A History of Abuse at Amazon: Employees Forced to Work Under the Worst Conditions

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Amazon.com, Inc. is an American multinational technology company headquartered in Seattle, Washington. The company works in a variety of industries such as e-commerce, cloud computing, digital streaming, and artificial intelligence. As the world’s largest online marketplace, many are familiar with Amazon, and they have come to rely on the company’s competitive selections, prices, and relative fast delivery times. Not only does Amazon make it convenient to receive products straight to your door at competitive prices, but based upon your past purchases and search terms, the company provides recommendations for future purchases to make for an engaging experience.

Although Amazon emphasizes the importance of customer service and invests in customer relationship management tools, the company has had a poor track record with workplace safety and employee working conditions. In many cases, employees under pressure to work faster have called upon the company to improve working conditions and take their complaints seriously. One such example is the story of Rita Cummings, an employee located at Amazon’s New York City Warehouse working three 12 hour shifts every week. Cummings along with 600 other Amazon employees delivered a petition to management to improve conditions. One request was that Amazon should consolidate a workers’ two 15-minute breaks into one 30-minute period. Workers claimed it takes 15 minutes alone to walk to and from the warehouse break room. Reasonably, employees also desired that Amazon provide more reliable public transit services to the warehouse. Most importantly, the employees called attention to management that the New York City Warehouse had one of the highest injury rates of all the facilitates and was found to report three times the national average for warehouses. Amazon’s solution was to install video monitors for safety; however, Amazon did not seem to take much action in reducing workplace danger further. Rita described, “There has been no real change. There are still injuries. They were saying the report is not accurate, but it’s just a way for them to avoid responsibility”. Cummings said injuries are common among her colleagues, and she often experiences close calls. She explains the account of a pin sticking out of the conveyor belt tearing off one of her work gloves, almost taking her hand with it (theguardian.com).

More recently, Amazon has come under fire for denying a disturbing trend in the conditions of Amazon employees and delivery drivers. In March 2021, Amazon apologized for disputing a lawmaker’s claim that its employees urinate in bottles. Amazon admitted in a blog post, “It was “incorrect” to deny the report.” Amazon claimed the issue affects drivers, not employees in its many warehouses across the U.S. Questions of whether Amazon workers operating under severe time constraints sometimes resort to urinating in bottles surfaced in a 2018 book by British journalist James Bloodworth, who went undercover to briefly work at an Amazon warehouse in documenting the hardship of low-wage work in the U.K. James describes in his account that it appearance of a bottle of urine hidden on a warehouse shelf, which he assumed was an employee’s solution to the difficulty of finding time for a bathroom break given the short length of time employees receive on break (cbsnews.com).

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos describes working conditions at Amazon in a letter to shareowners. Reflecting from a recent union vote, Bezos claims, “I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success.” He continues, “Employees are able to take informal breaks throughout their shifts to stretch, get water, use the rest room, or talk to a manager, all without impacting their performance. These informal work breaks are in addition to the 30-minute lunch and 30-minute break built into their normal schedule” (geekwire.com).

Overall, Jeff Bezos is finally accepting that there is a need to do better for employees, yet he continually denies the existence of poor working conditions at Amazon and takes a defensive tone when examples of the mistreatment of employees arise. In his statement, Bezos seems to be more concerned with an employee’s overall performance than their well-being, and he continues by describing how employees have options for where they work. Amazon has created a strong customer culture but has neglected to take care of the organizations largest asset being its employees. Amazon provides a strong example of how not to treat your employees. The company has a history of denying poor working conditions, and employee concerns get tossed aside. In order for Amazon and other digital companies to grow, there needs to be a system of leadership at these companies that value and listen to the voice of both the consumer and the employee. If a company fails to do this, how can it ever expect to change and improve upon its failures?