'Human beings, not robots': Why workers are protesting Amazon on Cyber Monday

Max Zahn

Cyber Monday means an online shopping bonanza, but also an uptick in the packaging and shipping that follows every click — especially at e-commerce giant Amazon (AMZN).

Hundreds of thousands of Amazon warehouse workers nationwide spent Cyber Monday packaging products — while a few others spent a snowy afternoon in midtown Manhattan alongside some 50 supporters rallying outside the apartment of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

“This is the time when people are shopping the most, when Amazon makes the most money,” said Hiba Aly, 20, a former worker at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, who attended the rally. “We won’t be quiet until workers are treated as human beings, not robots.”

More than half of American households are expected to have an Amazon Prime membership by the end of the year, but a growing backlash against the company — led by progressive firebrands and fed up workers — has put its market power and warehouse conditions under scrutiny. The protest on Cyber Monday took place in the epicenter of anti-Amazon sentiment, New York City, where grassroots organizations and elected officials pushed Amazon to withdraw plans for a second headquarters in February.

‘The importance of Cyber Monday’

As holiday shopping ramps up, so have worker protests. The rally on Monday comes less than a week after about 150 workers and supporters demonstrated at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, where they delivered a petition signed by more than 600 workers demanding longer breaks and improved transportation to and from work. 

Last week also marked the launch of a nationwide anti-Amazon organization called Athena, made up of about 40 community and labor groups, which seeks to address what it considers the company’s grueling working conditions and monopoly power.

“Convenience is a good thing, but we need the perspective that Amazon’s convenience means the livelihoods of people are getting hurt, from workers to communities to our economy and our democracy,” says Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of the New York City-based community advocacy group ALIGN, a member organization of Athena. “That’s the importance of Cyber Monday.”

“What do these low prices mean for the livelihoods of Amazon workers?” she adds.

A handful of workers attended the protest on Monday alongside community members, ALIGN said. Other workers could not attend because of the extra hours they work over the holidays, the group added.

Hiba Aly, 20, a former worker at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York who addressed the crowd at a protest in Manhattan on Monday.

In an interview on Monday with Yahoo Finance Reporter Krystal Hu inside an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville, New Jersey, Amazon Spokeswoman Alison Flicker described the worker protests as “small events” that “are not representative of the thousands of people who love working for Amazon, many of them right here in Robbinsville, and who have great jobs, competitive pay, comprehensive benefits.”

“The folks working at our fulfillment centers, these are the heart and soul of our company, and we pay really close attention to the safety and security of these folks,” she told Hu. “We’ve invested millions of dollars in this and will continue to do so.”

Amazon challenged the notion of widespread discontent among its workforce, saying in a statement that “fewer than five workers” attended the protest at its Staten Island facility last Monday.

“The fact is that Amazon provides a safe, quality work environment in which associates are the heart and soul of the customer experience,” the statement said. “The notable lack of Amazon employee participation shows that associates know this to be true.”

Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a community organization that helped organize the rally last Monday, disputed Amazon’s claim about the number of workers in attendance.

“Amazon is trying to distract attention from its own data, which shows that workers in this warehouse suffer serious illness and injury at a frequency worse than mine workers and other notoriously unsafe jobs,” Axt said in a statement.

“This action was exactly what it was planned to be — dozens of Amazon worker leaders formed a powerful delegation to present demands signed by over 600 of their co-workers, surrounded by hundreds of allies committed to standing by them.”

An investigation published a week ago by The Atlantic and Reveal, which drew upon internal records from 23 of the company’s 110 fulfillment centers across the country, showed a rate of serious injuries at the facilities that was more than twice the average for the warehousing industry.

Community organizations in New York released a report last week that showed a rate of illness and injury at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island last year that was three times higher than the overall national rate for warehouse work, citing data compiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, a federal agency charged enforcing workplace safety rules.

Amazon Spokesperson Ashley Robinson told The Atlantic and Reveal that injury rates at the warehouses are high because the company is “aggressive about recording worker injuries and cautious about allowing injured workers to return to work before they’re ready,” the article said.

Addressing the report on injuries at the Staten Island facility, Amazon provided Yahoo Finance with a statement: “It’s inaccurate to say that Amazon fulfillment centers are unsafe and efforts to paint our workplace as such based solely on a snapshot of injury recordings is misleading given the size of our workforce.”

An Amazon associate picks items from a mobile shelving unit called a pod at the newest Amazon Robotics fulfillment center during its first public tour on April 12, 2019 in the Lake Nona community of Orlando, Florida. The over 855,000 square foot facility opened on August 26, 2018 and employs more than 1500 full-time associates who pick, pack, and ship customer orders with the assistance of hundreds of robots which can lift as much as 750 pounds and drive 5 feet per second. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The protest on Cyber Monday follows a day of protests held earlier this year on Prime Day, July 15, another major annual sale put on by Amazon.

Organizers estimated over 100 workers went on strike at a warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, over a six-hour period on Prime Day. The workers demanded a reduction in their hourly production quota as well as the hiring of temporary workers as full-time staff. Several Amazon engineers flew to Minnesota and joined the workers in a show of solidarity.

Workers at the facility in Shakopee held a three-hour strike last March that prompted negotiations with Amazon officials. The company later agreed to lighten the workload for the workers over the holy month of Ramadan and designate a conference room as a prayer space, organizers said.

‘There is always a legislative role’

Thirteen Congresspeople, including Senator Bernie Sanders as well as U.S. House Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sent a letter in July calling on OSHA to “immediately investigate chronic violations of workplace safety at all Amazon warehouses.”

Last October, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sent a letter criticizing Amazon after the leak of an anti-union video reportedly produced by the company and sent to managers at the Whole Foods grocery chain. The letter came soon after Amazon raised its wage floor to $15 an hour, a move widely praised by Democratic lawmakers.

Democratic House Rep. Max Rose, who represents Staten Island and part of South Brooklyn, vowed last week to support Amazon workers at the facility.

“There is always a legislative role around workers’ conditions and workers’ rights,” he says. “What I can also tell you is that there’s also a role for me as the Congressman for South Brooklyn and Staten Island to be right alongside them, drawing attention to this.”

Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.

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