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Trade union activity

As discussed above we have seen many workers across Europe and America take action to force the company to do better in its response to the pandemic. But, while coronavirus has put the spotlight on Amazon, action to challenge its extractive and exploitative business model has been growing for some time.

This includes coordinated global action on ‘Prime Day’ – one of the most dangerous days for the company’s workers as they are pushed to meet relentless demand.[1] In the UK, the GMB’s ‘We are not Robots’ campaign highlighted the plight of Amazon workers.[2] Italy also made history when it secured the first ever direct agreement between unions and Amazon regarding shift patterns and fairer weekend working.[3]

It will be interesting to see how willing Amazon is to work with Swedish unions as the company prepares to make a big expansion in that market. Sweden has strong labour laws and high levels of union recognition. Over 70 per cent of Swedish workers are members of trade unions and 90 per cent of employees are covered by collective agreements. Amazon’s typically anti-union stance is not something that will be tolerated. In response to the news of its expansion into Sweden, Handels, the union for warehouse workers said: “Amazon is welcome in Sweden, but they have to sign a collective agreement”.[4]

2019 also saw the first global symposium bringing together unions, civil society organisations, tax and climate justice activists and digital privacy campaigners, to discuss Amazon’s power and how it might be tackled.[5] And before its Annual General Meeting (AGM) this year, unions and other stakeholders worked together to raise awareness of a variety of issues concerning Amazon’s practices with shareholders.[6]

Trade unions across Europe, including UK unions GMB, Usdaw and CWU have also recently called on the European Commission to open an investigation into Amazon’s “potentially illegal” surveillance of workers union activities. The letter, with 37 union signatories, states:

 “Amazon’s plans to ramp up surveillance of workers across Europe and globally are yet another reminder that EU institutions should closely investigate Amazon’s business and workplace practices throughout the continent, as we suspect them to be in breach of European labour, data and privacy laws that our citizens expect to enjoy”[7].

In response 37 MEPs have written to Jeff Bezos demanding information about the company’s union and political monitoring activity, raising concerns about Amazon’s approach to what the company deems as “threat monitoring”.[8]

Tackling anti-competitive practices and governing the online infrastructure

The European Union has led the way on trying to curb Amazon’s anti-competitive, anti-trust practices. Having launched an investigation into whether Amazon was using sensitive third-party seller information to gain a competitive advantage in July 2019, reports from June 2020 suggest the EU will bring formal charges against the company.[9] This follows a previous anti-trust investigation opened in 2015 into Amazon e-books by the EU. This found that Amazon's e-books distribution agreements may be in breach EU anti-trust rules by requiring publishers to share information, and offer Amazon similar or better terms than those offered to competitions, or inform Amazon of more favourable terms given to their competitors.[10]

The Competition Commission of India has also launched an anti-competition investigation into Amazon (and others) over alleged violations of competition law and discounting (Amazon has launched a legal challenge to counter this).[11] And Jeff Bezos, along with the heads of Apple, Google and Facebook, has been brought in front of US Congress for questioning over anti-trust issues.[12]

In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has called on the government to introduce a new pro-competition regulatory regime that takes on big tech.[13] A Digital Market Taskforce has been established, bringing together the CMA, the Information Commissioner’s Officer (ICO) and telecoms regulator Ofcom to help design a new regulatory regime. The CMA has proposed that a Digital Market Unit be established within any new regime with the powers to enforce a code of conduct that stops platforms from abusing significant market power; introduce a ‘fairness by design duty’; and order the separation of platforms where necessary.[14]

The concentration of online infrastructure and cloud services into the hands of just a few providers, one of which is Amazon Web Services, is also concerning. Organisations such as the ETUC are calling on public authorities to explore alternatives to the big corporate cloud and infrastructure providers (Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google Cloud), and seek to develop independent public alternatives.[15] The EU is already looking at aspects of this through the GAI-X project, a collaboration between the European Commission, France and Germany and various organisations (including businesses) on the continent, which aims to tackle issues around data sovereignty and GDPR compliance, through a trusted public cloud offering that addresses the needs of the public sector.[16]

Tax reform

More broadly the UK, EU and OECD have been looking at tax reform in a digital age, with over 130 countries signing up to the OECD ‘Inclusive Framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting’ (BEPS).[1] There are two central pillars to the BEPs framework, the first being the re-allocation of profits and nexus rules, aimed at determining where tax should be paid and on what basis. Users of digital services create huge value for tech companies, but currently they are only taxed where they have a physical presence, not necessarily where they create value. The BEPs aims to tackle that. The second pillar focuses on global anti-base tax erosion, with the aim of designing a system whereby all multinationals pay a minimum level of tax to combat profit shifting to low tax jurisdictions.

In April this year, the UK introduced a digital services tax of 2 per cent on the revenues of search engines, social media services and online marketplaces which derive value from UK users.[2] However there have been reports that this tax may be abandoned to help secure a trade deal with the US, something denied by the Treasury.[3]

The European Commission launched its ‘Fair taxation for the Digital Economy’ paper in 2018, with a final report due before the end of the year.[4] In line with the OECD BEPS initiative, the EU is proposing reforms to corporate tax rules so that profits are registered and taxed where businesses have significant interaction with users through digital channels, and profits are attributed to member states so the system better reflects where companies create value online.

In Australia, the government changed sales tax regulation to require businesses earning more than $75,000 AUD a year to charge a 10 per cent sales tax on low value products imported by customers. This resulted in Amazon blocking Australian users from having access to its US site. But after six months Amazon backtracked on the blocking decision[5], reinforcing the fact that no matter how big they are, it needs customers.

More people are beginning to understand the scale and reach of Amazon and the implications of its unchecked power.

Taking on Amazon will require a combination of new regulation appropriate for a digital economy, enforcing existing legislation and empowering unions, and enabling governments, both local and national to hold them and others to account.

As former Amazon vice president Tim Bray said:

“Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.”[6]

Challenging Amazon
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