The holiday shopping frenzy took on a wild twist at a Robbinson, New Jersey, Amazon fulfillment center when a robot—one of an army of mechanized warehouse assistants—accidentally ruptured a can of bear repellent and ended up putting 24 employees in the hospital, with one worker in critical condition, and 54 others requiring emergency treatment for the toxic exposures. Getting gassed on the job might be a freak accident, but labor advocates say the retail giant’s everyday working conditions are enough to drive many to tears.
Protests have erupted in the United States and Europe against Amazon’s supercharged supply chain that makes workers feel more like captive animals than human beings. A Guardian report on workplace injuries at Amazon fulfillment centers showed that preventable mechanical injuries and sheer exhaustion have left some workers chronically debilitated, jobless, or even homeless. Now, as Amazon zeroes in on New York City’s prime real estate as the future site of its glamorous new headquarters, HQ2, the company that aims to define the future of retail is facing an increasingly frustrated workforce.
There’s political tension in the air at the Robbinson warehouse, meanwhile, as the advocacy group Warehouse Workers Stand Up (WWSU) campaigns to transform Amazon into a high-road employer in New Jersey’s industrial belt. At a rally on Tuesday, workers and community activists demanded safer and more equitable working conditions both at Amazon and throughout the state’s rapidly growing warehouse, storage, and logistics sector. The protest coincides with an unprecedented union campaign at a Staten Island warehouse, led by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which is also seeking to organize at Whole Foods, which Amazon recently acquired to expand its market reach.
Though it is not demanding a union at this point, WWSU, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has proposed a Code of Conduct, which includes a living wage starting at $15 per hour, full-time and predictable work schedules, and health care with paid sick days. The goal is to establish a standard of stable, sustainable jobs at Amazon that would help prevent misuse of temporary workers.
Wages aren’t the crux of the workers’ demands. State lawmakers could soon pass a phased-in $15 floor wage statewide, and Amazon is rolling out a minimum-wage hike for all US workers to $15 an hour, responding to pressure from communities and lawmakers. But the thrust of the Code of Conduct is a safe, humane workplace, where workers aren’t just protected from toxic exposures but also free from painful levels of stress as workers race to pack boxes at a superhuman pace.
For Abdelhadi Nafai, who worked for several years packing boxes at the Robbinson facility, the problem was less about the wages than the workload. Their hectic work schedules—which were monitored by constant computer surveillance—escalated incrementally from a rate of 165 items packed per hour at the beginning, eventually ratcheting up to more than 240. “A lot of people, it’s really hard to have enough time to do what Amazon is asking for,” he recalled. “And really a lot of people are really angry and hurt. And a lot of people got fired because they can’t do the number Amazon is asking for.” Many of his coworkers had to quit second jobs, or quit school, or just leave altogether. Nafai left last summer but still helps campaign for the remaining workers’ right to organize in hopes of restraining Amazon’s expanding corporate footprint in the region.
The plans for Amazon’s controversial HQ2 Project in Long Island City, Queens, which will house the company’s (notoriously hypercompetitive) professional workforce rather than front-line laborers, seems like an extension of a strategy of corporate colonization: Buy off and stifle the opposition—first, by making its market irresistible to consumers, and second, by exploiting its power as an employer and political player to accrue massive financial benefits and undercut regulations. In a fierce bidding war, many cities vying to be the next HQ2 site groveled before the company with cultural pageantry and lavish corporate-tax breaks.
Amazon has rejected criticism of its business practices, claiming that it provides decent jobs and prioritizes workers’ safety, while aggressively thwarting “interference” from unions. Yet studies on the long-term impact of Amazon distribution centers on local markets show they may often have the net effect of displacing higher wage blue-collar and retail jobs, while undermining local small businesses.
Frustration with Amazon’s local impacts has gone global. Distribution workers in Europe and the United Kingdom recently staged demonstrations and strikes against “robot”-like labor practices and low wages. And in the United States, communities where Amazon has become a dominant employer are lashing out at executive Jeff Bezos, whose astronomical wealth contrasts glaringly with the lives of hundreds of thousands of Amazon workers, who might earn as little as $11.50 per hour.
According to Hibaq Mohamed, one of several East African immigrant workers at an Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, her community is being pushed into crisis by a punishing work system. As an organizer with the worker center Awood, which has been organizing area workers with support from SEIU, she says the pressures of the workplace even haunt coworkers at night. “They say, ‘When we have [a] schedule [for work] tomorrow, we do not sleep at night. We dream [of] what we’re doing. We dream of the boxes that we do…. Sometimes they say, ‘We did not sleep last night, because we’re worried about the future.’”
The workers are more than willing to work, Mohamed says, if Amazon would simply provide a healthy, decent workplace, where workers are comfortable taking a prayer break without fearing of getting punished for missing their production target: “We don’t want to go home and feel sick, feel pressure…. We love to work at Amazon, but we need [to be] equal, to be treated as human beings.”
Amazon workers might not have a union yet, but the parallel protests from the midwest to western Europe to western Queens could be a bellwether for a global labor backlash against Amazon’s ever-expanding empire.
If Amazon is going to determine the future of retail, workers say they want jobs that have a real future. Today, Nafai says Amazon’s labor structure is unsustainable by design: “Nobody stays there more than five, six months.… I think that’s what the management is looking for. They need new blood, you know…. They need everybody coming excited in the beginning. And then when they get tired of you, they fire you and they bring in another.” He laughed, musing about how his life seemed to move on Amazon’s time long after he quit. “It’s like they bring you in young, and they turn you old.”