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Unions urge government to improve conditions for Amazon workers

Unions have urged the UK government to leverage its position as a client of Amazon to improve conditions for workers

UK government at both the national and local levels should use their direct relationships with Amazon to compel the e-commerce giant into improving work conditions, trade unions have said.

In their Challenging Amazon report published on 12 October, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and GMB said: “Amazon has seen its market value rocket [during the coronavirus pandemic], registering $75bn (£58bn) in revenue for the first quarter (equivalent to £25m an hour).”

It added, however, that “while Amazon’s profits surged, so did reports of the unsafe working conditions in its fulfilment centres across the globe”, prompting a wave of strikes from frontline logistics workers across Europe and the US in late March and early April.

According to research in the report from Tussell, a specialist data provider on government contracts and spend, Amazon has won 92 public sector contracts since 2015, with a collective value of £230mn. 

“In 2020 alone, Amazon has been awarded contracts with a lifetime value of over £23m, including contracts related to testing and tracing valued at £8.3m,” the report added.

“Both central and local government should be holding Amazon to account, ensuring its business model doesn’t hurt workers and communities. But at present, instead of demanding that Amazon does better, government in the UK is failing to challenge its numerous damaging business practices, either because they lack the tools to do so or the willingness to act.”

However, in response to the £8.3mn figure cited, an Amazon spokesperson said “we are continuing to work closely with the Government on this service, have delivered more than three million Covid-19 testing kits and to date, we have waived all fees and charges for this service.”

To combat Amazon’s “efforts to trample on workers’ rights” at a local level, the unions have advocated a “community wealth” approach to creating and cultivating alternative suppliers.

Under this approach, local councils should “review their commissioning and procurement strategies to ensure that they align with a strong public interest case”, as well as “explore the full potential for inserting social value requirements and establish effective mechanisms for monitoring and measuring the performance of the company against those objectives” where Amazon is the only viable supplier.

To challenge Amazon at the national level, the report added that the UK government must “support efforts to ensure fair digital taxation; commit to ensuring a fair, proportionate and modern business rates system; ensure that the new Digital Markets inquiry and taskforce, carried out by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA); include workers’ rights as a key consideration; and oppose proposals at the WTO [world Trade Organization] to include e-commerce in trade negotiations, which campaigners say would increase the power of big tech over workers and make it harder to enforce labour laws.”

The report also advocates strengthening these labour laws to protect workers, calling on Westminster to give unions access to workplaces through the upcoming employment bill, as well as “new sectoral bargaining arrangements, which bring unions and employers round the table to negotiate a minimum set of standards within the sector”.

“If ministers are serious about improving lives, they must help level up working conditions at places like Amazon,” said Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary.

“Amazon workers have played a key role during this pandemic, but many are treated like disposable labour – that is not right. Public contracts should not reward bad working practices.”

In response to the report, a spokesperson for Amazon said: “Over the past 10 years, we’ve invested more than £23bn in the UK, and this year we announced plans to create another 10,000 new jobs by the end of 2020, taking our total UK workforce to over 40,000.

“Amazon is a safe place to work. Yet again, our critics seem determined to paint a false picture of what it’s like to work for Amazon. They repeat the same sensationalised allegations time and time again.”

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