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Why Amazon Workers Are Still Pushing For Improved Rights

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Last month, workers in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama took to demonstrating outside their workplace.    

They were calling for their co-workers to vote in favour of joining a union and, if the vote had passed, it would have been the first Amazon warehouse in the US to either join a union or create one.    

In the end, the vote didn’t pass.    

But it was still a dramatic moment for Amazon, and it was the latest in a long list of pushes for improved rights from the company’s workers.    

The way Amazon treats its staff has long been controversial and, like in most industries, the pandemic has exacerbated a lot of those issues.    

So, how did Amazon get this reputation, and what does this story say about the future of workers’ rights under giant tech companies like it?   

The story of Amazon starts with the story of Jeff Bezos.  

He’s currently the richest man in the world, worth around 193 billion US dollars, and Amazon’s success is one of those classic start-up stories.    

Amazon began in 1994, in the basement of Bezos’ parents’ house.    

Bezos originally created Amazon to be an online marketplace for books, and it became really popular, really quickly.   

It was convenient and stocked pretty much every book you could want.    

Supposedly, in the early days, a bell would ring in the Amazon office every time they made a sale, and within weeks of launching the bell was ringing so frequently it had to be disconnected.     

Within its first month, Amazon had sold books to people in every state in the US, and 45 different countries.    

So they expanded the store. By 1999 Amazon was selling not just books, but also entertainment, home goods, toys, and video games.    

Then in 2005, they launched their subscription membership service Amazon Prime.    

Prime has since become a part of everyday life for millions of people around the world. Nearly half of all US households are currently signed up to it.    

But with those numbers comes an unrelenting demand for efficiency.    

After all, Prime was launched with the promise of two-day-or-less deliveries on everything.    

That massive demand has led to years of controversy around how the company treats its workers.    

In 2011, reports started emerging of workers who were standing up to the company’s warehouse conditions and employment practices.    

The warehouses that pack Amazon’s goods are called Fulfilment Centres, and they have a reputation for being an incredibly stressful working environment.     

The heat inside one Pennsylvania fulfilment centre was allegedly so severe that ambulances parked outside the building to transport workers to hospital during heat waves.   

Since then, multiple reports from ex-Amazon workers around the world have hit the media, with complaints about gruelling working conditions, unrealistic pick rates, unsafe working environments, and claims of unfair dismissals.    

One of the wildest controversies was the revelation that delivery drivers were being forced to relieve themselves in bottles and bags to make their expected delivery times.    

There was even this leaked email apparently from the logistics team, telling drivers that they couldn’t return to stations with their bottles of pee.    

During a recent spat on Twitter, Amazon completely went on the defensive about the claim, but they later apologised for denying it.    

Another story told how Amazon had developed wristbands to track the movements of workers and use vibration to nudge them in different directions.   

Intense working expectations apparently extend to the corporate side of Amazon’s business as well and have since the dawn of the company.   

But the company’s treatment of its warehouse packers in particular has always been a strong focus of news attention.    

The demographic of workers is also important to note here.    

Barbora Černušáková, Human rights researcher, Amnesty International: “In many countries, these divisions go along racial lines, and this is the case certainly for delivery drivers. Pay attention and have a look at who is delivering your goods and services. It’s often migrant workers or workers from ethnic minorities.”   

In 2018, Amazon was included on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of the most dangerous employers in the United States.    

And the controversies have just continued.   

But the criticisms of Amazon have intensified recently and unsurprisingly, that’s because of the covid pandemic.   

Lockdowns forced millions of people around the globe to suddenly become way more reliant on e-commerce and delivery for food, medicine, and other essential items.    

By March of last year, that meant that Amazon was processing between 10 and 40% more packages than normal for that time of year.    

The company’s website was up 32% in traffic, and sales of toilet paper at the beginnings of lockdown shot up by about 186%.    

That led to mind-bending gains for the company and its now ex-CEO, Jeff Bezos.    

Bezos’ personal wealth grew by roughly 70 billion over the course of a year.  

But these increases put a huge amount of further strain on the company in general.    

Amazon’s senior vice president of world-wide operations, a guy called Dave Clark, told employees that the teams were adjusting, and “rapidly implementing a dizzying array [of] process and policy changes on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis”.    

But that increased demand has filtered down to the fulfilment centre workers, and the company has seen a surge of strikes over the past year.    

A bunch of those strikes have been related to workers’ criticisms of Amazon and Amazon-owned Whole Foods grocery stores, for failing to protect workers from COVID-19.    

Complaints from workers centred around some of Amazon’s workplaces failing to provide personal protective equipment to workers fast enough, as well as failures to quickly enforce social distancing and temperature checks.    

In many ways, the past year has seen the company’s relationship with its workers reach boiling point.    

Recently, employees at a warehouse in Alabama voted on whether or not to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.    

It didn’t pass, but it certainly made waves because Amazon is a famously anti-union company.   

They allegedly record hot spots of employee activism, put out anti-union flyers to employees and videos to management, and even apparently altered the timing of traffic lights outside that Alabama warehouse so union organisers couldn’t chat to employees after work.    

The union those workers were looking to join is now saying that the vote should be thrown out because of claims that Amazon intimidated employees and manipulated conditions around the voting process.    

Human and workers’ rights organisations have continued to call Amazon out for blocking union action in the US.    

Amazon, and other transnational tech giants, have these voluntary codes of conduct about human and workers’ rights standards, but the enforcement of these codes is just that, voluntary, and they can conflict with business models.    

BC: “You see that unions are identified as a business threat. So there is a tension and discrepancy between on one hand, these commitments and then the reality of the operation. How Amazon frames it is that its business model is really based on speed and innovation and competitiveness. And the unions are not necessarily compatible with that.”  

These issues really vary from country to country and the way that companies are allowed to operate inevitably intersects with the politics of a jurisdiction.    

International covenants, like the UN covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, say that everyone has the right to form and join the trade union of their choice, but the US hasn’t actually ratified those conventions.    

I asked Barbora if the way that Amazon operates should make us more concerned about the future of workers’ rights in general as tech giants like it get bigger and bigger.    

She told me that legislation is catching up in some ways, especially in terms of legislating to protect workers in the gig economy, like delivery riders, which in turn allows those workers to unionise because they’re no longer independent contractors.    

BC: “There are some encouraging signs in that regard, but it depends on a country, on the jurisdiction … it’s not a static situation. It’s quite a dynamic process.” 

Amazon has a long history of controversies attached to its treatment of workers, but the past year has really brought that story into the public more than ever before.    

But this story is bigger than Amazon and, if we look to the future, it should force us all to reflect on the way that workers’ rights in general can be challenged by these giant, transnational tech companies.