While many enterprises struggle to cope with the fallout of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, e-commerce giant Amazon is experiencing a boom.
With customers spending $11,000 a second on its products and services, in what has been described as a ‘lockdown bonanza’, Amazon has continued to grow while others contract.
To keep up with the demand of shoppers being forced online by government lockdowns, Amazon has embarked on two separate out-of-season hiring drives in the US – the first for 100,000 extra staff, and the second for a further 75,000.
In its first-quarter financial results, released 30 April, Amazon announced it had revenues of $75.4bn in the first three months of the year – the equivalent of over $33m an hour. Net-sales also increased 26%, from $35.8bn in the first quarter of 2019 to $46bn.
In a statement announcing the results, CEO Jeff Bezos said the second quarter’s profit in normal times would be around $4bn but that all, if not more, would be spent on Covid-related expenses.
“This includes investments in personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning of our facilities, less efficient process paths that better allow for effective social distancing, higher wages for hourly teams, and hundreds of millions to develop our own Covid-19 testing capabilities,” he wrote.
However, while the firm has witnessed a massive boom in economic activity, the pandemic has also prompted a sharp increase in staff dissent who feel the company has not, until now, done enough to protect them from the coronavirus.
A wave of strikes
Amazon has long been dogged by complaints about working conditions in its warehouses, and the pandemic has significantly upped the ante of those complaints, with workers across Europe and the US staging walkouts and strikes in protest of “unsafe working conditions” and “corporate inaction” linked to the outbreak.
The first strikes took place in Spain and Italy, both of which have been badly affected by Covid-19, after Amazon refused to shut down facilities when it was revealed a number of employees had contracted the virus.
Following a similar pattern to their European counterparts, workers in the US began taking action when warehouses were not shut for cleaning following suspected cases, with the first ones occurring on 30 March 2020 in the company’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, and at a delivery station in Chicago.
Chris Smalls, ex-Amazon employee
The main driving force behind the Staten Island walkout was process assistant Christian Smalls, who became the first person to be fired by Amazon for speaking out about the alleged state of its warehouses during the pandemic.
Before his firing, Smalls had worked for Amazon for five years. Despite his termination, his commitment to securing safe and sanitary working conditions for his former colleagues remains undampened.
At the time of speaking to Computer Weekly, he was in the process of connecting with warehouse workers worldwide to mobilise for weekly work stoppages, with the first set to take place on International Workers’ Day on 1 May 2020.
“We got to come together in solidarity right now so we can fight this, so this never happens again to us. Whether it be a union or whether it be a rank-and-file workers committee, that’s to be decided, but it’s what we need to do because obviously the CEO of this company has failed to protect us,” Smalls told Computer Weekly.
“It’s never going to be Amazon versus Chris Smalls, it’s going to be Amazon versus the people, and they will have to answer to all of us.”
Amazon versus Chris Smalls
The termination of Smalls’s employment at Amazon remains a contentious issue, with both parties giving different versions of events.
According to a statement from Amazon, Smalls’s employment was not terminated for organising “a 15-person protest”, but for putting the “health and safety of others at risk” by “violating social distancing guidelines” despite multiple warnings.
It added: “He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of Covid-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14-days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world. Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite, further putting the teams at risk.”
Smalls, however, contests the protest was attended by around 50 to 60 people, and that the guidelines Amazon claims he violated were not introduced until after he had already been fired for organising the protest.
“The multiple safety guidelines they claim I violated weren’t implemented until the month of April, but I was terminated in March – that’s in black and white,” said Smalls, referring to a letter he received about the guidelines dated 3 April.
“If I violated guidelines of any sort, it’s because I didn’t have knowledge of the rules. As a process assistant, we’re supposed to relay that kind of information to the employees ourselves – if we don’t have the information to relay, then it doesn’t exist to us. We were never given that in the month of March,” added Smalls.
The company published a blog post on 24 March 2020, outlining the social distancing and protective measures it was introducing to protect staff from coronavirus.
Computer Weekly requested confirmation of the precise date of when the social distancing guidelines referred to above were introduced at Amazon, and received the following statement from company spokesperson, Rachael Lighty, in response:
“Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to respond proactively, ensuring we can continue to serve communities while taking care of our associates and teams,” she said.
“We have implemented more than 150 significant process changes to support our teams, including increased cleaning and maintaining social distance at all facilities, increasing rates of pay, adjusting time off, and providing temperature checks, masks, gloves, and other safety measures at our sites.”
Amazon also separately claimed Smalls was a “process assistant and did not manage other staff” after it was reported in Computer Weekly that he was an assistant manager who supervised 60 to 100 staff, as claimed by Smalls in his open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos.
“Yes, I am a process assistant, that’s the business title, but the nature of my job is to be an assistant manager,” said Smalls. “Whenever my direct manager calls out of work – whether sick, on vacation, or whether they’re taking personal time – I do the manager’s job. That’s what process assistants do.”
This description of the job is corroborated by Amazon’s own process assistant job application form.
In terms of his quarantine, Smalls explained that while he was told to return home on Tuesday 24 March 2020, he was never told the consequence of coming back to work would be getting fired. He also pointed out that no other employees were asked to quarantine, including the person he drives to work with every day. This suggested to Smalls that his organising efforts were being noticed.
Computer Weekly asked Amazon’s press team about the company’s quarantine policies, including when they came into effect, how employees returning to work were dealt with, and how many JFK8 employees were asked to quarantine in the month of March.
“For employees and partners whose work requires their physical presence in their workplace, those individuals have access to all of their usual paid and unpaid time-off benefits should they, for any reason, choose not to come to work, and we support them in that decision,” said Lighty, in response.
“All Amazon employees diagnosed with Covid-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay (this is on top of the up to 5 weeks of paid time off they already receive). This additional pay while away from work is to ensure employees have the time they need to return to good health without the worry of lost income.”
Amazon’s PR offensive
It is worth nothing that shortly after Smalls was fired, Vice News uncovered written notes from a meeting attended by Bezos, which detailed Amazon’s strategy to discredit Smalls and the wider movement of workers organising to better working conditions during the pandemic.
“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organiser’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” wrote Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky.
Chris Smalls, ex-Amazon employee
“Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing 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.”
In a statement to Vice, Zapolsky said his “comments were personal and emotional”, and that he was “frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to virus Covid-19”.
In response to questions about the episode, Smalls, who has never been involved in workplace organising prior to the pandemic, said: “This is what the company does – they like to sugar-coat and downplay every single thing that is negative about the company to look good to the public eye.”
“The simple fact you’ve got the richest man in the world having a meeting with all his top attorneys and executives tells you that we’re speaking truth to power. The simple fact they have a vendetta against me makes it even worse for them.”
Amazon versus the people
Smalls claimed to Computer Weekly that he was just the first in a growing line of people allegedly fired from Amazon for speaking out or protesting about Covid-related issues, despite Amazon’s claims the employees were let go for violating various guidelines or internal policies.
This includes the firing of user experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, organisers in the Amazon Employee’s for Climate Justice (AECJ) campaign group who publicly denounced Amazon’s treatment of employees such as Smalls.
It also includes Minnesota warehouse worker Bashir Mohamed, who was advocating better work conditions and pushing for more rigorous cleaning measures.
While both Smalls and Mohamed were fired for “violating social distancing guidelines”, Cunningham and Costa were fired for “repeatedly violating internal policies” which prohibit employees from commenting publicly on the company’s business without corporate justification and approval from executives.
“We all know this is what the company does – every time something negative comes out, they always got to spin it to make sure they look like the good guys and everybody else is wrong,” said Smalls.
“For them to fire everybody they’ve fired over the past couple of weeks, for all these different excuses that aren’t protest, is false. I was just the first one, but now there’s been multiple firings ever since, so you’re telling me that we’re all suddenly insubordinate? These are people who have been with the company as long as 13 years.”
Although Amazon workers have been striking since late March in protest of “unsafe working conditions” and “corporate inaction”, the company insists they are small-scale and that no employee has been terminated as a result of exercising their legal right to protest.
“Incidents have occurred at a very small number of sites and represent a few hundred employees out of hundreds of thousands. We want to be very clear that we respect the rights of these employees to protest and recognise their legal right to do so,” said Amazon in a blog post.
“At the same time, these rights do not provide a blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, and potentially the lives, of colleagues. It is vitally important that we keep people safe during this pandemic, and one of the primary ways we can do that is to ensure everyone at our sites is taking precautions, such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting surfaces.”
According to the New York general attorney’s office, Amazon may have violated federal safety standards for providing “inadequate protections” to warehouse workers, as well as the state’s whistleblower laws by taking action against Smalls.
Writing to Amazon, state officials noted that their preliminary findings “raise serious concern that Amazon may have discharged [Smalls] to silence his complaints and send a threatening message to other employees that they should also keep quiet about any health and safety concerns”.
The officials have urged Amazon to reinstate Smalls, and requested to see all internal Amazon communications since 1 February concerning workers’ complaints and organising efforts.
In the meantime, protests are set to continue, with workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods and others planning a strike on 1 May to protest their employers “continuing failure to provide adequate protection in the workplace”.
While there are already reports of hundreds calling in sick or walking out, it remains to be seen how much protest will be dampened by the firing of Smalls and others, and whether Amazon’s $4bn of projected second-quarter profits going to Covid-related expenses will be enough.