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What can we do about Amazon’s treatment of its workers?

Published date
During the Covid-19 Pandemic, no company has prospered more than Amazon. We now need the government to work with unions to protect its workers.

In just one day during the pandemic, Jeff Bezos increased his fortune by US $13 billion (approximately £10 billion), keeping him well on track to become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026.

But, while their share price rockets and market dominance spreads, the stories emerging from warehouse workers and drivers on the frontline has put a spotlight on the human cost of Amazon’s business practices.

Reports of fulfilment centres with no Covid-19 safety measures, no social distancing, no PPE or hand sanitiser and a continuation of gruelling productivity targets have been common here in the UK and across the globe.

In the US, some of the workers who were first to go public and raise the alarm were sacked, prompting Senior Vice President Tim Bray to resign saying in an open blog “The justifications were laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing”.

But for unions, stories of Amazon treating its workers poorly and not delivering a safe working environment are nothing new.

Across Europe, workers are standing up to Amazon

Following legal action from unions, French authorities ordered Amazon to temporarily only sell and deliver essential items, to reduce the risk to workers while they investigated its health and safety measures.

Amazon responded by closing their six warehouses for several weeks, eventually reopening after negotiating a deal with unions.

And in Germany, the union ‘Verdi’ staged strikes at six sites, after Amazon continued to stall on ongoing wage disputes and a push from the union to get a collective bargaining agreement for good and healthy work.

Verdi stated “We are stepping up the pace because Amazon is not showing to this point any insight and is endangering the health of employees in favour of profit".

Similarly, in Spain, the union ‘CCOO’ contacted the Labour Inspectorate to review Amazon’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, having had unsuccessful discussions with Amazon and limited improvements in safety measures. After much effort the action eventually led to over 100 safety measures being implemented in distribution sites across Spain. 

Amazon must do better - during this crisis and beyond.

In the UK, GMB Union have exposed multiple examples of a lack of Covid-19 health and safety measures across their sites.

A lack of social distancing, washrooms, sanitiser and poor cleaning regimes and no PPE have all been reported to GMB.

There has also been video and photographic evidence of cramped conditions for workers when going through security, in corridors and in locker rooms.

GMB exposed this publicly and stated their intention to go to the Health and Safety Executive and call for urgent inspections of all Amazon sites across the UK.

Within days, Amazon began to implement several required Covid-19 safety measures. 

A business model that needs to change.

There are many damaging aspects of Amazon’s business model: the downgrading of workers’ rights, tax minimisation, intrusive data and intelligence gathering and environmental damage.

And yet they are benefitting from public money - through contract awards from central and local government in the UK for Amazon Web Services and from spending through the marketplace.

All the while, they continue to downgrade workers’ rights and their power and damaging practices continue to go unchecked.

Challenging Amazon’s ability to downgrade workers’ rights requires three things:

  • Strong trade unions
  • Local and national governments prepared to stand up to companies that abuse workers’ rights; and
  • New global rules that set a higher floor for the treatment of workers and ensure that no company is too powerful to break it.

We urge Amazon to recognise and engage with unions as the best way to ensure workers’ rights are protected.

But if Amazon will not do better for its workers, then unions and governments at all levels must work together to make sure they do.

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