Amazon’s sweatshop culture

World’s richest man faces global pushback

Amazon warehouse workers in Eagan, Minn., protest dangerous workloads while fasting during Ramadan, June 4, 2018. PHOTO: WCCO-TV
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Amazon, known for a vast assortment of goods and services, quick delivery and low prices, is among the top online retailers in the world. It has giant warehouses across the U.S., Europe, India, China, and Japan.

On top of this empire sits Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, who can’t think of anything better to spend his vast wealth on but space travel. Now, growing rebellion among Amazon’s warehouse workforce reveals that the global delivery system is based on sweatshop conditions and union busting.

Lowering labor standards worldwide. Amazon’s size gives it unprecedented power over wages and working conditions wherever its warehouse, technology and manufacturing hubs operate. In return for jobs, cities offer concessions worth billions, and raid public coffers to do it. But a 2016 investigation found that Amazon actually displaced almost 150,000 more jobs than it created and paid an average of 15 percent lower wages than comparable jobs in 11 metro areas. This June, Amazon bullied Seattle’s elected leaders into cancelling a small tax on the city’s wealthiest businesses to fund homeless housing and services.

The overwhelming majority of Amazon workers toil in its huge network of giant warehouses. Despite highly touted and relatively well-paid tech jobs, the median yearly wage of an Amazon worker is less than $30,000 a year.

Conditions at Amazon’s Eagan, Minnesota, warehouse near Minneapolis mirror those around the world. These workers, who are mostly Somali immigrants, describe brutal conditions.

Employee Hibaak Mohamed told this reporter that it “can be 15 degrees with no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in summer. People collapse on the job from exhaustion, and run constantly to keep up with the [production] rate.” She says, “We are there for ten and a half hours, have one unpaid thirty-minute lunch break, and one thirty-minute paid break to reach the restroom across the entire warehouse. When you arrive, it’s so crowded you can’t get in.”

“Productivity is measured every 60 minutes. At the end of the hour, the ‘winner’ on your line is broadcast — the person who worked fastest. If you don’t hear your name in three days, you are in trouble, you get written up and you can get fired the next time.”

Mohamed says “The biggest problem people suffer from is depression and stress. Once off your job, you cannot sleep for worrying about the next day.”

In 2018, The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health named Amazon number one on its list of “dirty dozen” employers. Seven workers have been killed at U.S. Amazon warehouses since 2013.

Journalist James Bloodworth, author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low Wage Britain, worked for a month at an Amazon “fulfillment center” in England. He recounted that the warehouse he worked in was “what I imagine the atmosphere of a low security prison would feel like. … We had to be drug and alcohol tested before we started work. … We had to pass in and out of giant airport-style security gates every time we even went to the toilet.” The book describes having to get a product from the shelves onto delivery bins in twelve seconds, repeatedly over a ten-hour day, or be fired. Workers called ambulances 115 times in three years.

Amazon profits off equally bad conditions at its suppliers. China Labor Watch sent inspectors to Hengyang Foxconn, manufacturer of Amazon’s Kindles, Echo Dots and tablets. The group reports that 40 percent of the workforce is contract labor, paid less, denied overtime pay, given less safety training, and laid off in the slow season. Subcontractors don’t pay legally required social insurance for contract workers.

Revolt: international and growing. Amazon implements an aggressive anti-union culture and hires the biggest union busting firms available. But unionized Amazon workers in Italy and Germany struck over pay and work speedup in November 2017. Italian unions won the first collective bargaining agreement ever with Amazon and German workers got pay increases and safety improvements.

That was followed by coordinated strikes and slow-downs on Amazon Prime Day this year by thousands of workers in Spain, Germany and Poland. Several years of cross-border meetings built these actions.

Amazon’s entry into the grocery business with its purchase of Whole Foods has led unionized grocery chains to demand healthcare and benefit concessions from their workers. But Whole Foods employees have announced a union drive with the support of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The Awood Center, a community organization in Minneapolis, supports workers at Amazon’s Eagan warehouse and has organized publicity to expose Amazon’s abuse of warehouse and delivery workers. Despite the lack of union representation, the Awood Center has mobilized support from the region’s Somali community and the general public to advocate for Amazon workers.

Worker Mohamed described their strategy as “going to Amazon directly as a group, so we won’t get fired on the spot.” When asked their demands, she replied, “slow down the rate, install air conditioning, hire competent management.” She added that although there has been widespread publicity over a worker fired because she couldn’t maintain the grueling production goals while fasting for Ramadan, she has not been rehired.

Next steps. Only aggressive union organizing can make a difference in conditions at this behemoth. Continuing international cooperation and community mobilizing are vital. The outcome of the Whole Foods union drive will be important, too. It will take upping the ante to stop Amazon’s union-busting model, especially in the USA.

In a Labor Day interview, radical filmmaker Boots Riley gave some excellent advice to organizers, “We need to get to the level where we can shut down industry, and … go straight to the puppet masters. … The Taft-Hartley laws make it so you can’t do solidarity strikes. And the reason why … is because they’re effective. And so, we need a labor movement that’s going to break those laws.”

He’s right. And it is really time to get to work.

For more fightback stories, see: Labor Weather Report, October 2018

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