During the pandemic, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos increased his personal wealth to $200bn, and the e-commerce giant he founded became a trillion-dollar company. The company has expanded its workforce by more than 50% and built additional fulfilment centres in countries around the world. But Amazon has also attracted intensifying criticism for its practices, particularly around health and safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 20,000 of Amazon’s front-line workers have contracted the virus, the company said in October.
In response, a global movement, named Make Amazon Pay, has emerged demanding change from both the company itself and from lawmakers around the world. The movement – which has co-ordinated actions across Bangladesh, India, Germany, Poland, Spain, France, the UK, the US and more – has attracted the support of more than 400 parliamentarians from 34 countries. If successful in its aims, Make Amazon Pay could pave the way for legislative changes that affect how highly digitised and automated businesses, among which Amazon is a pioneer, treat their workers.
Make Amazon Pay’s demands
Make Amazon Pay has put together a common set of demands that include ending all forms of casual employment and self-employment or contractor status for employees, which it claims are “bogus”; ending the company’s alleged union-busting practices and respecting workers’ right to organise; committing to zero carbon by 2030; reforming its tax practices and embracing tax transparency, and ceasing what it argues are anti-competitive business practices.
“They’re designed so that all the demands are on Amazon to change its policies and governments to change their laws to make the impact,” says James Schneider, communications director for Progressive International. “You can run both simultaneously,” he says, highlighting ending the use of self-employment contracts as an example. “You can organise for that within Amazon, and you can organise for that as a legislative change at the national level.”
In the UK, a number of Labour politicians such as John McDonnell, Ian Lavery and Zarah Sultana, signed up to the set of demands. In the US, signatories included Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, and members of the progressive ‘squad’, congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. “We stand ready to act in our respective legislatures to support the movement that is growing around the world to Make Amazon Pay,” the signatories pledged. Make Amazon Pay is also supported by more than 50 social justice organisations, including UNI Global Union, Greenpeace and Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.
The policy demands will be adapted to the country-specific context, Schneider says. In Greece, for example, a new 4% tax on FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Alphabet (formerly known as Google)) was recently introduced. In the UK, the GMB union is demanding a parliamentary inquiry into Amazon’s practices. “There are other legislative efforts that are in the works from this new line of MPs in different countries,” says Schneider. “What we hope to see is the efforts from one group in one country both spur on and provide learnings for those in others, and we can build a genuinely international approach at both the movement level and the global, parliamentary level.”
Growing scrutiny on Amazon’s working practices
The working conditions of Amazon’s employees have become a touchpoint for activist pressure. Lawsuits have been brought against the company by unions in the US and Europe, alleging that it didn’t do enough to protect workers from the threat of Covid-19. It attracted criticism for firing staff members in the US who spoke out about a lack of coronavirus safety measures.
In France, mass protests and strikes triggered a judge’s decision to order Amazon to work with unions to improve health and safety in warehouses, or face €1m fines each day conditions weren’t met. Although the company initially threatened to pull the plug on its French operations, it now says that it will comply with the order.
Amazon’s alleged treatment of unions is also attracting growing criticism. Earlier this year, it was reported that the company advertised for ‘spies’ to monitor staff and labour organising in warehouses. And Spanish news site El Diario reported that private detectives spied on an Amazon’s workers’ strike in Barcelona on Black Friday in 2019.
This has already sparked backlash. European trade union leaders have written to the European Commission demanding it open an investigation into this “potentially illegal” activity. In the US, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, for example, passed the House earlier this year, and would act as a counterweight to the US’s numerous anti-union labour laws.
Other changes proposed by Make Amazon Pay echo wider legislative pressures on tech companies’ working practices. Legislating against zero-hours contracts and the ability to define employees as self-employed or contractors – among the campaign’s aims – could affect gig economy companies such as Uber, and other any other company relying on this form of employment contract. In the UK, an estimated 4.7 million people are employed in the insecure contract work typical of the gig economy, often through digital platforms.
Make Amazon Pay’s demands on competition also have some support among global lawmakers. The EU Commission has recently opened an antitrust investigation into Amazon, while the House Judiciary Committee antitrust subcommittee in the US included Amazon in a report about how Big Tech companies abuse their market dominations to further entrench their power.
In the face of the planned strikes, Amazon announced it would distribute a $500m (£373m) in bonuses between its staff in 15 countries. Full-time staff in the US and UK were to receive about £300, and part-time £150. But this has not been sufficient to prevent employee protests.
Public opinion in the US is still largely favourable towards Amazon, with Bezos telling Congress in July this year that, based on polling, people trust the company more than the government. But sentiment could be shifting. A more recent poll indicated that a majority of people think that a trillion-dollar company is “too powerful”, and 43% said that Amazon had not treated its workers fairly during the pandemic (compared with 24% who said it had).
Amazon is not only highly successful but its working practices have been influential among digital businesses and in more traditional sectors. By provoking questions about the way these practices impact employees, the Make Amazon Pay movement could prove equally influential in the way society responds.