Amazon workers’ “lives at risk” as employer surveils for union activity

A new report from Amnesty International has highlighted "grave" concerns about Amazon acting to suppress its workers' human right to organise.

27 Nov 2020| News

Amazon workers’ lives are being put at risk by aggressive management tactics, including surveillance used to stem trade union activity, a new report from Amnesty International has said.

The 18-page document, Amazon, Let Workers Unionise, was released today (27 November 2020) in response to what the charity said has been a year of “significant” threats to the health and safety of the Amazon workforce.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Amazon has taken a lax attitude to ensuring its workers in the UK, France, Poland the US are safe from infection, Amnesty reported.

And this situation will only get worse today – Black Friday – as the company reinstates its aggressive productivity targets to keep up with demand.

UK workers are expected to pick and pack around 300 items per hour, working up to 55 hours a week and 10 hours a day.

In March, Amazon relaxed these targets as they were identified as incompatible with a Covid-secure workplace.

Despite the second wave of the virus threatening to be more deadly than the first, the firm’s UK workforce recently received texts saying that “starting 21 October, we will resume measuring and delivering productivity performance feedback to ensure we are ready to deliver for customers in the coming weeks”.

Kate Allen, UK Director for Amnesty International, said: “We are gravely concerned that the Black Friday rush could turn Amazon warehouses into hotspots for infection.”

“Aggressive productivity targets mean social distancing rules cannot be effectively implemented, putting the lives of those working in Amazon warehouses at serious risk.”

The report also found that the firm is trying to undermine attempts by its workers to unionise and collectively negotiate for safer working conditions, including through legal threats in the UK, surveillance in the US, and a failure to engage in health and safety concerns in France and Poland.

“Despite known outbreaks of Covid-19 [in Amazon warehouses], workers are being pressured and frightened into going into work in unsafe conditions, and unions are being intimidated and prevented from helping,” Kate Allen reported.

Amnesty highlighted several instances of anti-union practices, including a 2018 training video for managers that advised them to look for “warning signs” of union activity among their staff, the repeated identification of unions as a “risk” in recent annual reports, and threats of an injunction against GMB for “trespassing” when union representatives access the workplace.

It is also known that Amazon surveils the social media accounts of union members, infiltrates its workers’ social media groups to check for union activity, and recently posted job advertisements for intelligence analysts to track “labour organizing threats against the company”.

The firm stated that these adverts had been posted “in error”, but a leaked memo appeared to corroborate workers’ suspicions. The document revealed that Amazon was investigating the use of technology called “geoSPatial Operating Console” to monitor trade union activity.

“All through the pandemic, Amazon workers have been risking their health and lives to ensure essential goods are delivered to our doorsteps, helping Amazon achieve record profits. In this context, it is alarming that Amazon has treated attempts to unionise with such hostility,” Barbora Černušáková, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said.

“As Amazon approaches its busiest time of year with Black Friday and Christmas, we are urging the company to respect the human rights of its workers and comply with international labour standards, which state clearly that workers have a right to unionise.”