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Not Santa’s Workshop: Amazon’s Warehouse Workers Endure Holiday Season Speedup

Issue 253

Peter Rugh Dec 16, 2019

Awh, the holiday season. The lights, the snow, the eggnog… Better make it a double for workers at Amazon’s “fulfillment centers” across the globe. They’re forced to work long hours with scant breaks and the seasonal shopping frenzy that has ensued means they have to work even faster for their boss, CEO Jeff Bezos, the second richest man on Earth and perhaps its biggest Scrooge.

“It’s not okay for people to be treated like this,” said Hiba Aly, a former employee at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, speaking at a rally outside of Bezos’ $80 million Park Row penthouse on Dec. 2. “People should not be quiet about this. Jeff Bezos is a freaking billionaire.”

The protest, at which hundreds of petitions calling on Bezos and company to improve working conditions were dropped off at his swanky residence, was put together as part of a broader pushback against Amazon, its unethical business practices and the threat it poses to local democracies. Organizations focused on labor, immigrant rights and combating gentrification have banded together in the form of Athena For All, a new national coalition taking aim at the retail giant.

The task is daunting.

Once a humble online bookseller, the company now hawks virtually everything you can think of from automobiles to Auschwitz-themed Christmas ornaments and other white supremacist paraphernalia. Despite a stock market valuation hovering at or near $1 trillion and $11 billion in profits last year, it paid zilch in federal income taxes.

That’s not all it took in from the government. Despite protests from the company this fall after losing a multi-billion Pentagon contract bid to Microsoft, Amazon Web Services is raking in millions from the Department of Homeland Security, hosting databases that are used to track down immigrants as part of the Trump administration’s ongoing war on undocumented Americans. This includes a DHS biometric database complete with fingerprints, iris scans and photographs of faces, giving rise to fears that facial recognition software Amazon is developing could be put to nefarious purposes by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A dystopian techno future is already underway over at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, where 4,000 employees are required to labor 10-12-hour shifts, their every footstep is tracked and they must keep up with strict quotas.

One worker, employed as a stower at the warehouse, reported handling 2,000 units of goods-for-shipping a day, four items per minute.

“The quota system pushes you to really not work at a pace that’s normal, but at a pace where you’re almost running for the entire 10 hours,” the worker, one of 145 Amazon workers interviewed by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, said. “You’re constantly turning, bending,  running.”

The majority of the stower’s co-workers reported similar conditions.

Injuries occur at the company’s Staten Island fulfillment center at rates three times higher than the industry average, an examination by Make the Road and New York Communities for Change of Amazon’s own reports to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found, with injured employees missing an average of 64 days of work.

The introduction of robotics technology at the Staten Island facility has actually made the job more difficult, Zachary Lerner, a labor organizer with Communities for Change, told Indy Radio News.

“Automation has led to the work becoming even harder, leading to people facing even more injuries than they did before,” he said.

What activists like Hiba Aly and member-groups of the wider Athena coalition are banking on is that a coordinated grassroots push against the multinational corporation will keep it in check and force reform.

It’s worked before. Grassroots campaigns have led to a $15-an-hour minimum wage at Amazon, blocked efforts to stack the Seattle City Council in its favor this fall, and halted attempts by the company to build an “HQ2” in Queens with $3 billion taxpayer money earlier this year. Now that community groups challenging Amazon across the country have banded together, perhaps Athena has a chance at bringing Goliath to its knees.

Olivia Riggio contributed reporting to this article.

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