As countries struggle to contain the rising death toll of COVID-19 and the financial contagion that is putting millions out of work, global employers that continue to operate bear a special responsibility to protect the health of their employees and prevent further damage to the economy.
While traditionally responsible employers like Danone and Unilever quickly reacted to the crisis by promoting worldwide policies to safeguard the health and income of suppliers and workers, giant tech companies like Amazon have been more concerned with expanding their unchecked power and influence than protecting the workers that keep their businesses running.
Rather than investing in the safety and security of the workers that make Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world, Amazon is keeping employees in the dark about coronavirus cases in its warehouses while they seek to profit from people’s everyday needs from the COVID-19 lockdowns. Workers are telling Amazon: “This is how COVID-19 got out of control” and they are right! No wonder that workers from New York to Northern Italy are walking off the job because they don’t feel that Amazon is taking the necessary precautions to keep the virus at bay. Amazon has the resources and know-how to keep workers safe and informed.
What is Bezos waiting for?
Regulators around the world need to take a closer look, not only to hazardous conditions and anti-worker practices but to the threat that the company represents outside of its warehouse walls. Many of its competitors will not make it through this crisis, and Amazon will be stronger. It will be one step closer to not just being a market leader but the market itself — for consumers and job-seekers. Amazon is transforming industry after industry, so when we discuss Amazon, we’re talking about something that transcends the company; we’re talking about the future of work.
As Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in the United States said recently, “the Amazon business model squeezes workers through brutal, high pressure, dangerous and even deadly work”, citing UK union, GMB, which reported 600 ambulance calls to Amazon facilities in the past three years. There have been at least seven deaths at Amazon facilities in the US in the last six years.
Something in our system is wrong when the largest corporation in the world — and one of the biggest global tax-dodgers — is better positioned than anyone else to benefit from the sharp increase in demand of online delivery services during the coronavirus outbreak while the workers that make it happen fear for their lives.
The social contract between business, workers and government is being rewritten around the world. Taxpayers are underwriting businesses, large and small, and many workers are now expected to take a cut in wages in order to save lives, even though we are living in one of the most unequal periods in economic history. Amazon should also be held to a higher standard of responsibility in this new world. It’s time for Amazon to step up and provide PPE and safe workplaces, guarantee jobs and incomes, offer hazard pay for frontline warehouse staff and drivers, support businesses and workers in its supply chain and pay taxes where profit is earned to support national efforts to respond to the crisis. Most important, it should drop its opposition to unions and negotiate with its social partners.
If workers rights, humanity or compassion doesn’t cut it as a reason for Amazon to act — perhaps the reputation risk of not doing the right thing for wider society will.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation and Christy Hoffman, General Secretary, UNI Global Union