Amazon is facing criticism because of poor working conditions

Amazon is experiencing a backlash as more reports are published about its poor working conditions.

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Sean Ellis
April 5, 2021 11:33 pm

Where does one begin with this? Amazon was once heralded as the epitome of the American Dream. A bullish businessman once took a risk to launch an online bookstore. The online store survived turbulent years and finally made a profit after 6 years. It would grow immensely in the following years, branching out from books to clothes, groceries, electronics and any other item you can think of. The businessman who once had a vision would become the richest person in the world and the online store, Amazon, would become a multinational company worth over $1.7 trillion.

The journey has not been smooth. A company doesn’t get a $1.7 trillion valuation without being ruthless. As more information from staff leaks out, we are starting to understand how ruthless Amazon has been. Complaints have been made by staff asking for longer breaks, the pressure from being constantly monitored and the worryingly high injury rates in warehouses. Overworked staff don’t feel valued so they leave or get fired. Either way turnover is high.

But there is one thing that has really caught the public’s attention. Amazon warehouse staff are under so much pressure to meet their productivity targets. Reports are leaking out (no pun intended 🤣 ) of workers urinating in bottles because they aren’t given enough time to go to the bathroom! In fairness to Amazon, they have responded to this story saying if it were true, no one would work for them. But reports persist. Now it has taken on a life of its own. Any attempt that Amazon makes to promote itself – donations, supporting a cause, or even an April Fool’s joke – is met with replies that reference urinating in bottles.

Amazon is coming under fire and isn’t getting much public sympathy. While staff are fighting for better conditions, Amazon is resisting. Of particular note is its resistance to unionization of workers and an old training video for managers. In the video tips are given to managers on how to spot “union activity” and how to appear like a manager that isn’t spying on staff. It doesn’t quite portray Amazon in a good light.

Alex Bakalov
April 8, 2021 8:22 pm

Amazon is at war, fighting a difficult PR battle of geting public opinion on its side. Influence has always been a powerful way to change public opinion. It happened during the days of ancient empires when court officials would travel to remote outposts to speak well of the sovereign, and it happens today. Why? Because it works. 

Think about the last time you watched a YouTube video discussing a controversial topic. Maybe it’s a beef between two YouTubers. This is always happening, right? You may have formed a strong opinion about it and taken one side. But then you see the comments of people taking a different view. You have a think about your original position an now you’re not so sure. That right there is an example of influencing public opinion. It’s very powerful. Sometimes we don’t even know it is happening.

Amazon has been trying to tap into this, using online ambassadors to talk about how much they enjoy their workplace. There have been a few mistakes, though. One account @Ok4At, which is now suspended, described himself as “Husband. Father. Happy Amazon employee.” The user went on to tweet “Unions are good for some companies, but I don’t want to have to shell out hundreds a month for lawyers!!” So maybe there are geniunely happy Amazon employees who don’t want to unionize. One problem. The profile photo of this user beared a strong resemblance to Tyler Toney, one of the members of Dude Perfect. In fact, the profile photo was identical. Whoever set up this account shouldn’t have used the image of someone who has 55.7 million subscribers on YouTube!

Amazon ambassadors or defenders go by the handle of @AmazonFC followed by a first name. One can’t say for certain if they are fake users or genuine employees. A plausible scenario is that they are actual employees who are given incentives to post positively about Amazon. They seek out criticism of Amazon and reply by defending the company and its employee benefits. Although some attack these accounts for being paid ‘shills’, the fact remains that it can work very well. The battleground is the internet and the prize is public opinion.

Carly Sembre
April 7, 2021 3:00 pm

This has been a PR disaster for Amazon. Publicity of Amazon’s bad working conditions has got so bad that Amnesty International ran a campaign urging Amazon to let workers unionize ( Amnesty International suggests that Amazon is denying its staff their fundamental human rights, and provides a template to contact Jeff Bezos directly.

Equally damaging is evidence that Amazon has been spying on its employees. The lengths that Amazon has gone to monitor employee activity exceeds anything that could be termed reasonable!

I can’t speak for Amazon workers, but I would have a major trust issue if I knew my employer was infiltrating and monitoring private Facebook groups set up by staff. Some staff have allegedly been fired for complaining that safety procedures are insufficient. And another action by corporate, reported by the Seattle Times, is the decision to delete calendar invitations to a virtual event to discuss warehouse working conditions.

Personally, these actions cross a line that would make me feel the company cares more about maximizing profit than looking after its employees.

It also shows that you cannot group everyone who works for a large multinational into a singular identity. I have heard people do this many times. “Everyone who works for Company X is ruthless.” These comments are unhelpful because it doesn’t take into account the differences in responsibility and hierarchies within the company, let alone the personality differences of each employee.

I once did a community outreach presentation for a bank I worked for. When I finished my presentation we had a Q&A session. I kept being asked inflammatory questions about the bank that had nothing to do with my department, the Corporate Social Responsibility team. I explained that I worked for a different team but the audience only saw me as an employee of the bank and felt entitled to grill me on projects I had no clue about. A very frustrating experience.

Amazon’s actions don’t put it in a good light. But I feel for those in the company who are doing good work such as supporting local community charities and reengineering the business to be carbon neutral by 2040. They all fall under the Amazon umbrella and share the criticism being levelled against the company.

Amin Rashad
April 7, 2021 3:11 pm

Amazon’s reaction to the criticism is rebellious. It is fighting back. Over the past 10 years or so there has been shift in business-customer relations. A common saying was “the customer is always right”. But social media has changed this. Businesses have been creative in how they respond to customer complaints and some don’t hold back when shutting down trolls.

A week ago I read about a Chinese restaurant that went viral because of the way the owner was responding to bad reviews. Unlike the usual apology and offering of a discount, the owner left responses that insulted the customers. Responses such as “What sort of idiot orders Salt and Pepper Chicken and then complains it has salt in it” have made the restaurant very popular 🤣

Amazon isn’t calling its customers idiots but it is fighting back against the criticism, even from politicians. United States Senator Elizabeth Warren has gone on the public attack against Amazon but Amazon is fighting back. It’s an interesting dynamic because both politicians and big business don’t get much public sympathy. Amazon is unpopular because of its reputation as a ruthless employer and tax avoider, whereas politicians are unpopular because of policies that are detrimental to the country. Public approval of politicians is low because of the feeling that they are looking out for themselves and their careers instead of looking out for what’s best for the country. 

Amazon’s reactionary tweets have been a topic of conversation among colleagues in my workplace social media team. They are convinced it’s the wrong way to respond. One theory is that the Amazon News Twitter account may have been hacked because the tweet activity is different to its usual style. This is unlikely because the tweets are still up. Other reports say going on the attack has been a direct order from Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, who is unhappy about how the company hasn’t aggressively pushed back when criticized (Source: Vox Recode).

Jason Ng
April 7, 2021 9:45 pm

In a rational world public anger against a company would result in lower revenues and profits. With Amazon this isn’t the case. Amazon is so large, ubiquitous and entrenched as a market leader, it’s as if we can’t live without it. 2020 is probably the most disruptive year in our lifetimes so far. Within a short span of time the coronavirus spread around the world, possibly changing the way we live and do business forever. There were many losers in 2020. Amazon wasn’t one of them.

During the height of the pandemic we heard about the concerns of ‘Amazonians’ working in fulfilment centres. Not only were the working conditions stressful, but there was an ‘atmosphere of fear’ as staff were unsure if sufficient precautions were being taken to protect them from Covid-19 transmission. Despite all this Amazon had its most profitable year ever.

Amazon’s revenue reached a soaring height of $386 billion in 2020 and its profits grew by 84% compared to 2019 (Source: Forbes). Given the huge numbers we’re working with here, 84% profit growth is enormous! Amazon’s reputation might be taking a hit, but so far its business model remains unscathed.