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Coronavirus: Amazon warehouse workers strike over concerns about workplace safety and protections

Online retail giant Amazon has been hit by a wave of strikes as workers protest against ‘unsafe working conditions’ and ‘corporate inaction’ during the pandemic

Striking Amazon workers across Europe and the US are walking out of company warehouses over the lack of protection being provided to staff during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Amazon’s frontline logistics workers, including drivers and those who operate the e-commerce giant’s fulfillment centres, are citing a number of reasons for striking, including a lack of protective latex gloves and hand sanitiser, overcrowding during shifts, and high barriers to quarantine pay.

In Spain and Italy, which have both been badly affected by Covid-19, Amazon refused to shut down facilities after news broke in early March that a number of workers had contracted the virus.

This prompted Spanish union Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) to lodge an official complaint with the country’s labour authorities about Amazon’s response to the crisis. “They’re putting financial gain before workers’ health,” a union spokesperson said.

Strikes began soon after on 16 March 2020, when employees at Amazon’s Castel San Gionvanni warehouse in northern Italy went on an indefinite strike to protest the lack of safety measures in place.

“Here it’s not possible to work with the amount of persons that we are, as we are constantly walking along each other, touching the same things, eating in the same space,” said Beatrice Moia, a safety workers’ manager at Amazon’s main Italian logistics hub.

“We had a quite long meeting of over three hours with the company, we tried to apply here the protocol signed by unions and companies for safety, but we haven’t found enough common grounds to ensure safety.”

The next day, workers at Amazon’s Piacenza warehouse, which is located just outside Milan in northern Italy and houses 1,100 staff, walked out over the lack of proper hygiene and social distancing measures.

Profits over safety

On 17 March 2020, the Amazonians United NYC union published an open letter demanding a number of protections for its US-based warehouse workers from the coronavirus.

These included paid sick leave regardless of diagnosis, childcare pay and subsidies, increased hazard pay, an end to rate-based write ups, and a full shut down of the facilities as soon as someone tests positive.

So far the open letter has been signed by 5,210 logistics workers, including those from Amazon’s European fulfillment centres.

On the same day, Amazon set out plans to hire an additional 100,000 staff to cope with the surge of demand in online shopping. It also committed to raising the hourly rate of pay for its retail workers in the UK, Europe and the US by £2, €2 and $2, respectively.

The first US-based Amazon worker to get the virus tested positive on 18 March 2020, prompting four senators, including Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, to publish an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

“We are concerned by reports that managers at Amazon’s warehouses continue to hold ‘stand up’ staff meetings before every shift – meetings that result in dozens of staff crowded together in rooms for 10 or 15 minutes at a time – in contradiction of guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” wrote the senators.

“We are also concerned by reports that hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes are in short supply at Amazon warehouses across the country, and that some Amazon warehouses are not receiving any additional cleaning.”

The senators went as far as to say Amazon was actively prioritising “efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce”.

The company’s policies also prompted attorney generals in 14 states and Washington DC to send a letter to Amazon, as well as its subsidiary Whole Foods, on 25 March 2020 condemning its sick leave policies as “inadequate to protect the public health” during the crisis.

“By limiting paid sick leave to only those employees who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 or who have been placed into quarantine, the companies are placing their other employees, their customers and the public at large at significant risk of exposure to Covid-19,” they said.

Strikes spread to the US

Following a similar pattern to their European counterparts, workers in the US began taking action after Amazon decided to keep warehouses open.

The first US-based Amazon strikes occurred on 30 March 2020 – one at the company’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, and one at a delivery station in Chicago. In both cases, workers cited Amazon’s refusal to close the buildings for cleaning after suspected cases of Covid-19.

These were quickly followed in the coming days by additional strikes. On 1 April 2020, for example, workers walked out of the DTW1 warehouse just outside Detroit, while DCH1 warehouse workers in Chicago carried out a series of safety strikes throughout that same week.

Both sets of workers cited a shortage of cleaning supplies and hygiene equipment, as well as crowded working conditions, and are demanding the warehouses be shut immediately with full pay for employees.

However, hours after the original walkout at the Staten Island facility, Amazon took retaliatory action against its lead organiser, assistant manager Christian Smalls, who had been working at the company for five years.

In a letter to Amazon chief Bezos, published by the Guardian, Smalls cited a lack of proper protections and Amazon’s secrecy around the number of cases as reasons for the strike, and argued the company was making workers risk their lives. He also commented on his firing.

“Because Amazon was so unresponsive, I and other employees who felt the same way decided to stage a walkout and alert the media to what’s going on. On Tuesday, about 50-60 workers joined us in our walkout. A number of them spoke to the press. It was beautiful, but unfortunately I believe it cost me my job,” he wrote.

“A few days before the walkout, Amazon told me they wanted to put me on ‘medical quarantine’ because I had interacted with someone who was sick. It made no sense because they weren’t putting other people on quarantine. I believe they targeted me because the spotlight is on me.”

The empire strikes back

However, the same day as Smalls’ letter to Bezos, Vice uncovered written notes from a meeting attended by the CEO, which detail Amazon’s strategy to discredit Smalls and the wider movement of workers organising to better conditions during the pandemic.

“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organiser’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” wrote Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky.

“Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement. He’s not smart or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”

[Smalls is] not smart or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position
David Zapolsky, Amazon

In a statement to Vice News, Zapolsky said his “comments were personal and emotional”, and that he was “frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus Covid-19”.

In response, New York attorney general Letitia James is now calling for an investigation into the firing of Smalls.

“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues. At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from Covid-19,” she said in a statement.

“In New York, the right to organise is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited.”

James added that her office is “considering all legal options”, and will be calling on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the dismissal.

According to Smalls, however, Amazon’s tactics will not work as he is already in contact with logistics workers across the US looking to take similar action. “I am getting calls from Amazon workers across the country and they all want to stage walk-outs too. We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us,” he said.

“If you’re an Amazon customer, here’s how you can practice real social distancing – stop clicking the ‘Buy now’ button. Go to the grocery store instead. You might be saving some lives.”

A second strike is now being planned at the Staten Island facility where Smalls was fired from. When contacted for comment on this story, Amazon’s press team directed Computer Weekly to a couple of related blog posts it has recently published on this topic, which acknowledge that “expressions of protest” have been made by members of its workforce, but the company insists these are small-scale.

“These incidents have occurred at a very small number of sites and represent a few hundred employees out of hundreds of thousands. We want to be very clear that we respect the rights of these employees to protest and recognise their legal right to do so,” the blog states.

If you’re an Amazon customer, here’s how you can practice real social distancing – stop clicking the ‘Buy now’ button
Christian Smalls

“It is vitally important that we keep people safe during this pandemic, and one of the primary ways we can do that is to ensure everyone at our sites is taking precautions, such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting surfaces.

“We did not, and have not ever, terminate an associate for speaking out on their working conditions, but we will act swiftly with individuals who purposely put others at risk.

“What you probably read and hear less about are the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees who are doing incredibly important work every day to support their communities and who are working with their local teams to drive improvements that further enhance the health and safety of their work environment.

“We are all learning and adapting quickly through this process, and their feedback has led to changes to over 150 processes across operations and the roll-out of significant health and safety measures,” the blog added.

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