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Among the big players of the technology market, Amazon stands out as the e-commerce site poised to gain the most from the Covid pandemic. A few months ago, the company reported a 37% increase in earnings and a revenue of over 96 billion dollars amidst skyrocketing unemployment and major economic recession. While on the surface Amazon boasts of sustained growth and steady revenue streams, the company is not without its fair share of controversy. Multiple allegations of human rights abuses have been levied at the tech giant, with human rights watchdog Amnesty International calling on the company to “respect the rights of its workers” in a public statement earlier last year. This is likely because over time Amazon has built up some innovative, yet often draconian methods to control its workers.
In 2019 the company came under fire for the controversy surrounding its new productivity tracking software, designed for 24-hour surveillance of employees in the workplace. While the details of this technology remain unclear, its basic arrangement is a small camera, impossible to turn off (think telescreens from 1984) that monitors each employee’s workstation, tracking the time it takes them to complete a task. The software also measures “time off task” for each employee, taking things such as bathroom breaks into account. As if Orwellian style surveillance wasn’t enough, the system automatically generates warnings and even termination notices for employees falling below the threshold for “productivity”. A set of documents obtained and published by the news outlet The Verge showed that between August 2017 and September 2018 approximately 300 employees were terminated for productivity-related issues at a fulfilment centre in Baltimore. When the capacity of the warehouse is taken into account, the numbers become even more daunting. Assuming the warehouse was operating at a full capacity of 2500, this would mean that over 10% of the staff were fired annually based on reports made by an automated system. While this may not be a shockingly high employee turnover, the dispassionate and arguably dehumanising practice of machine automated terminations highlights a recurring flaw in Amazon’s approach: that ruthless efficiency is prioritized over humane treatment of workers.
This trend continues into other aspects of Amazon’s workplace culture. In 2018, Muslim workers at Amazon’s Minnesota warehouse rallied outside to protest a strict hourly packing quota which made it difficult for workers to observe their holy month of Ramadan. The religious festival, considered the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, traditionally requires Muslims to fast from dawn to sunset as well as attend to their 3 to 5 daily prayers. With workers reportedly packing 200 to 400 boxes an hour, rally organizer Abdirahman Muse issued a set of demands calling for Amazon to treat their workers with “basic fairness and dignity”. This sentiment was shared by democrat senator Ilhan Omar who also attended the rally. Historically, unions have played a vital role in settling disputes between labourers and employers. While an individual employee could hardly compete with the resources of a Fortune 500 company such as Amazon, when workers come together through unions, their collective bargaining power levels the playing field. Unions can more effectively organize strikes and collective demonstrations, as well as rally support from media outlets. This shifts the negotiating power to their end and forces employers to listen to their worker’s demands for fairer treatment. This year Amazon employees are grouping together in what is being called a “landmark drive” for unionisation. Workers at the BHM1 warehouse in Alabama were successful in petitioning for a mail-in vote for union representation, despite Amazon’s attempts to force employees to vote in person, notably more difficult on account of the pandemic. If successful the facility will be the first of Amazon’s warehouses to unionise, setting a precedent for other workers across the country who feel their rights are being flouted by the company. With voting commencing on February 8th, the future of this tech giant may rest in the hands of its workers, whom it has so controversially treated in the past.
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