As workers marked May Day with sickouts and walkouts across the U.S. on Friday, a new statement from over 50 advocacy groups said the coronavirus crisis has amplified the need to protect frontline workers who blow the whistle on dangerous conditions.
"Our public health and societal well-being require that workers have the power to speak up in these moments, to call attention to employer practices that create unsafe working conditions made more dangerous by the current crisis, and to refuse to work in deadly worksites," Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement.
The joint statement from the organizations—including Color of Change, Public Citizen, Fight for the Future, and United We Dream—says that "urgent expansion and improved enforcement of legal protections" for such workers—rather than the "invasive surveillance technologies to penalize and monitor lower-wage workers" that some corporations have adopted—can help efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19.
In their statement, entitled "Silencing of Whistleblowers in the Workplace Is a Threat to Public Health," the groups point to recent and "alarming" actions by online commerce giant Amazon.
Over the last few weeks, Amazon fired at least six workers who had spoken out about unsafe working conditions in warehouses. In addition to these firings, other workers at Amazon have reported receiving arbitrary work-related warnings as a result of speaking out or participating in walkouts, and they fear that they are being set-up for termination. Given that Amazon is the second largest private employer in the United States and is significantly expanding its workforce during the crisis, this apparent pattern of retaliation is alarming.
It's not only Amazon workers at greater risk amid the pandemic, with others including grocery workers and meatpacking plant workers putting themselves in harms' way. And the risk, the groups added, "disproportionately falls on communities of color, who are more likely to hold these jobs and more vulnerable to the virus, as a result of the systemic racism that undermines health in these communities."
The new statement also outlines their demand for "common sense measures in line with CDC guidance." Such measures include:
implementation of six feet of distance between all individuals in the facility, personal protective equipment for all, time for handwashing, temporarily closing and cleaning exposed facilities to allow for quarantine, independent and transparent reporting, and paid leave policies to help exposed and sick workers to stay home.
"The current crisis has elevated workplace whistleblowing and collective action to a matter of national health and additional protection and enforcement measures are urgently necessary," the groups added.
According to Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, such protections are urgently needed to protect those on the frontline and curb the abuse of some employers.
"It's essential we put policies in place to ensure all frontline workers are protected and any violations of these protections trigger an automatic investigation," Greer said. "It's the only way we'll stop companies, like Amazon, from retaliating against whistleblowers and using surveillance to clamp down on workers self-organizing."
"Anything less is a threat to the safety of workers and the public at large," she added.
The call for strengthened whistleblower protections was released as workers at large companies including Amazon, Walmart, Target, and FedEx take part in May Day actions including coordinated work stoppages.
"The corporations and the government are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of us," Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, told Democracy Now! on Friday.
"We have to put people before profits," he said.