Victory for workers’ rights: former Amazon employee cleared of allegations

Maria Malinowska's reinstatement marks a significant victory not only for her but also for workers' rights advocacy.

1 May 2024| News

On 5 April, 2024, Maria Malinowska, a former employee of Amazon’s Sady warehouse near Poznan in Poland, emerged victorious in a legal battle against the retail giant. Following the tragic death of an Amazon employee, Maria Malinowska—an active trade union member and ‘social’ (i.e. in the workplace) labour inspector—criticised working conditions in the warehouse through media channels. Consequently, she faced disciplinary dismissal, with Amazon citing alleged breaches of social conduct rules, accusing her of photographing and filming the transportation of the employee’s deceased body off Amazon premises. However, after a protracted legal process, she has been legally vindicated and is now poised to return to work.

The deceased Amazon employee, Darek Dziamski, worked as a ‘water spider’. Among other tasks, a water spider is responsible for keeping workstations fully stocked with materials, ultimately contributing to overall higher productivity of other workers. As Malinowska explains, ‘It’s hard physical work. You have to walk a lot, push a heavy cart, and constantly lift crates. Each shift lasts ten hours. Darek worked alone for a long time, although the workload was designed for multiple employees. The day before his death, he asked his supervisor for help. After several hours, an additional person was sent to assist’. On 6 September 2021, Darek Dziamski started his shift as usual at 6 am. However, he soon started complaining of chest pains. He complained to his supervisor, who sent him by foot to in-house medics. Once he walked in, the 49-year-old passed out, and despite reanimation, he died.

Darek’s colleagues immediately notified Maria Malinowska about the accident, who then requested inclusion in the accident investigation committee. Amazon refused. The retail giant established its own team of representatives of occupational health and safety, as well as employees and supervisors. However, according to Polish labour law, it is the employer who makes the final assessment of whether the event needs to be reported as a work accident. In this case, Amazon reported no work-related external cause influencing the death of the employee and filed the incident as a medical case. The prosecutor’s office investigation into unintentional manslaughter also concluded that the death was due to natural causes and that the employer was not negligent.

Beata Dziamska, the widow of the deceased employee, did not agree with this version of events and — supported by trade unionists from the Employee Initiative— demanded the investigation be resumed. The court then ordered further examination of whether the working conditions had worsened Dziamski’s health. Despite expert’s opinions pointing out that Amazon’s labour standards were exceeded, the district prosecutor’s office concluded that working conditions did not cause the death of the worker and discontinued the investigation.

Even before Darek’s death, Amazon warehouse workers reported many irregularities that could have had an impact on their health, and many allegations were repeated: overly high standards, work beyond human strength, fear of losing your position if you go on sick leave, and working in rooms that are not suitable for this purpose, where there is no adequate ventilation. The energy expenditure research (physical workload measurement of kcal/min during all working activities) from 2018 carried out by the National Labor Inspectorate (PIP) showed that the overloads suffered by some Amazon employees were greater than those of football players or miners, and exceeded physical human limitations. Before her dismissal, Maria Malinowska investigated the issue of energy expenditure in different occupational groups within the warehouse in Sady. According to her, there is still a lack of a reliable occupational risk assessment that takes into account the measurement of energy expenditure using the PIP method. ‘The employer uses tabular methods to verify energy expenditure,’ she explained. ‘You can enter anything into the tables. Therefore, we still do not know whether the work at all positions is adapted to the psycho-physical capabilities of employees, taking into account the applicable energy expenditure standards.’

Malinowska’s reinstatement marks a significant victory not only for her but also for workers’ rights advocacy. In response to the verdict, Amazon reaffirmed its commitment to a safe working environment. The retail giant accepted the court’s verdict but maintained the validity of its decision to dismiss Malinowska. Nonetheless, Malinowska remains steadfast in her mission to enhance the working conditions for Amazon employees. With the legal battle behind her, Malinowska looks forward to returning to work, buoyed by the support of union members and employees. Her victory underscores the importance of standing up against corporate injustice and fighting for workers’ rights in the face of adversity.

This article was first published on the ETUI website.