AWS vice-president quits over firing of Covid-19 whistleblowers

Amazon’s dismissal of workers striking over unsafe working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic has caused AWS vice-president Tim Bray to quit in protest

A senior engineer and vice-president at Amazon Web Services (AWS) has “quit in dismay” over the company’s decision to fire “whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19”.

Tim Bray, who has worked at AWS for more than five years, went public with details of his resignation in a blog post, and cited Amazon’s decision to fire multiple employees for speaking out about the level of protection given to warehouse staff during the coronavirus outbreak.

Since mid-March, Amazon workers have been striking across Europe and the US in protest at “unsafe working conditions” and “corporate inaction” linked to the pandemic, which has led to the dismissal of multiple employees.

“Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets,” said Bray in his resignation letter: “It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.”

Bray, who is the highest-level Amazon employee to speak out about the treatment of workers, said he first started having doubts about the company’s conduct when leaders of the Global Climate Strike Walkout, in which 3,000 Amazon tech workers took part, were threatened by the company.

“The day before the walkout, Amazon announced a large-scale plan aimed at making the company part of the climate-crisis solution,” said Bray. “It’s not as though the activists were acknowledged by their employer for being forward-thinking; in fact, leaders were threatened with dismissal.

“Fast-forward to the Covid-19 era. Stories surfaced of unrest in Amazon warehouses, workers raising alarms about being uninformed, unprotected and frightened.”

After the initial US strikes, which took place at the company’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, and a delivery station in Chicago on 30 March, Amazon took retaliatory action by firing process assistant Christian Smalls, one of the driving forces behind the Staten Island walkout, who spoke to Computer Weekly about his experience and Amazon’s attempts to silence dissent.

Warehouse workers then asked the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) campaign group for support, and the group responded by internally promoting a petition and hosting a videoconference featuring workers’ testimonies. Two of the AECJ’s visible leaders, user experience designers Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, were subsequently sacked.

It should also be noted that when Amazon learned of the virtual event, it decided to delete employees’ calendar invites en masse in an effort to stop it going ahead. Amazon’s efforts to surveil its employees also extend to its subsidiary Whole Foods, where mapping technology is being used to track unionisation efforts.

“The justifications were laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing,” said Bray.

“At that point, I snapped. VPs shouldn’t go publicly rogue, so I escalated through the proper channels and by the book. I’m not at liberty to disclose those discussions, but I made many of the arguments appearing in this essay. I think I made them to the appropriate people.”

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Bray said remaining a VP at Amazon would mean having to sign off on actions he despised, so he chose to resign.

“The victims weren’t abstract entities, but real people,” he said. “Here are some of their names: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed and Chris Smalls.

“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential.”

He added: “Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”

Bray also alluded to the fact that Amazon and AWS are effectively run as two distinct entities, pointing to how workers in the latter are treated “humanely” because they have far more power.

“The average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about power balances. The warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and [in the US] job-linked health insurance. So they’re gonna get treated like crap, because of capitalism. Any plausible solution has to start with increasing their collective strength.”

Amazon declined to comment on the story.

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