#MakeAmazonPay is a movement of Amazon workers, and their allies, around the world, across the multinational’s global supply chain, rising up to say: enough. Enough to what? (Or rather, to who?) What’s behind the ultra-fast, next-day delivery? The unbelievable variety of products on-demand? And the unceasing expansion of its reach online and offline? Why does it matter? And should we boycott Amazon?
Amazon is an iceberg
The #MakeAmazonPay campaign has a striking visual that puts the message plainly across. Amazon is an iceberg. As Valter Sanches, Christy Hoffman and Casper Gelderblom write for The Guardian, at one level, the metaphor is about what consumers see, versus what they don’t see. That is: “Users and consumers see its top: the shops, the streaming service, the packages. But below the surface lies an enormous infrastructure, stretching across continents, linking production, distribution and delivery. A complex transnational system, populated by workers around the world whose labor drives Amazon’s profits.”
The truth is, behind the trillion-dollar-worth multinational corporation: “From the factories where the products it sells are made, to the doorsteps where they are delivered, Amazon’s global infrastructure is held together by the exploitation of those who operate it.” In fact, this very exploitation, this squeezing of every last drop of labour from its workers, is how Amazon’s world is run. “The power and wealth,” the campaign says, “depends entirely on the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers around the world.”
Amazon’s immense growth over the past few years is made possible by the collective labour of these workers around the world. And workers are saying the exploitation must end.
The #MakeAmazonPay coalition emerged on Black Friday last year. Amidst increased scrutiny within Europe and the US, over “Amazon’s anti-union practices, environmental impact, tax avoidance and worker safety”. UNI Global Union, IndustriALL, Progressive International, Oxfam, Greenpeace, and many more civil society organisations, environmentalists and tax watchdogs organised protest actions in 12 countries.
This year, the campaign has expanded to represent over 200 million workers and activists. The global day of solidarity saw action in 10 countries, across 5 continents, under the banner: #MakeAmazonPay All Its Workers. There were strikes and protest from Spain to São Paulo, from Delhi to Berlin. But what exactly were—are—they protesting?
IMAGE: via #MakeAmazonPay campaign | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A graphic with all elements in red, contrasting boldly against a plain white background; in bold text, across the graphic “#MakeAmazonPay”, and below it are outlines of four workers linking their arms together in solidarity; below that is, in capital letters “ALL ITS WORKERS”
#MakeAmazonPay… for what?
The short version of the story is that the truth about Amazon worker conditions worldwide has been gaining increasing visibility. As Sanches, Hoffman and Gelderblom detail, warehouse workers who stow, store and sort packages, and delivery workers who deliver them, face dangerous and dehumanising work conditions. Evidence of workers having to pee in bottles because of short (or non-existent) break times went viral. And it turns out that this issue was more common than you’d expect.
Even more shockingly, you’ll realise that this year’s campaign also includes garment worker movements, like Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label. Which may lead you to ask: why are garment workers involved too? Sanches, Hoffman and Gelderblom explain that “a crucial part of Amazon’s global infrastructure remains largely concealed. The self-styled Everything Store does not just sell, store and ship products – it also directly sources them.”
“The corporation owns more than 400 private-label brands, selling a wide range of products from garments to electronics. From its Kindle e-readers to its rising apparel empire, Amazon is now the top fashion retailer in the United States – Amazon’s brands draw on an extensive network of some 1,400 factories worldwide. Located mostly in countries in the global south, workers in these factories typically work in dire conditions.”
What kind of conditions are workers subject to? Let’s explore more deeply the stories that have emerged from all over the world…
Amazon has always been anti-union, according to this CNBC report written in October 2020. “The company has managed to head off major labor unions since its founding in 1994. Labor unions have organized some of Amazon’s European workforce, but no U.S. facility has successfully formed or joined a union.” One longtime labour advocate even explains that Amazon has always been actively trying to dissuade employees from organising unions. This has been, he says, true 20 years ago, and still true today. (There’s even a website for managers detailing warning signs that workers are trying to unionise.)
In fact, Amazon even posted a job listing for two intelligence analysts… to monitor “labor organizing threats”. And report findings to “internal stakeholders, up to and including executive leadership”. It further attracted scrutiny when it was exposed for trying to buy software to analyse and visualise data on unions. All this, on top of various reports that claimed Amazon was monitoring employees. On listservs and closed Facebook groups for union activity or employee activism. It’s come to a point where even, as one employee explains, workers who try to organise stop doing so on their own accord. Because they know it’s unsafe. (It’s self-censorship.)
Why does anti-union activity matter? Unions, as Tom Kochan, professor of industrial relations, work and employment at MIT, explains, “stand to disrupt the level of control that Amazon has over its warehouse and delivery employees, like their ability to unilaterally set the pace of work and hourly wages. If a union comes in, they’re going to lose some of that control and that’s ultimately what they fear most.”
A safety crisis and Amazon’s ongoing cover-up
Such relentless union-busting and employee surveillance can only mean that Amazon has something to hide. And hide it does: as this September 2020 Reveal report extensively details, Amazon has been hiding a massive safety crisis from the public. According to internal safety reports and weekly injury numbers from the US nationwide network of fulfilment centres? There’s a “mounting injury crisis at Amazon warehouses, one that is especially acute at robotic facilities and during Prime week and the holiday peak – and one that Amazon has gone to great lengths to conceal.”
Indeed, Amazon insists that robots are good for workers. That they make the job safer and easier. It insists we don’t have to worry about peak seasons, because of their safe operations. It’s even claimed that injury rates even go down during these seasons. And yet, despite the repeated assertions that it’s spent tens of millions of dollars to enhance safety practices? Amazon’s injury rates have gone up each of the past four years. In 2019, the overall rate of 7.7 serious injuries per 100 employees makes its rate nearly double the most recent industry standard.
Robots actually worsen safety levels, it seems. The rate of serious injuries from 2016 to 2019 was over 50% higher at warehouses with robots than ones without. And what about peak seasons? With Prime Day, workers get mandatory overtime. Over and above extended or added shifts. Unsurprisingly, in Prime Day 2019, there were nearly 400 serious injuries, a spike that Amazon spokespeople have denied.
What does “wellbeing” look like during peak seasons? Amazon’s safety managers received tips to pass onto fatigued workers: “Take the time away from work to recharge your internal battery.” “Smile and laugh with the people in your life that bring you joy.” Binge your favorite shows.” Because #selfcare, right?
Paying $15/hr doesn’t make Amazon progressive…
1/2 You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.
— Amazon News (@amazonnews) March 25, 2021
Let’s take a moment to explain the controversies that have happened over the past few months that perfectly show: (1) the gravity of the exploitation that goes on behind the scenes. And (2) the extent to which Amazon will gaslight and PR its way out. As the story goes, US Rep. Mark Pocan tweeted that Amazon workers are resorting to peeing in water bottles. Amazon responded, as above, that it doesn’t actually happen. But later, reporters and actual Amazon workers, citing various reports, accounts, and stories, flooded Twitter with evidence. Proving that Amazon was literally gaslighting its own employees.
Amazon continued and continues to PR its way out of this. Most recently, it’s done so by weaponising the Washington Post homepage. As Rep. Mark Pocan notes, Amazon does in fact pay $15 an hour. Which is higher than the minimum wage in the US, yes. Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, slapped this, almost as editorial content, across its online homepage. The ethical issues of this notwithstanding, this is clearly an attempt to PR their way out of the increasing safety crisis for workers across the US.
Again, as Rep. Mark Pocan notes, paying $15 an hour doesn’t make Amazon progressive… If it’s also busy union-busting: essentially making sure that workers can’t protest against poor working conditions. (As Andrew Perez and David Sirota add, what’s left unsaid? It’s that Amazon only agreed to this higher wage after “serious public shaming”. And that Amazon has “also continued to bankroll corporate lobbying groups that are leading the fight against a minimum wage hike”.)
One can help but wonder, is Amazon’s increased wages just another PR campaign?
A global problem
Poor work conditions aren’t just present in the US. It’s present around the world too. Because Amazon, as we know, is a global phenomenon. In India, for example, Amazon delivery drivers went on a 24-hour strike this March. Because they were working more, and getting less. Indian drivers who’ve been working with Amazon for over four years said that at one point, they were earning roughly $41 a day. But now, they expect to make half the amount. And whenever the management docks pay, there’s no explanation. “We ask what’s the reason,” one driver says, “and they tell us that it was reduced from the top”.
The problem? It’s that in places like India, as with other parts of the world that Amazon has delivery operations in, Amazon contracts, or rather outsources, these workers. Which means they don’t exactly work under Amazon. And Amazon doesn’t have to take responsibility for them. Unsurprisingly, these workers aren’t paid a minimum wage: they earn as much as they work. And how much they earn can change over time. And, finally, that Amazon doesn’t have to take responsibility for how much (less) they’re earning.
The real issue…
Similarly, in Italy, workers too went on a 24-hour strike this March. They were protesting against exhausting work conditions and Amazon’s lack of accountability. Like the situation in India, the issue is subcontracting. Subcontracted drivers are the ones doing the delivery to customers.
Franceso Massimo explains for Jacobin: “Being a driver is even harder than being a fulfilment center worker. Both have to deal with demanding work rhythms, constant control, and a total lack of autonomy. But drivers’ conditions are especially precarious: while Amazon plans and monitors their work (determining their routes, workloads, hours, and evaluations), it doesn’t count them as employees and accepts no responsibility for them.”
Because Amazon outsources this labour, it doesn’t (have to) care about the ethics of the operations… as long as deliveries are met. “These firms,” Massimo writes, “are set in competition by Amazon, to deliver more, and faster — a pressure which is then heaped onto the drivers.” Amazon doesn’t have to take responsibility for the consequences of these increased workloads. Instead, like in the US, Amazon’s strategy is to pretend this all isn’t happening. Even with the presence of unions outside the US, “Amazon’s strategy is to avoid any serious engagement, especially when it comes to wage levels and workers’ control over the labor process.”
Hidden exploitation is everywhere
As Sanches, Hoffman and Gelderblom reveal, it’s not just about places where Amazon has visible operations tagged to its name. It’s not just about the warehouse workers and the delivery drivers. The Amazon iceberg runs deeper. Involving the products that it not only retails but that it directly produces. You’d think that Amazon protects the workers that make products for it. But as it turns out, this is far from the truth.
If you’ve heard about the heightened exploitation of garment workers because of the pandemic, this won’t be news to you. Amazon, just like other fast fashion corporations… has been involved in subjecting workers to wage theft, severance theft, union-busting, and inhumane working conditions. Two notable examples that have emerged involve Hulu Garment, in Cambodia, and Global Garments, in Bangladesh.
Hulu Garment is a sewing facility supplying brands like Adidas, Walmart, and Amazon included. It suspended its entire workforce of 1,020 workers at the beginning of March 2020. Management essentially forced workers to resign, so they wouldn’t have to pay severance. Global Garments is a garment factory supplying Kohls and Amazon. It closed in October 2020, leaving 1,200 workers without an income. Despite the union requesting the management continue with temporary lay-offs to safeguard workers’ jobs.
On top of all this, it was also reported that in August 2020, a garment factory supplying brands like the Gap, American Eagle, and Amazon, was “at the centre of one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Guatemala”, with over 200 people testing positive at the KP Textil factory, “exposing the dire working conditions”. Human rights activists said that the factory “lacked adequate health and safety measures to prevent an outbreak”. Unsurprisingly, in such factories, “taxes and wages are kept deliberately low to attract foreign investment and multinational fashion brands”.
Exploitation is the foundation of Amazon’s empire
The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) has produced research, published in April of this year, detailing the truth. That because of companies and corporations like Amazon, hours and wages have declined. Millions have been fired outright, without payment, and with little to no unemployment benefits. Garment workers, of course, are already living on or below the poverty line. And the WRC has said that it’s likely that these cases only represent a modest fraction of the total number. Most have probably gone unreported, for fear, of course, of consequence.
It is these exploitative work conditions that multinational corporations like Amazon depend on to produce and function so cheaply. The cost, as always, is borne by those most vulnerable, at the end of the supply chains. (And if you think it’s just about clothes, you’d be wrong. Amazon produces a plethora of other products. Including, for example, Alexa devices, which had much controversy in 2019: who knows what kind of exploitation enables the cheap prices enjoyed by consumers everywhere?)
The bigger picture
So the #MakeAmazonPay campaign is a global campaign. A collective, workers’ solidarity movement. It’s demanding, at its core, for the world’s richest man, and the most powerful corporation in the world, to pay all its workers fairly… to start. But of course, what’s the bigger picture here?
Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want and council member of Progressive International (two organisations that are in support of the #MakeAmazonPay campaign) writes: “Workers and communities are coming together, taking action across the world to demand that this engine of inequality changes its ways.”
“It is people power that will force Amazon to give back to the communities where it operates, and ensure that the rise of digital companies results in benefits to the societies in which they operate, instead of producing gross inequality where a few are made grotesquely rich whilst others have their basic rights at work denied or earn less than a living wage. The time has come for workers and communities to say loud and clear: there is nothing modern about exploitation.”
What Rehman is getting at is this. #MakeAmazonPay is one step towards demanding a different world. A world free of exploitation, a world where workers are not at the mercy of corporations… a world where corporations don’t have so much power. Because it is one thing for corporations to be providing useful services to people. But it is another for corporations to become unchecked forms of power.
Amazon’s expansion should worry us…
Progressive International’s statement echoes Rehman’s sentiments. “In just a few years, Amazon has established itself as a key node in the circuitry of globalized capitalism. Having first revolutionized the links between production, distribution, and consumption on its digital platform, the corporation’s cloud infrastructure and e-commerce give Amazon controlling influence over huge swathes of social and economic life across the planet.”
As Christy Hoffman explained in a panel hosted by Progressive International, Amazon is a threat to democracy. By not paying taxes. By being a monopoly. And by abusing its power against employees… all of which is possible because it has such immense control over our markets. Our social and economic lives, as (inevitable) consumers of Amazon products. As Saksia Sassen shared in the same panel, Amazon’s monopoly has killed small businesses. Beyond the ethical and economic issues around that, its expansion has caused dehumanisation, desocialisation. It’s rendered us all buyers and destroyed the idea of communities, which we had before Amazon… because of these small shops. But we won’t go into that today—it’s perhaps food for thought.
The point is: Amazon’s expansion should worry us. Progressive International’s statement further explains, “Amazon has, in effect, become a wholly unaccountable, predatory transnational private state – or, indeed, a 21st-century empire.” And we, together with workers? Must utilise solidarity as a tool against transnational capital. It’s the only way we can fight it. Perhaps the question on everyone’s minds is this: should we boycott Amazon then?
What do we do now?
Hoffman shared in the panel, in response to this question, that the workers, understandably so, are not calling for an Amazon boycott. They need jobs. But what kind of jobs? What kind of conditions? What kind of contracts? Workers are calling for Amazon to be paying their fair share. To be willing to work hand in hand with workers to deliver a better world. “E-commerce is here to stay,” she said, “we’re not trying to roll that back. But it needs to be on a fair basis.”
This involves, of course, work on getting Amazon to pay its workers, stop union-busting, stop hoarding its profits, pay its due taxes, give up monopolistic control over the market, and more. The #MakeAmazonPay campaign is a start. So the answer to whether you should boycott Amazon is, simply, no. It’s no because the ask is much greater than that. To stand in solidarity with Amazon workers—and workers everywhere—is to stand together to begin imagining a better world. Where Amazon doesn’t represent such a (seemingly) unstoppable empire.
Will solidarity work? Are there signs that solidarity is working? Sassen asked this: “No system of power has lasted forever, why should Amazon last forever?” To which Hoffman responded: “people are paying attention… there’s a lot of people talking about… all [the different] pieces that are part of the empire… There’s just a lot of pieces that are in the orbit of Amazon right now that are all kind of bearing down on the company, so that’s all a good sign.”
Translation: if we keep chipping away at it, harnessing our collective power from wherever we are? The Amazon empire as we know it today will fall. And it’ll make way for us to imagine better futures—with workers, in solidarity.
FEATURED IMAGE: by Sagar Soneji from Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Close up of a screen with the Shop Amazon app
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