It is time Amazon heeds the demands of its workers

The company should spend its record-breaking profits not on sleek PR campaigns but on workers’ benefits.

amazon logo reuters
The logo of Amazon is seen at the company logistics center in Lauwin-Planque, northern France, April 22, 2020 [Pascal Rossignol/Reuters]

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appears to have become quite generous.

On March 11, Amazon announced a $25m relief fund for workers who contract COVID-19 during the pandemic. A week later, the company also said it was donating $1m to four foundations in the larger Washington, DC area, the site of the new Amazon headquarters, to help with relief efforts.

Then on April 2, Bezos pledged to give $100m to Feeding America, a nonprofit organisation which runs food banks and pantries across the United States.

A week later, Bezos himself visited an Amazon warehouse and a store of the Whole Foods chain, which Amazon owns. The company’s PR Twitter account posted a video of Bezos walking around and thanking employees for their service.

While blue-collar workers and impoverished communities certainly need financial help amid the coronavirus pandemic, Bezos’s donations and PR stunts are nothing less than an attempt to whitewash the horrendous track record on worker’s rights in his companies.

One-time grants and food handouts will not improve the lives of Amazon workers or the poor communities they hail from. Instead of engaging in PR charity, Bezos should be listening to the complaints of his employees and extending them the rights they deserve.

But listened he has not – so far.

Working conditions at Amazon have always been deplorable, but the pandemic has exacerbated them further. Workers are expected to put in long hours but are not afforded basic benefits and protections, including sick leave. Amid the pandemic, this is particularly dangerous and is putting workers at risk of losing their jobs and meagre income.

So far there have been numerous cases of COVID-19 outbreaks in Amazon facilities and Whole Foods stores. In many instances, the company has rushed to reopen its facilities after supposedly applying disinfection measures.

However, Amazon workers have complained that the company has failed to provide them with adequate supplies of hand sanitiser, gloves, and masks and have not heeded demands for deep cleaning of facilities.

This has led to Amazon workers’ protests across the country from Staten Island, New York to Chicago, Illinois, and Romulus, Michigan.

Employees have also complained that they have not been informed of others testing positive for the disease, are not getting compensated when they need to go into quarantine, and do not get sick leave unless they prove they have had COVID-19, which due to low testing rates many infected people cannot do.

In March, a warehouse in New York City, for example, was temporarily shut down after one worker tested positive and staff was forced to quarantine for two weeks. A workers’ group called Amazonians United New York City Workers claimed the company was not paying them while they were in quarantine, so started a fundraiser to help them out.

Whole Foods, too, has similar problematic policies. For example, its workers are allowed to have unlimited unpaid time off during March and paid two weeks off if they tested positive for COVID-19. For any other medical emergency or family death, employees can obtain additional days off from a “pot” which workers collectively have to “donate” their days off to help each other. In protest against these unfair policies, Whole Food workers started “sick out” demonstrations. 

Instead of changing their unfair rules to accommodate their workers who are on the front lines, helping families abide by lockdown orders by servicing their online shopping orders and store visits, Amazon and Whole Foods executives have adopted rather pernicious responses.

They have sought to downplay protests at their facilities in official statements and punished some of those who have participated in them.

Chris Smalls, who in March led the protest at the Staten Island facility demanding personal protective equipment and sick leave, for example, was fired. Amazon claimed his dismissal was due to the violation of social distancing guidelines, but the New York authorities have launched an inquiry into the case. A leaked Amazon PR memo revealed executives called Smalls “not smart or articulate” and expressed hopes that would be “good” for the company’s PR strategy.

Last week, the company fired two more employees who dared criticise its policies in public. Another worker at a Minnesota warehouse, named Bashir Mohamed, was recently fired because he was actively organising workers, which included handing out petitions in English and Somali and communicating concerns to management about the inability to be socially distant. However, in a statement to CNN, Amazon said Mohamed was fired as “a result of progressive disciplinary action for inappropriate language, behaviour, and violating social distancing guidelines”.

Executives have also sought to prevent unionisation. According to the Business Insider, Whole Foods has started using a “heat map” to track which of its stores are “at risk” of workers unionising. In the past, the company has actively fought against unionisation efforts among its employees.

One would think that perhaps the company cannot afford to extend benefits to workers and give them proper protection against COVID-19 amid the global economic crisis as a result of the pandemic, but that is really not the case.

The company is registering record profits amid the pandemic, with its value jumping by $140bn to $1.14 trillion from February to April. Bezos himself has seen his personal wealth grow by $24bn since the start of the year.

That $100m he donated to “Feeding America” constitutes 0.4 percent of the money he has made since January.

So far, Amazon has offered a temporary increase in pay by $2 an hour until the end of April and doubled the hourly rate for overtime work. It has also claimed that it has made “150 significant process changes to ensure the health and safety of our teams”.

But that is really not enough. And in fact, given its skyrocketing profits, it can afford to do much more.      

Amazon workers have put forward a petition with more than 5,000 signatures from North America and Europe, outlining exactly what they think is fair in terms of improved compensation and safe conditions of working. They demand full paid sick leave without conditionalities, pay for childcare and subsidies, 1.5-times hazard pay, an end to rate-based write-ups, and the closure of facilities in the event that a worker tests positive for the virus. 

They are not really asking for much and implementing their demands will not bring down Amazon’s ever-expanding profit margins.

Amid the pandemic, millions of people are losing their jobs and many are growing desperate, as they face the prospect of hunger and homelessness. Amazon and other companies are taking advantage of the situation, thinking desperation would enable exploitation.

But its executives are failing to understand that the pandemic is also opening the eyes of many people to the ills of our society which have amplified the crisis. People are becoming increasingly sensitive to social injustice. Workers are growing bolder and more determined to resist.

With its inaction and greed, Amazon is risking a major backlash that no sleek PR campaign would be able to counter. It is time it heeds workers’ calls for real change and provides dignified labour conditions. Or else.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.