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Amazon workers at a distribution station

A woman works at a distribution station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island on February 5, 2019. (Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

On Prime Day, Groups Demand Federal Ban on Amazon's 'Punitive' Worker Surveillance

"Amazon's workplace surveillance system is brutal every day, and even worse on Prime Day."

Jake Johnson

A coalition of worker advocacy and racial justice organizations marked the start of Prime Day on Monday with an open letter demanding that state and federal lawmakers take action to end Amazon's systems of employee surveillance, which critics say are at the heart of the company's devastating injury crisis.

"Amazon knows their system physically harms workers and ruins lives, but refuses to roll back the system that injures workers at such a despicable rate: workplace surveillance."
—Evan Greer, Fight for the Future

"Amazon's business model is a calculated exploitation of workers, the majority of whom are Black and brown," reads the letter, which was signed by the Athena Coalition, Fight for the Future, and 33 other groups.

"Amazon's punishing system monitors workers’ speed or rate, tracks their movements each second with a metric called time off task, and imposes a constant threat of termination," the letter continues. "Amazon claims to simply monitor workflow—but in reality, rate and time off task is used to control physical movements and discipline workers, dictate when or if they can use the bathroom, and has been used to retaliate against worker organizing."

According to a report released earlier this month by the Strategic Organizing Center, Amazon workers sustained more than 24,000 serious injuries last year, an injury rate far higher than at Walmart and other major U.S. employers.

As the anti-surveillance coalition emphasized in its letter, Prime Day tends to heighten warehouse injury risks as workers face intense pressure to accommodate the influx of orders associated with Amazon's largest shopping event of the year. Internal Amazon data obtained by Reveal News last year showed that "injury rates have spiked during the weeks of Prime Day and Cyber Monday, contrary to Amazon's public claims."

"Those two weeks had the highest rate of serious injuries for all of 2019," Reveal reported.

As Fight for the Future director Evan Greer put it in a statement, "Amazon's workplace surveillance system is brutal every day, and even worse on Prime Day."

"Workers' bodies are being injured, in some cases permanently, just so boxes can be delivered the same day. It's absurd," Greer added. "Amazon knows their system physically harms workers and ruins lives, but refuses to roll back the system that injures workers at such a despicable rate: workplace surveillance... Congress needs to take immediate action to rein in one of our country's largest and most abusive employers by passing legislation to end workplace surveillance."

In their letter on Monday, the 35 groups called on lawmakers and regulators at the state and federal levels to take several specific steps, including:

  • End rate and time off task tracking: State and federal electeds should enact laws that ban surveillance-driven discipline and control to ensure that workers are protected from abusive conditions.
  • Update OSHA standards and enforcement to end rate and time off task: As evidence mounts that Amazon's model creates an unsafe workplace, state and federal OSHA programs should enforce existing standards and create new rules that address practices like rate and time off task that monitor workers and increase the pace of work.
  • Investigate Amazon's abuses: Agencies tasked with safeguarding workers should investigate Amazon for these widespread and long-standing abuses, including: injuries, retaliation, and discrimination.

"Amazon will soon be the largest private employer in the United States, and if lawmakers and regulators fail to take action, its dangerous and extractive model will become the standard in warehousing, logistics, and retail," the letter warns. "As other retailers implement similarly exploitative strategies, this dangerous trend will further degrade working conditions for tens of millions of people across the country."

Read the full letter:

Amazon injures and discards warehouse workers and delivery drivers at double the industry average. There were a record 24,000 serious injuries at Amazon facilities last year. It is time for lawmakers and regulators to step-in and end the punitive system of constant surveillance that drives the dangerous pace of work at Amazon.

Amazon’s business model is a calculated exploitation of workers, the majority of whom are Black and brown. Amazon's punishing system monitors workers’ speed or rate, tracks their movements each second with a metric called time off task, and imposes a constant threat of termination. Amazon claims to simply monitor workflow—but in reality, rate and time off task is used to control physical movements and discipline workers, dictate when or if they can use the bathroom, and has been used to retaliate against worker organizing. A recent investigation in Washington State concluded that this high-pressure system violates the law.

Discarding workers after they are injured or too exhausted, Amazon churned through over half a million workers in 2019. Amazon's model breaks people’s bodies, taking their health and sometimes livelihoods. The cumulative costs of this exploitative business model are offloaded onto workers, their families, and the public.

Black workers disproportionately bear the brunt of Amazon's model. At one of Amazon's largest warehouses in New York, Black workers were fifty percent more likely to be fired than their white peers. And during the pandemic, Amazon fired several Black workers who spoke out about unsafe conditions. This mirrors findings that Black people are more likely to have dangerous jobs, less likely to have their concerns heard, and more likely to be retaliated against. Further, Amazon actively discourages the promotion of hourly workers in warehouses, the majority of whom are Black and brown.

Warehouse workers and delivery drivers cannot wait for Amazon to fix its broken system. To ensure Amazon's model does not become the standard for our entire economy, regulators and lawmakers must intervene:

  • End rate and time off task tracking: State and federal electeds should enact laws that ban surveillance-driven discipline and control to ensure that workers are protected from abusive conditions.
  • Update OSHA standards and enforcement to end rate and time off task: As evidence mounts that Amazon’s model creates an unsafe workplace, state and federal OSHA programs should enforce existing standards and create new rules that address practices like rate and time off task that monitor workers and increase the pace of work.
  • Investigate Amazon’s abuses: Agencies tasked with safeguarding workers should investigate Amazon for these widespread and long-standing abuses, including: injuries, retaliation, and discrimination.

For years, workers have spoken out and protested against these conditions. Most recently, in Bessemer, Alabama, Black warehouse workers led a unionization effort, citing the punishing conditions created by Amazon’s system of surveillance, control, and threat of termination.

Last year, civil society organizations stood with workers and called upon Congress to ban this type of punitive worker surveillance, citing the dangerous impacts on workers' physical and mental health, potential to undermine workers' right to organize, and long-term deskilling and wage decline of these jobs.

Finally forced to admit to ongoing injury problems, Amazon is nevertheless doubling down on its extractive model. In his final letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos stated that Amazon would begin to use artificial intelligence to direct workers from one task to the next. But using technology to maintain absolute control over workers' tasks and workflow, it will only escalate Amazon's injury crisis. Decades of research show that when workers do not have autonomy and control at work, they are more likely to be injured and experience mental strain and depression. Later, Amazon announced wellness programs and funding for injury research, but it refuses to do the one thing that would stop widespread injuries: eliminate rate and time off task.

Amazon will soon be the largest private employer in the United States, and if lawmakers and regulators fail to take action, its dangerous and extractive model will become the standard in warehousing, logistics, and retail. As other retailers implement similarly exploitative strategies, this dangerous trend will further degrade working conditions for tens of millions of people across the country. The result will be a punishing, untenable reality for all working people, and Black and brown people will pay the highest cost.

We demand lawmakers and regulators do everything in their power to end rate and time off task, ensuring Amazon cannot use this punitive system of surveillance to cycle through entire workforces in communities throughout the country.


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