Amazon’s Controversial Response to Coronavirus Continues

Tom Fogden

Amazon is facing a workers' backlash about its handling of the coronavirus and its potential impact on warehouse staff. Its latest response? Installing thermal cameras to help detect infected staff in its warehouses, while failing to engage constructively with employee rights groups.

The ecommerce giant is making money hand-over-fist at the moment, as people worldwide are forced to stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. However, workers across the company are planning industrial action, claiming that the company hasn't done enough to protect Amazon warehouse employees from the virus.

Will Amazon be forced to reckon with its employment practices?

Amazon's Striking Workers

This isn't the first time that Amazon has faced industrial action from its workers. In 2018, Spanish warehouse workers walked out on Prime Day. Then, later that same year, workers across Europe walked out on Black Friday.

This year, Amazon has already fired Chris Smalls, a New York-based worker who led a strike in one of the company's warehouses.

“This is a proven fact of why they don’t care about their employees,” Smalls told Vice News, “to fire someone after five years for sticking up for people and trying to give them a voice.”

The company has also fired a Bashir Mohamed, a warehouse worker from Minnesota. It claimed the action was in response to Mohamed failing to follow social distancing guidelines. Mohamed, however, said that in addition to organizing workers to advocate for better working conditions, he had begun pushing for more rigorous cleaning and other measures to protect against the transmission of the coronavirus. He believes his advocacy resulted in his dismissal.

Amazon has also fired two workers who were planning to lead an online walkout over the company's environmental record and its handling of the coronavirus threat. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa – who were both UX designers and members of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice network – are claimed to have “repeatedly violated internal policies” by Amazon.

Further Amazon Employee Action

Amazon can anticipate yet more unrest from its workforce in the weeks to come. There is a large strike planned for several days towards the end of April with workers from at least 50 facilities across the US expected to take part.

The workers aren't calling for much, but their reasonableness of their demands reflects Amazon's lackluster benefits and protections:

  • Transparency — immediately notify all associates at facilities with a confirmed case of COVID-19 so they can make decisions for themselves and their loved ones;
  • Sanitation — regular and deep cleaning of all facilities; Immediately close down and sanitize workplaces with associates who test positive for coronavirus; provide testing and full pay for two weeks so that associates at those facilities can self-isolate; temperature test for all who enter Amazon facilities; provide proper safety equipment to all employees and training on effective use;
  • Real paid sick leave — Provide 14 days of paid sick leave separate from vacation and paid time off (PTO) for all associates and drivers who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 and 12 weeks of emergency paid family leave so that associates can care for their loved ones if they get sick;
  • Healthcare for all Amazon associates — including part-time, drivers, temporary and contracted associates—and ensure medical expenses related to coronavirus treatment is 100% covered;
  • Hazard Pay — Pay time-and-a-half during the crisis, as associates are taking on increased risk by coming to work; pay Amazon Flex drivers an additional $5 per delivery; provide childcare pay and subsidies because of school closures.
  • Protect at-risk workers — Approve unemployment for associates who can't risk infection and suspend and reverse all “job abandonment” designations during the pandemic;
  • Respect workers' rights — eliminate the rate-based quotas that make hand-washing and sanitizing impossible; commit not to retaliate against associates and whistleblowers who heroically take action for public safety.

Amazon's Drive for Efficiency

In the face of this criticism, however, Amazon seems determined to press on with its business model.

The company's stock has never been higher, and it seems that Jeff Bezos wants to capitalize even further on the challenges posed to society by COVID-19.

The company is reportedly installing thermal cameras in order to detect warehouse employees that might have contracted the disease. The cameras are able to discern workers with higher body temperatures, and apparently works faster than the close-range thermometers that the company had previously been using.

“We implemented daily temperature checks in our operations locations as an additional preventative measure to support the health and safety of our employees, who continue to provide a critical service in our communities,” an Amazon spokesperson told the BBC.

“We are now implementing the use of thermal cameras for temperature screening to create a more streamlined experience at some of our sites.”

However, Amazon's workers are complaining that, despite efforts to screen employees, it is impossible to socially distance within the warehouses. There are also complaints that workers aren't given enough protection. Costa and Cunningham, the two fired UX designers, were also fundraising to buy PPE supplies for warehouse workers prior to their dismissal.

At the start of the month, a group of lawyers, union representatives, and legislators wrote to Amazon demanding that they improve the conditions in its warehouses to prevent the spread of coronavirus. However, it would appear that little has been done.

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Tom Fogden is a writer for Tech.co with a range of experience in the world of tech publishing. Tom covers everything from cybersecurity, to social media and website builders when he's not reviewing the latest phones, gadgets, or occasionally even technology books.

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