March 4, 2014

The cost of Amazon is too high: Petition with 55,000 signatures delivered to UK office

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Protesters in front of the Amazon office last Friday

Protesters in front of the Amazon office last Friday

Forty protesters from Amazon Anonymous have sent off a 55,000 signature petition that demands fair wages and better conditions for Amazon employees in the UK. They also want the corporation to pay taxes. The petition was packaged in an Amazon box and delivered to the Holborn office on Friday.

That box may never reach Jeff Bezos directly. But picture it on a desk, smiling to itself.

We’ve written about Amazon warehouses quite a lot before: no one can unionize, conditions are often compared to coal mines, and the heavy security observation has been likened to that of Nazi Germany. Additionally, the company received more money from the UK government between 2009 and 2011 than it paid in taxes. Indie booksellers called on Prime Minister David Cameron to make Amazon pay, and Cameron has been vocal about his support for the Living Wage this year. (In the U.S., Amazon is in an ongoing battle against sales tax on the state and national level.)

Last week the Low Pay Commission (LPC) proposed a 3% increase in Britain’s minimum wage, to £6.50 an hour, which Reuters reports would be the first above-inflation increase since 2008. It would take effect in October.

Amazon pays its staff just above the UK minimum wage, £6.31 per hour. Workers say that they are bullied and harassed, fired when they’re home sick three times, report that they’ll be out to care for family, or take too long on bathroom breaks. They are advised to slather their heels in Vaseline before walking five to fifteen miles in mandatory but ill-fitting work boots. Many are promised full-time work if they work hard enough… but the company has a convenient habit of letting go of employees right before the three-month mark, when the corporation would be required to provide benefits.

Sarah O’Connor wrote in the Financial Times that employees in Rugeley are tagged with personal satellite navigation devices that track their movements throughout the warehouse, charting their most efficient movements, setting target times for their work, and evaluating whether they meet those expectations. (You may remember that one worker called the warehouse “a slave camp.”)

The company also doesn’t bother to let laid-off workers know when they’re laid off. Former employees say their security badges were canceled without notice, and when they found they couldn’t enter the warehouses to work, they had to walk home. Emily Kenway has been collecting testimonies from these employees since last year, when she saw the BBC’s Panorama expose of Amazon distribution centers. She partnered with Change.org to lead Friday’s protest.

“Since starting the petition in December and seeing the overwhelming feeling against Amazon, I’ve been collecting stories from real Amazon workers and ex-workers about their warehouse experiences. These stories illustrate the human cost of Amazon’s business model — a cost that is all too dear,” said Kenway in an interview with the Morning Star.

“We called it AA because we think that Amazon needs to kick its myriad bad habits, but we also want to encourage people to recognise that they can survive without Amazon: there are other vendors which don’t demean their workforce, which pay taxes, and which aren’t pushing prices down at the expense of the publishing industry. We think the time is coming for people to go cold turkey from Amazon and the site will send them to great alternatives,” she says.

poverty wages out of stockMartin Smith, National Organiser at GMB union, backed Kenway’s petition. He calls Amazon “a poster child for the new low pay, low security jobs that have been growing in number in recent years… It’s the modern equivalent of selection at the dock gates in Victorian times and is casual labour of the worst kind.”

He adds, “GMB is campaigning with local communities, tax justice campaigners and Amazon staff to make sure the company makes its full contribution to rebuilding the UK economy — both by paying wages its staff can live on and by paying its taxes.”

 The Bookseller spoke with Frances and Keith Smith of Kenilworth and Warwick Books (read about their previous efforts here, or a Q&A with them here), who support Kenway’s campaign. They said, “There is a long history in this country of improving industrial relations, led by wise and forward thinking men such as George Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree, of realising that treating workers as human beings rather than as cogs in the industrial machine would create a happier, healthier and much more committed workforce.”

In contrast, German laws have given warehouse workers better opportunities to fight for a living wage and reasonable working conditions. According to Simon Head, author of Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans, Amazon has had to pass muster with German work councils (Betriebsrat), Ver.Di, a United Services Union with 2.2 million members, and federal and state government officials more closely aligned with labor regulations than those in the U.S. or UK.

Head writes, “When in December 2012 the Ver.Di representatives in Leipzig called on the management of Amazon’s local center to open negotiations on wage rates and an improvement of working conditions, and especially for temporary workers who are badly exploited at Amazon, management refused on the grounds that employees should be ‘thinking about their customers’ and not about their own selfish interests… Beyond this poisonous mixture of Taylorism and Stakhnovism, laced with twenty-first-century IT, there is, in Amazon’s treatment of its employees, a pervasive culture of meanness and mistrust that sits ill with its moralizing about care and trust—for customers, but not for the employees.”

Amazon is a global company, and each country will have to fight separate battles for improved wages, working conditions, and taxes. Germany may get there long before the U.S. or UK. But the Living Wage reform is an opportunity for British citizens to rally against Amazon’s labor practices, and 55,000 signatures from this grassroots effort is a place to start.

 

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.

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