Amazon has attempted to stop its employees from taking part in a virtual panel organised by technology workers concerned about the lack of measures the e-commerce giant has put in place to protect staff against the Covid-19 coronavirus.
The online event was attended by nearly 400 Amazon tech workers and prominent social activist Naomi Klein, but, according to the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) campaign group, which organised the event, the firm attempted to shut down the meeting by deleting the invitation from thousands of employees’ calendars.
Two of the group’s leaders, user experience designers Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, were fired last week after publicly denouncing Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers, who have been striking across Europe and the US in protest at “unsafe working conditions” and “corporate inaction”.
An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to The Guardian that the two staff members had been dismissed for “repeatedly violating internal policies” which prohibit employees from commenting publicly on the company’s business without corporate justification and approval from executives.
During the event on 16 April 2020, Amazon warehouse and tech workers shared their testimonies with each other, culminating in Costa and Cunningham calling on their co-workers to join AECJ for a “sick out”.
“We want to tell Amazon that we are sick of all this – sick of the firings, sick of the silencing, sick of pollution, sick of racism, and sick of the climate crisis,” said Costa, who had worked at the company for more than 15 years. “So we’re asking tech workers to join us for a sick out on Friday, 24 April and show Amazon that you do not agree with their actions.
“We ask you to consider the stories you’ve just heard, the deleted invitation to this event – is that OK with you, or would you rather be able to have this conversation, or the next conversation like it, openly? What happens if we just do nothing here – if we just stand by and let this stuff happen?”
Because of Amazon’s efforts to stop workers communicating internally, the AECJ is now asking fellow employees to fill out an external form to sign up for the sick out, the full demands of which the group has posted on Medium.
Computer Weekly contacted Amazon for a response to the story, but it declined to comment on the AECJ’s claims that it had attempted to shut down the online meeting.
“We are in the middle of both the climate crisis and a global pandemic,” said Cunningham. “This is the time to deeply care about one another.”
Points of discussion
Workers who took part in the meeting shared a broad range of concerns, including Amazon’s secrecy and its attitudes towards workers.
“Amazon makes it impossible to know who else might have come into contact with the coronavirus cases and their hiding of information has made us all feel a lot of fear, anger and distrust,” said a warehouse worker from Chicago. “Going to work means we could be bringing Covid back to our families.”
Another Chicago worker said many workers come from low-income backgrounds, so losing a paycheck would mean losing meals for their family.
The concerns were also shared by their European counterparts, with one warehouse worker in Poland criticising Amazon for claiming it is an essential service.
“The products I’m risking my life for every day are far from essential,” said the worker. “Even if it were true that hair straighteners and ping-pong balls are essential, then why aren’t we warehouse workers considered essential people?. Why does Amazon treat us like we are scraps off Jeff Bezos’ table?”
Amazon’s response to strikes in the US
The first US-based strike at an Amazon facility occurred at the JFK8 warehosue in Staten Island, which led to the sacking of the strike’s lead organiser, assistant manager Christian Smalls.
Vice later uncovered a written memo from a meeting attended by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, which detailed Amazon’s strategy to discredit Smalls and the wider movement of workers to demand better conditions during the pandemic.
Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, said: “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organising 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.”
Zapolsky later told Vice News in a statement that 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 New York state, the right to organise is codified in law, meaning it is strictly prohibited for a company to take retaliatory action against its employees, which has prompted New York attorney general Letitia James to call for an investigation into Smalls’ dismissal.
“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues,” she said in a statement at the time. “At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested at the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from Covid-19.”
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In his annual letter to shareholders, Bezos outlined the steps Amazon is taking to address the pandemic, claiming: “Amazonians are working around the clock to get necessary supplies delivered directly to the doorsteps of people who need them.”
Bezos added that Amazon is focused on the safety of its employees and contractors while the company continues to provide “these essential services”.
He continued: “Consulting closely with medical experts and health authorities, we’ve made over 150 significant process changes in our operations network and Whole Foods Market stores to help teams stay healthy, and we conduct daily audits of the measures we’ve put into place.
“We’ve distributed face masks and implemented temperature checks at sites around the world to help protect employees and support staff. We regularly sanitise door handles, stairway handrails, lockers, elevator buttons and touch screens, and disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser are standard across our network.
“We’ve also introduced extensive social distancing measures to help protect our associates.”
Although the letter does not directly mention any protests, Amazon acknowledged in a separate blog post that “expressions of protest” has been made by members of its workforce at “a very small number of sites”.
“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,” it said.
Fighting for rights
During the AECJ’s virtual panel, Klein stated: “Amazon is now systematically purging the employees who dare to stand up for their rights, to stand up for one another, and to stand up for the climate. No company has profited more from this pandemic than Amazon. And yet, again and again, Jeff Bezos has treated the people responsible for his unprecedented and unfathomable wealth as if they are disposable products.”
Last year, the AECJ organised almost 3,000 corporate workers to walk out for the Global Climate Strike in September 2019, and in April 2019, more than 8,700 employees signed an open letter about the company’s climate failures.
Since the group was formed in December 2018, Amazon has announced a slew of climate plans, including its Climate Pledge, Shipment Zero and the Bezos Earth Fund comprising $10bn of the CEO’s personal wealth.