Amazon And Its People Practices

Amazon And Its People Practices

Amazon is in the news for a wrong reason!

Business Today reports: The NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) took suo motu cognisance of a media report that stated that at one of Amazon India’s warehouses “a 24-year-old worker was asked to pledge that they would not take toilet or water breaks until they finished unloading packages from six trucks, each measuring 24 feet long, after their team’s 30-minute tea break had ended”. The commission stated that if the contents of the report are true then this tantamounts to serious human rights violation of the workers as well as violation of labour laws and guidelines by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment. 

The same report further states: “Amazon India, in its response, had earlier told Business Today, “The safety and wellbeing of our employees and associates is our top priority. We’re confident the infrastructure and facilities at our fulfilment centres are industry leading, designed to ensure a safe and comfortable working environment for our employees and associates.”

This episode raises important questions, so let us examine Amazon’s record.

That takes us to the book ‘Hired – Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain’ (2018, Atlantic Books) and its author James Bloodworth. He decided to find out the reality of the precariat and worked in four well known organizations, Amazon being one of them. He recorded his experience in his book, and it tells us the reality at the warehouses; Amazon calls them ‘fulfilment centres’. (Readers may like to read the book review of Hired in The Guardian)

James Bloodworth, the author, notes this in his preface: (I Quote) “ … while identity is a subject that is often talked about in today’s world, few comprehend the extent to which this is often bound up with an individuals’ work – something that is especially true of men. In other words, the indignity of many contemporary low-paid jobs is about more than material poverty alone; to be poorly paid is bad enough – but to effectively be denied the right to take a toilet break (74 per cent of Amazon warehouse workers are afraid to take toilet breaks because of high productivity targets, according to the group Organise) is an appalling assault on a person’s sense of dignity and self-respect.” (Unquote)

You will readily see what happened at Manesar was nothing new; it was happening in Britain in 2018 or earlier. And it was also happening in India; it just got noticed. It is happening at all their warehouses (fulfilment centres) across the world. Amazon employs 1,521,000 employees (2024 Q1) and I believe that this figure does not fully represent the workers including those engaged through contractors. The magnitude of the problem at the global level should be clear.

The toxic culture at Amazon will be evident from this quote from the book: (I Quote) “According to a recent survey of Amazon’s staff by the GMB Union:

  • 91 per cent would not recommend working for Amazon to a friend.
  • 70 per cent of staff felt that they were given disciplinary points unfairly.
  • 89 per cent felt exploited.
  • 78 per cent felt their breaks were too short.
  • 71 per cent reported that they walked more than ten miles a day at work. (Unquote)

Why did not workers (in Britain) go to the Court? ‘Employment tribunal fees were introduced in July 2013, meaning that a disgruntled employee must now fork out up to GBP 1,200 to bring a case to a tribunal.’

There was a large group of migrant workers (at Rugeley, Britain) at Amazon where James Bloodworth worked.

Compare the situation in our country: We have migrant workers, typically from UP and Bihar, working on such jobs in our country. They must send money home. Going to Court may be relatively easy, there are many lawyers who would be willing to take up a worker’s case, but how long it takes to get the decision? And paying the lawyer’s fees will be beyond his reach. Effectively it is ‘justice denied.’

James Bloodworth writes, (I Quote) “Rules as I have already stated, were not really rules at all at Amazon. A good example of what I mean by this was the time allotted for break. Over the course of a normal day, workers were entitled to one break of half an hour and two ten-minute breaks. The half-hour break was unpaid, but the shorter breaks were paid. The ten-minute breaks were actually fifteen minutes in total, but an extra five minutes (which you were not paid for) were tacked on to the ten in order to account for walking from the further reaches of the warehouse to the canteen. In practice it took seven minutes to walk from the back of the warehouse (ten football pitches, remember) and through the airport styled security scanners to the break area. When the two minutes it took to get back to the pick desk at the end of the break were factored in, the ‘fifteen-minute break’ totalled about six minutes.”

Poverty compels people to accept precarious work. While the National Human Rights Commission has acted promptly and intervened, there are issues which we should think about:

  • Why is it that in our country complaints about precarious work are rarely (if at all) made to the Labour Commissioner? Does it show complete lack of trust in the Government machinery eyes of common workers?
  • Why unions are now behaving like sleeping beauty who is ‘awakened from a charmed sleep by the kiss of the prince (the capitalist) who is her true love?’
  • While we should applaud initiative of the National Human Rights Commission to investigate, can Amazon be tamed? It is a big monster which can influence the Government response if not the policies.

We should not be surprised if Amazon somehow kills the story of NHRC’s decision, it is killing the human spirit anyway.

PS: Read the Amazon Story where Amazon admitted to workplace safety lapses. It was published on July 6, 2024

Pic courtesy: Umit Yildirim on Unsplash