If we want better conditions for Amazon staff we need to be patient…

The tech giant has often been accused of mistreating workers, but our desire for instant gratification is part of the problem

Tim Bray resigned as an Amazon vice-president last week. “Who he?” I hear you say. And why is this news significant? Answers: first, Bray is an ubergeek who’s an alumnus of many of the outfits in tech’s hall of fame (including DEC, Sun Microsystems, the OED project at the University of Waterloo, Google’s Android team and, eventually, Amazon Web Services); and second, he resigned on an issue of principle – something as rare as hen’s teeth in the tech industry.

In his blog, he wrote: “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.” It was an expensive decision. Bray said the decision to resign would probably cost him more than a million dollars in salary and shares, and that he regretted leaving a job he enjoyed, working with good colleagues. “So I’m pretty blue.”

The background to Bray’s decision to leave his dream job as VP and distinguished engineer at Amazon Web Services was that Amazon had apparently fired several employees who had protested against the workplace conditions at warehouses amid the coronavirus pandemic. According to Bray, some employee activists responded by organising a petition and a video call on Thursday 16 April, featuring warehouse workers from around the world, along with guest activist the writer Naomi Klein. An announcement sent to internal mailing lists on 10 April was apparently the catalyst: Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two members of the internal campaign group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, were dismissed that same day. Bray wrote that the justifications were “laughable” and that it was obvious to any reasonable person that they were sacked for whistleblowing.

At that point, said Bray, he snapped. He raised a complaint through internal channels, following company procedure. “That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.”

A few points of clarification might be helpful. There are, in effect, two Amazons. Bray worked for Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s vast and immensely profitable cloud computing platform. It was, he said, a very agreeable place to work. It treated its staff well, strove to allow them to achieve a proper work/life balance, made efforts to improve the diversity of the workforce, and was by and large an ethical organisation. More important, perhaps, AWS geeks have power. The average pay is very high, and anyone who is unhappy can easily get another job at a similar or better salary. So their employer has to handle them with care.

But the events that led Bray to resign happened in the other bit of Amazon – the warehouse operation that has been serving as part of the critical infrastructure of economies under lockdown. He said it was all about the balance of power. The warehouse workers were weak and becoming ever weaker, given that coronavirus was fuelling mass unemployment and because, in the US, health insurance was often linked to your job. “So they’re gonna get treated like crap, because [that’s] capitalism. Any plausible solution has to start with increasing their collective strength.”

Amazon staff often have to inspect and scan hundreds of packages an hour.
Amazon staff often have to inspect and scan hundreds of packages an hour. Photograph: Kevin Mohatt/Reuters

It does, but making it happen would require overcoming the vehement opposition of the big tech companies – who regard unionisation the way the rest of us regard crocodiles. Amazon happens to be especially prominent in this regard, but that’s because – unlike other tech giants – it actually employs huge numbers of people doing relatively mundane (but, as we now realise, critical) work. There have been numerous media reports about how pressurised work can be in its warehouses – reports that are invariably contested by the company. By comparison, the other tech giants get off relatively lightly, because they employ relatively few non-technical staff in proportion to their revenues and profits. But they don’t want labour unions on their patches either.

Ironically, though, we consumers don’t seem to want unions either, especially if worker representation would lead to less pressurised working conditions in Amazon’s and other warehouses. After all, it’s our demands for near-instant gratification (AKA next-day delivery) that leads to a sorter on the outbound shipping dock of a warehouse having to inspect and scan 1,800 packages an hour – that’s 30 per minute – that are sent through a chute and transported on a conveyor belt before leaving on a truck for delivery. There was a time when I used to ask my teenage kids if they were happy buying a T-shirt in Primark at a price that meant that the worker in the Bangladeshi sweatshop who made it got less than a living wage. Maybe we should be asking the same questions for the things we order from Amazon. Do you really need that electric toothbrush tomorrow?

What I’ve been reading

The grim truth
“How does coronavirus kill?” A really sobering account in Science of the virus’s ability to rampage through the human body.

A matter of perspective
“The government’s response to Covid-19 and Brexit are intimately connected”. A bracing post by historian David Edgerton on his terrific blog.

Steps in the right direction? Unlikely…
Covid-19 and the future of “techlash”. Gloomy realism from the Brookings Institution blog about the non-likelihood of reining in the tech giants post-corona.


John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
When it comes to Amazon, breaking up is hard to do | John Naughton
Given the problems involved in regulating the tech giants, the EU commission’s targeted investigation seems the smartest way to achieve results

John Naughton

14, Nov, 2020 @4:00 PM

Article image
Healthcare is a huge industry – no wonder Amazon is muscling in | John Naughton
Boss Jeff Bezos is ahead of the game again, spying an opportunity for big data to transform the system

John Naughton

04, Feb, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
How Amazon puts misinformation on your reading list | John Naughton
Algorithms routinely come up with ‘recommendations’ for anti-vax ‘bestsellers’ or juices that can cure cancer

John Naughton

08, Aug, 2020 @4:00 PM

Article image
Who needs crisis government when you’ve got Amazon to keep things running? | John Naughton
While Trump blusters, the online giant has taken on the role of regulator and benevolent dictator

John Naughton

28, Mar, 2020 @4:00 PM

Article image
All I want for 2021 is to see Mark Zuckerberg up in court | John Naughton
The tech giants’ law-free bonanza is coming to an end on both sides of the Atlantic, but let’s speed up the process

John Naughton

02, Jan, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Why workers’ right don’t matter in Silicon Valley | John Naughton
The leaders of the world’s biggest technology companies are liberal on social issues and trade, but anti-union and anti-regulation

John Naughton

10, Sep, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Tech giants face no contest when it comes to competition law | John Naughton
Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market ought to be blocked by monopoly regulators, but as long as they keep delivering the goods no one seems to mind

John Naughton

25, Jun, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Been duped on Facebook and Amazon’s platforms? Well, you’re not alone | John Naughton
Allowing third parties access to the online giants is as risky as it is profitable

John Naughton

31, Aug, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
Have the tech giants finally had their bubble burst? I’d hate to speculate | John Naughton
For the first time in the tech industry’s history, combined real revenue growth is negative rather than positive and some corporations may yet be facing an existential decline

John Naughton

06, Aug, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Wanted in the digital monopoly age – powers to curb the hold of online giants | John Naughton
Analysis by Lina Khan reveals how Amazon exploits outdated thinking about competition

John Naughton

16, Sep, 2018 @6:00 AM