-Claire Kohler, Global Studies Student at UVM
It is hard to imagine the world as it is right now- in the midst of a global pandemic- without Amazon. When your local puzzle store has closed up shop, every CVS within fifty miles is out of Purell, and hand weights have become an “essential item” to your living room exercise routine, the knowledge that all these items can be delivered to your doorstep without coming into contact with anyone is comforting. Yet, while many of the heroes during this pandemic are workers packaging and shipping at high efficiency, they are being treated as if they are expendable. Now more than ever, we depend on workers at Amazon fulfillment centers, but the working conditions in this multi-billion-dollar industry are inexcusable and unjust.
Amazon’s history of problematic working conditions is not new, but in the days of COVID-19, for hundreds of thousands of warehouse employees, going to work has become a life-threatening task. While the company claims it has enhanced safety measures such as “conducting daily temperature checks for everyone entering the building,” and making disinfectant wipes and hand-sanitizer available at every warehouse, workers say differently (1). The New York Times reported that in a letter written to Jeff Bezos by labor leaders, workers were “reporting crowded spaces, a required rate of work that does not allow for proper sanitizing of workspaces, and empty containers meant to hold sanitizing wipes” (2). At the SDF4 warehouse in Kentucky, employees also reported that all hand sanitizer bottles on-site were empty and that disinfectant wipes were being rationed (1). Temperature checks are also ineffective against any asymptomatic person that may infect others for several days before showing a fever.
One might think the company would be responsive when workers ask for basic necessities. Instead, employees hesitate to speak out due to fear of retaliation. Recently, Christian Smalls was let go from a fulfillment center in Staten Island after staging a walkout during his lunch hour to protest the “inadequate response to the crisis” (2). Firing essential workers who are providing goods to millions of Americans, simply for asking for more thorough sanitization of the facility, is a ludicrous response. Not only does it put employees’ lives at great risk of infection from lack of social distancing or sanitary equipment, but it creates a ripple effect: endangering their families, customers receiving packages, and others such as postal workers and truck drivers involved in the shipping process. The well-being of Amazon’s employees should be important enough to guarantee safer working conditions, but since it is obviously not, Amazon should be cognizant of the effect they could have on the country.
We must be critical of Amazon and stand with its workers as it is one of the few businesses thriving as a result of the current crisis. The NYT reports that Jeff Bezos saw “the year’s first financial quarter close with Amazon stock up more than five percent…during a period in which the Dow had its worst overall quarter since 1987” (2). The company boasts that it has increased its pay by $2 an hour but given the current state of the company and the stress — both physical and emotional — put on workers, Amazon could do much more.
Furthermore, Jeff Bezos recently announced his donation of $100 million to Feeding America, his largest donation to date (3). While this is an extremely important donation for a non-profit feeding millions of Americans, the question remains of why similar funds could not also be put toward Bezos’ employees, to keep them safe while they keep his business highly profitable. Giving away, for example, $200 million would be but a tiny percentage of his assets. Especially since Bezos is one of the richest people in the world, neglecting to give more during this unprecedented crisis to those risking their lives at Amazon every day is outrageous and unjust. Arguably, those putting in the most are also the ones receiving the least.
It can feel useless to boycott such a large corporation when you know buying your next book elsewhere won’t make a dent in Amazon’s enormous profits. But taking a few extra minutes to search out a local or family-owned business and telling three of your friends to do the same could make a difference to a neighbor and the local economy. The package may not arrive in two days, but plenty of small businesses are still hard at work providing goods online and rewarding their employees with a living wage and safer working conditions. Meanwhile, to support Amazon employees, there are petitions, both for overall increases in safety measures and for specific facilities, which will be linked below. If it is absolutely necessary to buy from Amazon, perhaps try to limit purchases to essential items.
Peace and justice take different forms at this moment in history, but while we are not able to attend discussions and events in person, that does not mean we have to idly sit by. Rather, we can sit on the couch AND do something! Amazon employees are heroes of this pandemic, supplying us with goods we need. Yet they did not sign up for hazardous duty and we can all put more pressure on Amazon and other such employers to help employees remain healthy. It is imperative for us to apply all the pressure we can to help them receive fair treatment in their workplace, knowing that benefits at a company as large as Amazon will influence the marketplace as a whole. Showing solidarity with Amazon workers arguably means a safer environment for these heroes and moving toward a healthier country for all of us.