Amazon putting workers' lives at risk during shopping rush, says Amnesty

By agency reporter
November 28, 2020

People working for Amazon have faced significant health and safety risks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but their ability to effectively unionise is under threat from the online retail giant, says Amnesty International.

On Black Friday, (27 November 2020) Amnesty released a new 18-page report, Amazon, Let Workers Unionise documenting the company’s treatment of workers in the UK, France, Poland and the USA.

Amnesty is concerned that by prioritising aggressive productivity targets, Amazon is putting the lives of its employees at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. Last month Amazon confirmed that 10 of its workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Amnesty’s research also found that Amazon has undermined attempts by workers to unionise and collectively negotiate – through threats of legal action in the UK and surveillance in the US – and that it has failed to engage on key health and safety issues in Poland and France.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s UK Director, said: “We are gravely concerned that the Black Friday rush could turn Amazon warehouses into hotspots for infection. Despite known outbreaks of COVID-19, workers are being pressured and frightened into going into work in unsafe conditions, and unions are being intimidated and prevented from helping.

“Aggressive productivity targets mean social distancing rules cannot be effectively implemented, putting the lives of those working in Amazon warehouses at serious risk. It is time Amazon realised that the consumer-friendly image it presents to the world is out of kilter with its appalling treatment of workers and with what its customers would expect from any responsible company.”

In March, Amazon suspended its aggressive productivity targets for workers following concerns they were incompatible with health and safety measures required to prevent COVID-19 infections. In the UK, these targets included expecting workers to pick and pack around 300 items per hour, with employees working up to 55 hours a week and 10-hour days, especially over the peak Christmas period.

Now, ahead of the end of year holiday season, Amazon has told workers in the UK, the USA and elsewhere that it was reintroducing these targets. Workers in the UK reported receiving a text message stating that “starting 21 October we will resume measuring and delivering productivity performance feedback to ensure we are ready to deliver for customers in the coming weeks.”

Under international human rights law and standards, all workers have the right to join and form trade unions, enjoy safe working conditions and have their right to privacy respected.  Although Amazon says it respects employees’ rights to join or form a labour union, it has repeatedly undermined the ability of trade unions to operate. In its 2018 and 2019 annual reports, the company identified the existence of unions as a “risk” factor, while Amazon managers were advised in a 2018 training video to look for “warning signs” of union activity.

In the UK, GMB Union staff have repeatedly been threatened with injunctions for “trespassing” when trying to access Amazon facilities to recruit new members. Legal notices sent to union staff in 2018 and 2019 also illustrate that Amazon monitors the social media profiles of union members, with attachments featuring social media screenshots sent as evidence of “planned” demonstrations.

In Poland, the Workers’ Initiative trade union reported disciplinary action against its members, including a woman who was reprimanded for recruiting union workers during working hours. 

Another source of concern to Amnesty is the surveillance of Amazon’s workforce. In September, Vice News reported that Amazon had put out job advertisements for intelligence analysts to track risks including “labour organising threats against the company”. Amazon has since removed the job adverts and stated that their posting was an error. 

In the same month, Vice News published details of internal Amazon documents showing that the company had been secretly monitoring and analysing Amazon Flex drivers’ private Facebook groups, including for the purpose of tracking plans for strike actions or protests.

On 21 September, Amnesty wrote to Amazon asking it to clarify its position on allegations of inappropriate surveillance and data collection from its workforce. In its 12 October response, Amazon failed to answer specific questions about the practices, but said it places “enormous value on having daily conversations with each associate. Direct engagement with our employees is a strong part of our work culture.”

However, according to leaked internal documents, made public last month, Amazon appears to be using technology to monitor its workforce in the USA, including secretly tracking social media accounts for signs of plans to organise protests or strikes. Last month, Recode also reported that a leaked internal memo included plans by Amazon to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor union 'threats' through a new technology system called 'geoSPatial Operating Console'.

As COVID-19 continues to infect hundreds of thousands of people every day, the health and safety of Amazon workers remains a key concern.

In Poland, the Workers’ Initiative told Amnesty that in March Amazon refused to discuss health and safety concerns with them. In France, the trade union Solidaires successfully launched a legal challenge that forced a temporary halt in Amazon operations and the introduction of more stringent health and safety measures.  

Unions have also raised concerns about hazard pay. While some increased hazard pay for Amazon employees was introduced in Europe and North America, it was withdrawn in most countries at the end of May despite the pandemic continuing and in many places intensifying. 

Barbora Cernušáková, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said: “All through the pandemic, Amazon workers have been risking their health and lives to ensure essential goods are delivered to our doorsteps, helping Amazon achieve record profits. In this context, it is alarming that Amazon has treated attempts to unionise with such hostility – as one of the most powerful companies in the world, it should know better.

“As Amazon approaches its busiest time of year with Black Friday and Christmas, we are urging the company to respect the human rights of its workers and comply with international labour standards, which state clearly that workers have a right to unionise.

“Amazon must refrain from breaching its workers’ rights to privacy, and stop treating union activity as a threat.”

* Read Amazon, Let Workers Unionise here

* Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

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