Amazon’s ‘Everything Store’ front was never just about retailing and today Amazon is much more than the online retailer of everyday goods. As its retailing arm grew, so did Amazon’s ability to gather, analyse and monetise the data of its users, and in doing so Amazon not only cemented its position as gatekeeper to the market place of things, but also enabled its expansion into logistics, technological development and cloud services.
As its scale and scope grows, so does its power. The bigger Amazon has become, the more it has been able to game the system, allowing it to disregard workers’ rights, minimising taxes, circumvent fair competition within its own marketplace and avoid scrutiny of many of its practices. The more it does these things, the more powerful it gets and the more able it is to dominate the various areas it operates in; from its online market place to its increasing presence in the supply of goods and cloud services in the public realm.
As trade unionists, our primary concerns are to ensure that Amazon does not become so powerful that its efforts to trample on workers’ rights are seen as simply a fact of life that cannot be challenged due to the all-encompassing nature of Amazon’s business model.
We believe challenging Amazon’s ability to downgrade workers’ rights requires three things:
According to Amazon, it ‘provides some of the most advanced workplaces of their kind in the world, with industry-leading pay, processes and systems to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all employees’. But as we have outlined in this report, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that is not the case.
We have seen that strong trade unions have been able to improve rights for workers at Amazon and elsewhere, especially during the Covid-19 crisis. In Spain, France, Italy, Germany and many more, union organising has won essential health and safety protections for workers at Amazon that they otherwise would not have had.
If Amazon genuinely wants to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all its employees, then we urge Amazon to voluntarily recognise a union in all its operations.
However, Amazon has shown only hostility to workers’ efforts to organise. For example, the GMB trade union shared with us testimonies of workers who are terrified to even talk publicly about their experiences for fear of being fired. Stronger labour laws are therefore needed to bring them to the table.
In the UK that means:
Many local governments have set out employment charters showing how they aim to promote decent work (see box 5). And national government has made several commitments to promoting good work as a legitimate public policy aim. Its response to the Taylor Review of working practices states that good work should be fair, decent and with a realistic scope for development and fulfilment. And it is committed to Goal 8 of the UN sustainable development goals, which seeks to promote “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all“ and defines decent work as:
“productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Decent work involves opportunities for work that: is productive and delivers a fair income; provides security in the workplace and social protection for workers and their families; offers prospects for personal development and encourages social integration; gives people the freedom to express their concerns, to organize and to participate in decisions that affect their lives; and guarantees equal opportunities and equal treatment for all”.
These commitments mean that governments should be wary of propping up Amazon through government spending, when the Amazon’s business model is built on downgrading workers’ rights.
Box 5: Employment Charters
In recent years many local authorities have drawn up employment charters and good work standards designed to set out the criteria for good work and ways to achieve them. They are used to encourage employers to commit to the criteria for decent work and share best practice.
London Mayor’s Good Work Standard (GWS) https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/business-and-economy/supporting-business/what-mayors-good-work-standard
The London Mayor’s Good Work Standard is an accreditation awarded to employers who can demonstrate they have met employment criteria outlined in the GWS.
There are four broad pillars that underpin the Good Work Standard:
The GWS sets a benchmark for employers to work towards and achieve. Organsations are also able to use their accreditation to demonstrate social value when applying for public procurement opportunities with the GLA group.
Greater Manchester Good Employment Charterhttps://www.gmgoodemploymentcharter.co.uk/the-charter/
The Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter is a voluntary membership and assessment scheme for organisations of any size, sector or geography, aimed at raising employment standards across the Greater Manchester area.
Under the charter there are seven characteristics of good employment:
North of Tyne Good Work Pledge https://www.northoftyne-ca.gov.uk/good-work-pledge
The good work pledge aims to support achieving the overall goal of an inclusive economy and key element of that is ensuring residents have access to Good Work. The North of Tyne Good Work pledge sets out five key pledges that can help businesses work towards and gain recognition for delivering good work:
In some cases, local government’s direct relationship with Amazon gives it an opportunity to promote decent work directly. Anywhere there are Amazon facilities such as warehouses or offices, local government should be clear that as a minimum decent work includes allowing a union direct access to the company – and a commitment to transparency about the results.
Amazon should not only be expected to allow union access and reporting but where employment charters or good work standards already exist, they should commit to all obligations and demonstrate that they are meeting those commitments. As we saw with some of our Freedom of Information requests, where there have been employment and skills commitments between local authorities and Amazon, it is unclear if Amazon has provided evidence of meeting its commitments or whether there is the transparency that would allow local authorities to be able to monitor progress.
In addition, where local authorities draw up employment charters and good work standards, they should include a commitment to the right of unions to access workplaces.
However, it became clear through our Freedom of Information requests that local authorities do not always have direct oversight or access to information about who is going to be occupying land within their jurisdiction and therefore not as much scope to influence employment rights. This is clearly a barrier for local authorities and more consideration needs to be given to how the planning process can also be used as a tool to promote decent work and give authorities the ability to lay down the rules before companies like Amazon come to town.
In other cases, local governments are procuring goods from Amazon, through the marketplace or through contracts for web services. In these cases, the relationship is less direct, but local government spending is still going to support Amazon’s exploitative model.
But reliance on Amazon is not inevitable. Social value procurement can be used to strengthen local economies and empower local people. Community wealth building aims to stop wealth leaking out of communities by emphasising the purchase of local goods and services and favouring suppliers that will put the benefits of local spending into the hands of local people. Using procurement in this way ensures that money spent locally is retained in the local economy and used to achieve wider social and economic objectives. Wherever possible, local government should use this as an alternative to Amazon that supports keeping jobs and wealth in the local community.
Councils such as Salford, Newham and Preston have sought to use community wealth building initiatives to maximise the amount public bodies spend in their local area to help develop local supply chains, diversify provision through supporting local cooperatives, community organisations and small businesses– as well as promoting in-house provision of services.
These kinds of approaches can offer better value for money than Amazon, especially if we take a broader definition of value for money that takes account of the wider social and economic benefits generated. Though Amazon may seem to offer a cheap and simplified approach to purchasing goods and equipment, this should be weighed against the potential benefits to the local economy of choosing local supply chains and businesses that support workers’ rights.
Community wealth building also encourages local authorities to create and cultivate local suppliers where they are not readily available. However, where councils conclude that Amazon is the only viable supplier for a product, an alternative option is to seek to build social value requirements such as decent work and union recognition into procurement contracts.
As set out above, one important change government could make is to introduce new trade union laws which give workers a better chance of challenging unfair employment conditions.
As most government spending with Amazon is for web services and is driven by central government, it must consider the broader implications of supporting Amazon’s exploitative business model. This is in line with existing commitments to use public policy as a means of driving decent work. In addition, the government’s new policy on delivering social value through s commercial activities, announced in September this year, states that:
“Social value should be explicitly evaluated in all central government procurement, where the requirements are related and proportionate to the subject-matter of the contract, rather than just ‘considered’ as currently required under the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012”
Themes that must be considered include Covid-19 recovery; tackling economic inequality; fighting climate change; equal opportunity; and wellbeing.
It is essential that social value in procurement is embedded and does not continue to be a tick box exercise or easily gamed by organisations bidding for contracts, as has often been the case to date.
Government must also be prepared to stand up to attempts by Amazon and other big tech companies to become ‘too big to fail’. That means government must:
Trade unions and local and national governments can all act to stick up for workers’ rights in the face of the efforts of companies like Amazon to downgrade them. But as a global company, it is only a set of strong global rules that will ensure that a race to the bottom on workers’ rights does not become a global phenomenon, and that all companies are competing on a level and fair playing field where the skills and talents of their workers, not the capacity of bosses to exploit them, determine their success.
There are several current proposals for international reform which would check the power of Amazon and similar global companies. These include:
We are clear: there is no reason why Amazon should be allowed to continue with their exploitative business model. We urge them to do better on all fronts and commit to decent, safe and secure work throughout their operations.
If Amazon won’t do better, then unions and governments at all levels must work together to make sure that they do.
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