Dying to work at Amazon

The human cost of obscene profits

A crowd of protesters includes a man holding a sign reading
Dec. 14, 2018. In Minnesota over 200 Amazon workers, many of them East African immigrants, protested the company’s inhumane working conditions. PHOTO: Fibonacci Blue
Share with your friends


“I’m still too young to feel like I’m 90 years old,” Candace Dixon told the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Dixon lost her job when two month’s work at Amazon’s new “fulfillment center” in Eastvale, California, left her permanently disabled, with bulging discs, a back sprain, joint inflammation and chronic pain. Unable to work, she worries about losing her home.

The Center’s investigation showed that the rate of serious injury at Amazon warehouses is twice the national average. At the Eastvale facility, the rate is more than four times higher.

The second largest private employer in the U.S., owned by the richest man on earth, Amazon promises an enormous variety of products at ever increasing delivery speeds. To do this, the company delivers giant sweatshops with spiraling workplace injuries in a twilight zone where labor saving devices like robots actually increase injuries. Their only purpose is to incessantly speed up workers.

The collusion of elected officials and government agencies mandated to protect workers’ health and safety has fueled Amazon’s meteoric rise. But recently, worker and community organizing has publicized and, in some cases, stalled some of the behemoth’s worst abuses.

Work Hard, Have Fun, Be Happy. This Orwellian mantra is on a plaque greeting workers who enter the Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota. It illustrates the divide between workplace reality and the smiley logo on Amazon packaging. The goal, always, is to lower the amount of time a worker spends finding and packaging any product for shipment, called their “rate.” Robots do much of the fetching of products and deliver them to the packing line. But, instead of making jobs easier, they make work more repetitive and cause more injuries.

An employee who once walked regularly, now stands at a conveyor belt for eight to twelve hours a day lifting packages into boxes. The required “rate” to place a package is every eleven seconds. Bathroom breaks increase your rate. Asking for help on heavy packages or being scolded by your boss increases your rate. This in facilities often without air conditioning or consistent access to water.

Workers who miss the rate are warned, then fired — even if they are off goal by fractions of a second. Management maintains that workers are monitored by machines, reminded by machines when they slow down, and fired by the machine, not the company’s managers. This is better?

The Eastvale warehouse is new and one of the most automated. No surprise that its serious injury rate is so much higher than even Amazon’s older warehouses.

Amazon touts its generous pay and benefits. In reality, despite announcing it would pay $15 an hour nationally by the end of 2019, wages barely meet state or local mandated minimums. Most new employees are permanent temps who have no vacation, guaranteed hours or health insurance. Most time off is unpaid. Workers who take an hour to see a doctor will have it deducted from available unpaid time off. An employee who takes more than twenty hours off in a quarter is fired.

A worker at the Sacramento delivery center took unpaid time off when her mother-in-law was on life support. She requested and was granted three days

bereavement leave when her relative died. But she returned to work to learn that she had overdrawn her unpaid leave account by one hour and was fired.

Blaming the victim. Amazon was named one of the “Dirty Dozen” of the most dangerous employers in the U.S. in 2018 and 2019 by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. The report cited six worker deaths in the half year between November 2018 and April 2019.

Phillip Lee Terry was crushed to death by a forklift in 2017 at Amazon’s Plainfield, Indiana, fulfillment center. Indiana OSHA inspector John Stallone discovered Terry had never received safety training that could have prevented the accident. Indiana OSHA issued four citations and fined Amazon $28,000. But Indiana was competing to be the company’s second headquarters.

So, safety inspector Stallone had to listen to a call from his boss to Amazon telling how to shift the blame onto the deceased worker. Then he was confronted by the state’s labor commissioner and the governor and told to back off or resign. He resigned, saying the situation was, “like being at a card table and having a dealer teach you how to count cards.”

A year later the state deleted all safety citations and fines and agreed with Amazon that the death was due to “unpreventable employee misconduct.”

Billy Foister worked in an Amazon warehouse in Etna, Ohio. He went to its in-house medical clinic, Amcare, complaining of chest pains. He was given fluids and sent back to work by med techs required to be supervised by a doctor. He wasn’t seen by a doctor, which the clinics don’t have.

Less than a week later he had a heart attack on the job and lay on the floor for 20 minutes before a co-worker saw him and called 911. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

His family and coworkers maintain that surveillance is so widespread that it is impossible that management didn’t see a 6-foot-3-inch man lying on the floor.

Amazon claims they responded “within minutes” and that he didn’t die at work, but at the hospital.

Pushback is spreading. In welcome news, some unions and many community-based groups are saying “enough.” After the announcment that Long Island City, New York, was chosen as one of two new headquarters, the Retail Workers and Teamsters unions insisted that Amazon be neutral in unionization drives. The company refused and walked away from $3 billion in state tax giveaways.

Amazonians United, a workers’ group in several cities across the country, have picketed, organized Prime Day strikes, and won jobs back for workers targeted for taking time off — like the woman in Sacramento. Many regions now have labor/community organizations that fight unjust firings, expose phony health clinics, and publicize abuses.

Organized labor needs to weigh in on this struggle in a big way. These community/worker alliances could grow stronger and take on more than individual battles to negotiate productivity, guarantee independent injury protections, and win union drives.

Contact Muffy Sunde at FSnews@socialism.com.

Share with your friends