle’s transformation. In either case, I’d want to meet the workers who showed their bosses – subtly or otherwise – that they are alive.

Books in this review:
  • Seasonal Associate
    by Heike Geissler, translated by Katy Derbyshire
    MIT Press
    December 1, 2018
    240 pages
    Purchased by reviewer
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Michael Podlasek Kent is a writer and city planner. His writing has appeared in Crosscut, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, and Northwest Runner magazine. He founded the Melrose Promenade, a street redesign project in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. He has lived in New York City, Seattle from 2009 to 2019, and now Chicago.

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