Amnesty International released an investigative report into the company’s treatment of workers in the US, France, Poland and the UK – revealing violations of worker’s rights for Black Friday
The wealth of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is a common dinner-table discussion. There are viral graphics dedicated to explaining the disparity between billions and millions, whole self-help shelves in bookstores which promise to deliver the same results in business growth – and crucially, a generation of workers whose livelihoods are ruled by the internal logic of Amazon.
According to Business Insider, CEO Jeff Bezos initially told his investors that the company would need to spend their $4 billion profit on pandemic-related expenses. In reality, a global lockdown created dependence on online shopping for hundreds of thousands who found themselves at risk of infection – especially via Amazon Prime, which runs a next-day delivery service that is famous globally. Bezos gained around $97 billion through the pandemic, leaving him with a total of $200 billion in personal wealth.
Jakub, a worker at an Amazon warehouse in Poland, said: “When you enter an Amazon warehouse you see pretty colourful halls, lunches for one złoty [0.22 Euro], free work shuttle… but then there is the ‘targets, targets, targets…””
Amazon hired atleast 175,000 workers to meet the increased demand, making their workforce number one million by July 2020. The holiday bonus being given to all employees is worth $500 million, which is 0.5% of the $97 billion profit Bezos made, and 9.6% of the $5.2 billion profit Amazon saw in the last financial quarter.
What happens behind closed warehouse doors?
On Black Friday, Amnesty International released the investigation (Amazon, Let Workers Unionize) documenting the company’s treatment of workers in the United States, France, Poland, the United Kingdom.
Amazon’s shadow-banning of unions
Amazon’s annual reports to shareholders for 2018 and 2019 actually describes “the existence of works councils and labour unions” as a business risk.
In Poland, trade union Workers’ Initiative said that Amazon would not engage with their health and safety concerns in March 2020. In the USA, Amazon disciplined and dismissed workers who spoke out about health and safety conditions during the pandemic. In the UK, Amazon resists efforts by the GMB union to organise workers, including by threatening organisers with injunctions for trespassing when trying to access facilities. The GMB union covers the NHS and other key workers throughout the UK.
Stuart Perry, a GMB Union organizer in the UK, commented: “We have to organize from outside the gates of all Amazon’s facilities [in the UK]. They know when we are there and threaten us with letters from their solicitors if we were to go onto the premises without a ‘prior agreement or reason’.”
The lawsuit that made Amazon pay attention to France
In France, Trade reps found that Amazon did not address health and safety fears at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic – until the union Solidaires launched a legal challenge.
The challenge forced a temporary pause to Amazon France operations, until genuinely effective health and safety measures were enforced. At the time, Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman commented: “We remain perplexed by the court’s decision, which was made in spite of the overwhelming evidence we provided about the safety measures we have implemented, and have launched an appeal.”
This appeal was dropped before it reached the French Supreme Court, with Amazon implementing stricter health and safety measures for their warehouse teams – who are physically in contact with multiple surfaces, touched by countless people, and were formerly risking their health to fill orders for the increased pandemic demand.
High-tech surveillance on employee conversations
Amazon has published job advertisements for intelligence analysts responsible for monitoring risks including “labor organizing threats against the company” in the USA, according to an expose by Vice News in September 2020. Amazon then removed the
advertisements and claimed that their posting was an error. However, they had actually been on Amazon’s own portal since January 2020, again according to Vice News.
Also revealed in September 2020, leaked internal Amazon documents showed that the company had been secretly monitoring and analysing Amazon Flex drivers’ private Facebook groups, including to track plans for strike actions or protests.
Amazon have never denied that these documents are real.
In the UK, GMB Union staff have been repeatedly threatened with injunctions for “trespassing” when trying to access Amazon facilities to recruit new members. Legal notices sent to union staff in 2018 and 2019 also illustrate that Amazon monitors the social media profiles of the union members, as their screenshots are attached as evidence of “planned” demonstrations.
‘Risking their health and lives’
Barbora Černušáková, Amnesty International’s Researcher and Advisor on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, commented: “All through the pandemic, Amazon workers have been risking their health and lives to ensure essential goods are delivered to our doorsteps, helping Amazon achieve record profits.
“In this context it is alarming that Amazon has treated attempts to unionize with such hostility – as one of the most powerful companies in the world, it should know better.
“As Amazon approaches its busiest time of year with Black Friday and Christmas, we are urging the company to respect the human rights of its workers and comply with international labour standards, which state clearly that workers have a right to unionize. Amazon must refrain from breaching its workers’ rights to privacy, and stop treating union activity as a threat.”
Right now, Christmas is fast approaching – which will mean another groundswell of intensive activity at Amazon warehouses across the world, while COVID-19 continues to be an ongoing fear and worry for thousands of workers.
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