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Kathy Sheridan: Hard to socially distance from Amazon

Despite criticism of how it treats workers, the company is having a good pandemic

An Amazon fulfilment centre in Peterborough, England. Photograph: Chris J RatcliffeAFP/Getty Images

It's hard to do business online and maintain any kind of distance from Amazon. A friend who ordered three beauty products from an Irish-based, online distributor paid an extra 20 per cent or thereabouts for the privilege of doing business with that Irish company. Why? Because, she assumed, she was supporting an environmentally-sound, Irish business, if only because all three products would be delivered in one parcel. In other words, she paid a premium to avoid Amazon.

In the end, all three products arrived separately. Each tiny package had been parcelled separately, loaded separately, and delivered separately by courier, via twisty, rural byroads on three separate days, all to the same house. And all three had been processed by Amazon. Nothing on the Irish website had indicated that the great disrupter was involved.

No doubt there are pressing commercial reasons for that Irish company’s links with Amazon. But isn’t it odd that on environmental grounds alone, we are not making a monumental fuss about such practices? Hundreds of thousands of jobs – the physical and financial lifeblood of our towns and cities – are vanishing into that online juggernaut. Why in an age of relentless finger-pointing and demands for accountability are we so reluctant to question our own online behaviour?

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos said the ‘New York Times’ article “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day”. Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty

Amazon's founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, has had an excellent pandemic. Covid-19 has boosted his personal wealth by some $30 billion (€27.4 billion). He is on course to become the world's first trillionaire in a few years. Amazon's shares are up 28 per cent.

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Firing them was 'evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture . . . I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison'

But at what cost ? Two weeks ago, Tim Bray, vice president of Amazon's cloud computing arm – its most valuable arm – announced that he had resigned "in dismay" over the recent firings of workers who had raised questions about workplace safety in the pandemic.

In March, a US employee called Christian Smalls had led a protest calling for the company to provide more protections for workers. Two others, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham circulated an internal email petition calling for expanded sick leave, hazard pay and childcare for warehouse workers. They also helped organise a virtual event for warehouse employees to appeal to tech workers about workplace conditions generally.

Bray characterised the three as whistleblowers. Firing them was “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture . . . I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison”.

In April, notes from an internal meeting leaked to VICE News, revealed that Amazon executives, with Bezos present, had discussed a strategy to divert the wave of bad press. The plan was to smear Smalls’s conduct as “immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal . . . Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organising movement. . . He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers”.

Brexit: Amazon warned thousands of its UK-based sellers that a no-deal may temporarily prevent cross-border trade with Ireland and every other EU country. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty

Bray, who had nothing to gain from calling out his employer, chose to believe the workers. “At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response,” he wrote in his blog post. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st century capitalism is done.”

Unofficial tallies by workers from such texts and emails put the number of deaths at seven, and infected employees at 900

However Amazon spins its position, its 40 per cent grip of the online retail market is both terrifying and immovable. Bezos was lionised in 2018 when Amazon announced a new minimum wage of $15 an hour but the March protests have thrown a nauseating searchlight on its practices.

US Logistics staff that have taken the company through a backbreaking, pandemic frenzy will have their $2 an hour pay bump removed on June 1st. Employees too frightened of Covid-19 to go to work or who had childcare issues, were simply offered unlimited unpaid leave. Unpaid.

Even that option was removed on May 1st. On top of that, the company’s refusal to keep employees informed of infection rates or deaths meant that workers weren’t able to balance risk. Other than to confirm cases dug up via media investigations or shared by employees on social media, Amazon merely asserted that infection rates were at or below the communities in which they operate and that employees were alerted by direct text message when there was a confirmed diagnosis at the site. Unofficial tallies by workers from such texts and emails put the number of deaths at seven, and infected employees at 900.

Photograph: FRIEDEMANN VOGEL/EPA

Last week, no fewer than 13 US state attorneys general demanded a state-by-state breakdown of Amazon workers who have tested positive for the virus or have died from it. Three prominent senators have written to Bezos to express concerns about warehouse safety.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee has called on him to testify before Congress as part of its ongoing antitrust investigation. This would allow them to question him about accusations that Amazon abuses its market power in online retail, mistreats warehouse workers and hurts small businesses. A specific claim is that Amazon has gained an unfair competitive advantage by using the data it collects on third-party sellers to further its own product development.

What are the chances of him turning up? Or of his customers finding another outlet for their money?