Clodagh Finn: Forget big tech - time to help small business

Columnist Clodagh Finn says think before you click and buy - Irish businesses trying to make it through this pandemic need your custom 
Clodagh Finn: Forget big tech - time to help small business

In a court case last week Amazon workers said  safety plays second fiddle to getting orders out. 

Only those of a certain age will remember the advertising jingle ‘Let your fingers do the walking’, but we should consider reviving it as the perfect slogan for lockdown, Mark ll.

In the dark, old pre-internet days of yore, it served as the witty catchphrase for the Yellow Pages, urging consumers to flick through their directories rather than walk around in circles looking for any number of goods and services.

All that has moved online now but, ironically, in this clickety-click world, it has never been more important to let your fingers do the walking. In the coming weeks, for instance, I’ll be walking mine right past online retailer Amazon to seek out all those Irish businesses trying to make it through this pandemic by venturing into the virtual marketplace.

Some sectors are even doing well. It’s been a pretty solid year for book sales, which is good news as Irish Book Week comes to a close today. But there’s a sting in the tail. The Irish reading public is still much more likely to click on international sites, rather than local booksellers, when buying online.

I can understand why. Big Tech has me wrapped around its little finger too. If I get an impulse to buy a book outside bookshop hours, my first instinct is to go online. Before I can count the fingers on one hand, I’ve tappety-tapped-tapped my way through a Google search and placed an order on Amazon.

Well, not during this lockdown because if the last one taught me anything, it is this — look back, before you look ahead.

Let me explain.

I used to shop with an eye to the future. I’d think ahead to the day the book would land on the hall floor with a pleasing thud. I’d think of undoing the wrapping and recycling it (a limp conscience-appeaser) before settling down to enjoy the unrivalled pleasure of opening the first page of a new book.

Now, I’m much more inclined to think in the other direction, spooling back through the series of actions that brought the book to my door in the first place.

In the case of Amazon, all stages on that journey are emerging from the dusk into an unsettling, if partial, spotlight. Leaving aside concerns that the retail colossus squeezes the life out of small traders, doesn’t pay its share of tax, and has a carbon footprint to rival a small country — and that’s a hell of a lot to leave aside — what is most disturbing are reports of how Amazon treats its workers.

Just last week, that company's workers told a court in New York that Amazon had reinstated dangerous warehouse productivity quotas despite promises to suspend them during the pandemic.

Bezos does not need your order, in stark contrast to the thousands of Irish businesses, traders, and artisan producers who have opened online shops in an attempt to stay afloat

The company has insisted worker safety was a top priority but several workers in different US states dispute that, claiming safety plays second fiddle to getting orders out as fast as possible.

It’s easy to forget that when your fingers dance over a bargain and you itch to click, but the next time that happens, I’ll remind myself of the recent report from the UK’s Trades Union Congress. Issued earlier this month, it described 10-hour working days, massive pressure to pack and deliver items and a lack of social distancing and PPE at Amazon warehouses.

You’d like to think that your purchase might, at least, ease the burden on those workers, but consider this. While the surge in pandemic-fuelled demand has led to more jobs, it has also increased the wealth of Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos by $74bn (over €62bn) so far this year, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index.

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Already the richest man in the world, Bezos is on course to become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026. He does not need your order, in stark contrast to the thousands of Irish businesses, traders, and artisan producers who have opened online shops in an attempt to stay afloat as Level 5 kicks in.

The irony in all of this is that, now, more than ever we will be tempted, if not forced, to rely on Big Tech to get us through these cloistered days. It will be near impossible to navigate the next six weeks without turning to Amazon, Apple, Google, or Facebook which, in turn, will generate even more money for the richest companies in the history of capitalism.

If we didn’t already know the extent of the global dominance of these emperors of the online economy, it was highlighted again this month when US Democrats called on Congress to rein in their power. “Companies that were once scrappy underdog start-ups that challenged the status quo [have] become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” a final report into the tech business by the House Judiciary Committee said.

It’s time to keep that in mind as we try to help our own underdogs ride out the next six weeks and beyond.

If we have to resort to Big Tech — and it seems there is no way to avoid it – at least let’s use it to reach out through the ether and send whatever disposable income we might have in their direction.

I’ll still be casting an eye backward, though. So instead of looking at a supermarket shelf — online or in the brick-and-mortar store — and imagining an ingredient as the star of the dinner table, I’ll be going into reverse motion.

That unsettling journey brings anyone who buys meat back to one of the most troubling stories of the pandemic — the exposure of the work practices at some of our processing plants. I’m still haunted by the stories of clusters of infections that ran alongside photographs of unidentified workers standing beside animal carcasses swinging from hooks on a production line.

The spread of Covid in these factories cast a light on the pay and conditions of meat-plant workers, many of whom said they hid their symptoms because they were afraid they would lose their jobs if they called in sick. Others spoke of crowded working or living conditions while others still spoke of having to pay for their own PPE.

The plight of those workers is likely to make headlines again only if there is another coronavirus outbreak but, as consumers, we can stand with them. 

We can do so with our purse, or our clicking purchasing finger, and buy products that support better work practices for people.

If people have been treated like that, it does make you wonder about the animals they are processing. If nothing else, the exposure of conditions in some plants might may us think more about what happens between farm and fork, then spend accordingly.

Back in the world of the online giants, we are not entirely helpless either. We have mouse power, so to speak, which we can use to locate, buy, and support the people who need us right now. It’s been particularly heartening to see how those people have used Big Tech – Facebook and its evil spawn WhatsApp – to send us links to their newly established online shops.

The Covid optimists say this is a time for innovators, dreamers, and creators although it might not feel like that to those who have turned to online shopping in a desperate attempt to drum up some of the business that has collapsed overnight.

Yet, there is evidence of staggering creativity from Irish producers online. All of it at your fingertips if you choose to let your fingers do the walking. And I’ll be doing just that before I click and buy.

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