Amazon Needs an Intervention

Amazon has earned record profits in recent years and created a bottomless piggy bank for investing in automation, pouring billions into developing robots and artificial intelligence. But investing in the human workers who have helped make Amazon’s growth possible seems to have been put on the back burner. And now the company has the nerve to pat itself on the back for offering workers money to quit?   

It’s time for an intervention – from the inside. Amazon shareholders meeting this week in Seattle must confront the elephant in the room and squarely address the human toll of Amazon’s relentless march to automation. And they should hold CEO Jeff Bezos’ feet to the fire if he tries to dismiss mounting public scrutiny as “a natural piece of being a large corporation.”  

There is nothing natural about the impact of Amazon’s tunnel vision on robots. The horror stories from Amazon workers have gotten worse and worse in recent years, from workers urinating in bottles and enduring suffocating temperatures to suffering serious injuries and even death. Conditions have gotten so bad that 911 calls have become commonplace.

Amazon’s lack of self-reflection and accountability on these issues create a dangerous precedent in an economy where automation will be a top priority for almost all major companies in the decades to come: that investment in robots will inevitably come at a grave cost to human workers. We must reject the idea that a company as rich and powerful as Amazon cannot expand automation and improve conditions for workers at the same time.  

The scale of the Amazon labor problem cannot be overstated. With Amazon operating 151 fulfillment centers, airport hubs, and cross decks as well as 119 sortation centers and delivery stations across the United States, the company’s obsession with robots while treating workers as disposable is nothing short of an emergency.

Amazon’s warehouse machines might be able to function under severe conditions, but all Amazon workers – whether they are fulfilling orders in a warehouse or delivering packages – deserve a safe work environment. Workers should never have to work in excessive heat or meet unreasonable physical labor demands. When conditions are unsafe, workers should be able to report concerns internally or file complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration without fear of being terminated as a result of speaking up.

Robots might be able to work days on end without stopping, but Amazon workers deserve the same right as all other non-salaried workers in the United States to cap their time spent at work to 40 hours per week, a ceiling established by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Compulsory overtime during peak season – Thanksgiving through Christmas – is a violation of this ceiling and all Amazon workers should be able to opt out without punishment. Amazon workers deserve the ability to take time off from a shift or extended time away from the job to address medical needs without being penalized or docked pay. Pregnant workers, several of whom have sued Amazon, must be protected from discrimination.

Amazon must also do more to recognize the privacy rights of workers, who should not be subject to biometric surveillance. The fact that Amazon patented a wristband that would alert warehouse supervisors when workers take a breather or go to the bathroom is a clear sign of where Amazon’s machine mentality will lead us if the company continues to advance a culture that doesn’t value and appreciate employees.

Amazon could correct course and use its record profits for good. Instead of offering to pay disgruntled workers to quit, for example, Amazon could consider providing the support and training workers need to build stable, good-paying careers in an economy that requires continual reskilling. But all signs point to the company continuing down the same reckless path.

The unfortunate reality is that Amazon executives will continue to shrug off scrutiny over its abandonment of workers unless insiders demand meaningful change.

Shareholders must rise to the occasion.  

Robert B. Engel is chief spokesperson for the Free & Fair Markets Initiative.

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