On eve of Black Friday, Amnesty pushes Amazon on workers’ rights

Amnesty International urges online retail giant to respect workers’ rights in advance of busy holiday shopping season.

An employee pulls a cart at Amazon's JFK8 distribution centre in Staten Island, New York, on November 25, 2020 [Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

Amazon should not risk the health and safety of its employees to meet Black Friday shopping demands, Amnesty International warned on Thursday, accusing the online retail giant of clamping down on employees’ right to demand better working conditions.

In a report (PDF) called “Amazon, Let Workers Unionize!”, the human rights group said Amazon has undermined workers’ attempts to unionise and bargain collectively.

The company has engaged in “surveillance in the United States and threats of legal action in the UK” and “has failed to engage on key health and safety issues in Poland and France”, Amnesty alleged in a statement accompanying the report.

“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,” Barbora Cernusakova, an Amnesty researcher, said in the statement.

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

The rights group also accused Amazon of reinstating productivity goals before the busy Christmas holiday sales season.

Those benchmarks were suspended in March after an Amazon warehouse worker accused the company of not doing enough to protect its employees from the potential spread of COVID-19 on the job.

Amazon India
An employee at an Amazon fulfilment centre on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India, in September 2018 [File: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Reuters]

Amazon has reported record profits during the pandemic, becoming a trillion-dollar company as people chose online shopping over going to stores in person.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, also became the first to amass more than $200bn in personal wealth.

“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,” Cernusakova said.

“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.”

Black Friday goals

Held the day after US Thanksgiving, Black Friday is one of the largest sales days for US retailers each year. It saw a record $7.2bn in digital revenue in the US alone in 2019, according to Forbes.

Other countries have adopted the tradition to compete with US retailers, especially as sales have moved online.

Amnesty International said in its report that as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic began, Amazon informed workers in multiple countries that “productivity goals” for shipping products would resume in advance of the busy shopping season.


“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’,” the report states.

In an email to Al Jazeera on Friday, Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski said the company prioritises “the safety and health of our employees … including ensuring our performance expectations support the extra time needed for employees to sanitize their work area, wash their hands, and remain socially distant during breaks”.

Levandowksi said less than five percent of employees “on average” would receive “receive coaching for improvement”.

Holiday bonuses

In a blog post on Thursday, Dave Clark, senior vice president of Amazon’s worldwide operations, announced the company will give out $500m in holiday bonuses to its front-line employees.

Full-time workers in the US employed from December 1 to December 31 will qualify for a $300 bonus, while part-time US employees will qualify for $150, Clark said.

An employee scans packages at Amazon’s JFK8 distribution centre in Staten Island, New York, on November 25 [Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

“Combined with other holiday pay incentives, in this quarter alone, we are investing over $750m in additional pay for our front-line hourly workforce, on top of our industry-leading $15 national minimum wage,” he said.

But Amnesty International said in its report that “the company’s pattern of behaviour portrays a corporate culture that is adversarial towards workers’ rights to join a trade union and organise collectively”.

Levandoski replied: “We respect our employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization … without fear of retaliation”.

Activists also released a new set of demands for Amazon this week, including a push for wage increases and more efforts to combat climate change.

Levandoski called these a “series of misleading assertions by misinformed or self-interested groups who are using [A]mazon’s profile to further their individual causes”.

She cited Amazon’s efforts to ensure “safe working conditions and leading $15 minimum wage” and “commitment to be net zero carbon by 2040, and paying more than $5bn in taxes globally”.

But warehouse workers, climate activists and others launched the Make Amazon Pay campaign to push for ample breaks and job security for Amazon employees, as well as more action to combat climate change, among other things.

“The pandemic has exposed how Amazon places profits ahead of workers, society, and our planet. Amazon takes too much and gives back too little,” the group said on its website.”

Source: Al Jazeera