The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on cultures and economies all over the globe. However, Amazon.com, Inc. has increased, cementing its status as the world’s most popular consumer-facing website by recruiting at least 175,000 new employees to meet the increased demand. Amazon’s global workforce is expected to surpass one million by July 2020. As per international human rights and standards, staff has the right to enter and form labor unions and fair and secure working conditions. According to the UNGP on Business and Human Rights, companies have to uphold all human interests, including the right to freedom of association. Amazon has acknowledged its responsibility and pledged to “provide clean, inclusive, and respectful workplaces in both its operations and those in its supply chain.” Still, policies and practices do not always reflect this commitment (1).
Though Amazon claims that it “respects our workers’ freedom to enter, create, or not join a labor union,” it has actively worked to restrict trade unions’ ability to function. Despite stating that it wants a “direct relationship” with its workers, the organization has described works unions and trade unions as a “risk” factor for its foreign operations in recent annual reports and has instructed managers in a training video on how to look for “warning signs” of union activity while respecting local and national legislation. Amazon also employs technologies to conduct improper monitoring and data collection on its employees, including undermining workers’ right to organize. Vice News, for example, released details of internal Amazon documents in September 2020, revealing that the company has been secretly tracking and assessing Amazon Flex drivers’ private Facebook groups also to track protest or protest plans (2).
In France, trade union officials claimed that Amazon did not communicate with them about health and safety issues at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic until the Solidaires union filed a legal challenge, forcing the organization to temporarily suspend operations and implement more stringent health and safety measures. Similarly, the Polish trade union Workers’ Initiative announced in March 2020 that Amazon would not engage with their health and safety issues. Amazon fired and disciplined employees in the United States who spoke out about the pandemic’s health and safety conditions. Amazon attempts to block the GMB union’s efforts to organize employees in the United Kingdom, including by intimidating organizers with trespassing injunctions when trying to gain access to facilities.
Amazon is the world’s largest e-commerce firm, with a market capitalization of 1 trillion dollars, one million direct employees worldwide, and shipping to over 100 countries. Amazon Web Services, building, distribution, and manufacturing are also part of its company portfolio (3).
Amazon’s operations and growth
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon’s operations and revenues have risen significantly, owing to increased demand for home delivery of products. After deducting operating expenditures, its net income rose to 6.2 billion dollars in the third period of 2020, rising from 3.2 billion dollars a year earlier. It has employed at least 175,000 additional staff worldwide to meet increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. 10 While national labor laws form Amazon’s working conditions, some common elements of the company’s business model and approach to workers’ rights play a significant role. This includes the company’s attitude toward labor unions as well as health and safety. These two topics are intertwined because one of labor unions’ main concerns is to ensure that employees have access to fair and healthy working conditions.
According to Amazon, it is dedicated to “providing clean, inclusive, and respectful workplaces in both our operations and those in our value chain. We aspire to be the world’s most safety-centric company.” We maintain a clean, dry, and secure workplace. (4) Our employees’ fitness, wellbeing, and safety are our top priorities. All have the right to work in a safe and secure environment with clear rules and procedures for documenting and avoiding incidents, injuries, and unhealthy environments, processes, or behaviors.” On the other hand, health issues have been posed by labor unions and others for a long time, even before COVID-19 introduced significant new threats to the workplace. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal program released data on injury rates in Amazon warehouses in the United States in September 2020.
Between 2016 and 2019, the data was based on internal safety reports and weekly injury numbers from its national network of 150 fulfillment centers. According to Reveal (5), “Amazon fulfillment centers reported 14,000 serious injuries in 2019 those that required days off or work restrictions.” The total rate of 7.7 serious injuries per 100 workers was up 33 percent from 2016 and almost doubled the industry standard.” Reveal also found a correlation between the holiday peak and an increase in injuries and workload during Prime week.
According to Reveal, Amazon did not respond to the specific accusations but instead issued a general statement saying that “nothing is more critical than the health and safety of our teams” and stating that they will spend over 1 billion dollars in 2020 on safety initiatives to protect people from COVID-19. When confronted with similar reports in 2019, the organization claimed that the high injury rates are due to their aggressive approach to tracking worker injuries and caution in encouraging injured employees to return to work before they are ready (6).
The controversies surrounding Amazon’s use of ambitious productivity goals for employees have been well established. Amazon’s working practices, for example, were characterized in a 2019 study by the University of California as “much more labor-intensive and time-sensitive than conventional warehouse operations.” The UK Trades Union Congress explained how workers’ productivity output was tracked in October 2020 and how failure to reach expectations results in job discipline or even dismissal. “According to reports, the high degree of surveillance fosters a fear culture. According to the writers, many employees do not take their legally required breaks because it reduces productivity and puts their hours and jobs at risk, especially for Amazon’s many temporary and agency workers (7).
Recognizing the increased risks faced by workers during the first period of the pandemic, Amazon increased the hourly pay of some workers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and several European Union nations, including France, Germany, Italy, and Poland, by two dollars. Danger compensation was discontinued in most of these countries at the end of May, even though Amazon employees still faced and continue to face natural and continuing workplace hazards in almost every nation where Amazon operates. Unions and employees’ associations had lobbied for the extra payment to be maintained, but the decision was made anyway. It also happened at a time when Amazon’s sales had risen by 40 percent. The hazard pay, according to Amazon, was an opportunity that allowed it to deliver vital goods to households during “unprecedented times” and high demand.
The use of invasive monitoring of Amazon’s employees is another sign of its resistance to labor union activity. Monitoring and surveillance of a company’s employees’ behavior, such as using CCTV in the office or tracking company devices, (8) can be done legally as part of acceptable business practices. However, such surveillance can infringe on workers’ right to privacy and their freedom of association and speech. Furthermore, employers’ ability to monitor their workers in more targeted and invasive ways is growing as advanced monitoring and data analytics technology, combined with increased data collection in the workplace, become more common.
According to an investigation by Vice News in October 2020, Amazon had posted job ads for intelligence analysts responsible for tracking risks such as “labor organizing threats against the company” in the United States. Amazon then took down the ads, claiming that they had been posted in error. According to Vice News, they had been available on Amazon’s portal since January 2020. Leaked internal Amazon documents disclosed in September 2020 that the company had been secretly tracking and examining Amazon Flex operators’ private Facebook groups, including tracking strike plans or protests. Amazon has never denied that the documents, which Vice News also published, were genuine (9).
In the United States, Amazon has no recognition agreements with any trade union, despite some of its most well-known unions’ attempts to obtain recognition so far failing. Nonetheless, in 2019, several activist labor groups, such as Amazonians United, launched campaigns to strengthen working conditions at Amazon facilities in Sacramento, Chicago, New York, and other cities. Amazon has been accused of dismissing many employees who raised questions about health and safety standards or other working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in addition to failing to recognize labor unions.
Amazon must ensure that human rights are respected. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights articulate this obligation, including workers’ right to organize and to fair and healthy working conditions. Amazon’s failure to meet these expectations, as well as its promises to protect and uphold globally recognized human rights, is highlighted in Amnesty International’s report. These flaws affect the company’s employees, their families, and the general public in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a multinational corporation with considerable resources and clout in its industry, it should adhere to international human rights principles and serve as a model for other corporations.
The long-term claims of Amazon’s union avoidance practice are supported by unions and employees’ experiences in France, the UK, and the United States recorded in this article. Even though Amazon claims to respect employees’ freedom to enter, create, or not join a trade union or other lawful association of their choice without fear of retribution, coercion, or abuse, it also claimed in response to Amnesty International that “Across Amazon, we place enormous importance on having regular conversations with each associate.” Our work culture emphasizes direct interaction with our workers.
Victory in Alabama
The union, which has already objected, claims that Amazon swayed the vote unfairly, and it could still be granted the opportunity to rerun the race. Whether it succeeds or not, the campaign has gained Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s support and words of encouragement from Vice President Joe Biden, making it a national story that could spark similar efforts elsewhere, particularly as stories about working conditions begin to surface. Meanwhile, Amazon is attempting to put itself as a labor leader by diverting attention away from labor unions (10).
Even if no warehouse employees attempt to form a union in the immediate future, Amazon’s working conditions will likely be scrutinized even more closely. After receiving 37 reports of retaliation from Amazon employees who claim they were fired or disciplined for organizing walkouts or complaining about working conditions, the National Labor Relations Board is currently considering investigating the organization for a potential pattern of unfair labor practices. And Amazon’s tens of thousands of employees, who were deemed necessary during the coronavirus pandemic because they handled orders while at risk of infection, will undoubtedly continue to raise awareness about working conditions that leave them tired, at risk of injury, and fearful.