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Amazon resists independent audit of warehouse working conditions

Two shareholder proposals pushing for an independent audit of working conditions at Amazon are being challenged by the ecommerce giant, which claims it is a matter for management rather than shareholders

Amazon is attempting to have shareholder proposals calling for an independent audit of the working conditions its warehouse employees face excluded from its next Annual General Meeting (AGM).

Digital investment platform Tulipshare originally submitted its proposal on 1 December 2021, noting there had been multiple well-publicised reports of Amazon “warehouse employees being subjugated to unsafe working conditions and unfair treatment” throughout the pandemic.

“For the year 2020, it was reported that Amazon’s injury rate was more than twice as high as that of Walmart warehouse workers and that Amazon’s serious injury rate was nearly 80% higher than the wider warehouse industry,” it said, adding that the company’s high employee turnover rate – roughly 150% a year before the pandemic – is almost double that of the wider retail and logistics industries.

“In response to warehouse workers’ recent organisation efforts and unionisation votes, former chairman Jeff Bezos admitted that Amazon needs ‘to do a better job’ for its employees. As Amazon shareholders, we agree, which is why we are calling for an independent audit and report of the working conditions and treatment that Amazon warehouse workers face.”

A second proposal was also made by the Domini Impact Equity Fund on 10 December 2021, which explicitly called for “productivity quotas, surveillance practices, and the effects of these practices on injury rates and turnover” to be examined as part of an independent audit.

“While Amazon plans to incur several billion dollars of additional costs in response to its labor shortage, practices that contribute to high turnover continue: productivity quotas and worker surveillance that result in above-average injury rates,” it said.

“We urge Amazon to commission an independent audit of these practices to understand their impact on the company’s employees and operations, and inform changes in practices that mitigate and prevent future harm.”

Workplace safety

Amazon lawyers wrote to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in January 2022, requesting that the proposals be removed from its upcoming AGM, arguing that both relate to workplace safety and are therefore excludable on the basis that it “is a matter of ordinary business”.

However, the SEC changed its guidance on 3 November 2021 so that shareholder proposals related to “significant social policy issues” can no longer be excluded under the ordinary business exception.

The shareholders involved will therefore argue that the unsafe working conditions faced by Amazon’s warehouse workers qualifies as a significant social policy that transcends the ordinary business of the company.

Antoine Argouges, chief executive and founder of Tulipshare, said there is widespread demand for Amazon to improve working conditions for its employees.

“In 2020, over 400 legislators from 34 countries signed a letter addressed to Jeff Bezos demanding that Amazon better protect its workers. Despite this, there were no proposals relating to workers’ conditions included at Amazon’s 2021 AGM,” he said.

“In response, thousands of retail investors backed our campaign to ensure this issue is discussed in 2022. We are confident Amazon will listen to shareholders this year and work collaboratively with us to ensure the safety of all workers.”

Read more about working conditions in the tech sector

Computer Weekly contacted Amazon for comment on the proposals but received no response by time of publication.

Amazon has long been dogged by complaints about poor working conditions in its warehouses, which have continued during the pandemic, with workers across Europe and the US staging walkouts and strikes in protest of “unsafe working conditions” and “corporate inaction” throughout March and April 2020, after lockdowns began.

Amazon has also come under fire for its anti-union efforts during the pandemic. In April 2020, for example, the company attempted to stop its employees from taking part in a virtual panel organised by technology workers concerned about the lack of measures put in place to protect staff against Covid-19, deleting the invitation from thousands of employees’ calendars.

In the same month, it was discovered that Amazon-owned Whole Foods was using an interactive heat map tool to track where employees could be unionising, which it did by tracking a range of metrics to deduce the likelihood of a union effort being launched.

Employees fired for speaking out

A number of employees have also allegedly been fired by Amazon for speaking out or protesting about Covid-related issues.

This includes the firing of warehouse workers Christian Smalls and Bashir Mohammed, who were both advocating for better work conditions immediately after the onset of the pandemic.

It also includes the firing of user experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, organisers in the Amazon Employee’s for Climate Justice (AECJ) campaign group, who publicly denounced Amazon’s treatment of employees like Smalls and Mohammed.  

According to a poll commissioned by UK-based trade union Unite in June 2021, 73% of the British public think Amazon should be legally required to recognise and engage with trade unions representing their employees.

A further 24 institutional investors – including asset managers Nordea, Royal London and several large European and US pension funds – are separately attempting to have a shareholder resolution brought that would increase transparency around where and how much Amazon pays in tax around the world.

Amazon is also challenging this resolution, arguing again that its tax affairs are an ordinary business matter and can therefore be excluded.

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