Tim Bray, a senior engineer and vice president at Amazon Web Services, has quit his job because he was “dismayed” that the company fired whistleblowers who were trying to draw attention to the dire straits of Amazon warehouse workers, he wrote in a blog post.
“Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised,” Bray said. “So I resigned. The victims weren’t abstract entities but real people; here are some of their names: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed, and Chris Smalls.
“I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both,” the post continues. “Right?”
Amazon fired Cunningham and Costa, two workers based in Seattle, earlier this month after criticizing the company on Twitter. The two had also been critical of Amazon’s climate stance, part of the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group that demanded the company’s AWS division end its contracts with oil and gas companies. Bray writes that, compared to the higher-paid workers at AWS, warehouse workers have little power within the company’s current structure.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about power balances,” Bray writes. “The warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and (in the US) job-linked health insurance. So they’re gonna get treated like crap, because capitalism. Any plausible solution has to start with increasing their collective strength.”
Amazon has faced withering criticism for a slew of complaints about how it has treated its warehouse workers who say they lack protective equipment and are kept in the dark about whether co-workers have tested positive for the virus. In addition to Costa and Cunningham, the company fired six tech employees who took a sick day in April to protest Amazon’s treatment of workers. Amazon also fired New York warehouse worker Chris Smalls who organized a walkout in March. The company said Smalls was fired for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk.”
Later reports suggested that Amazon planned to publicly smear Smalls and discredit the budding labor movement within its workforce. New York Attorney General Letitia James called the firing “disgraceful” and pushed for an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board.
Amazon has hired 175,000 workers in the past several weeks to keep up with the spike in demand for delivery goods amid the ongoing pandemic. It raised workers’ pay by $2 an hour through May 16th for a base hourly rate of $17.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos praised workers in a note to investors announcing the company’s first quarter earnings. “We are inspired by all the essential workers we see doing their jobs — nurses and doctors, grocery store cashiers, police officers, and our own extraordinary frontline employees,” Bezos wrote. He added that the company expected to spend $4 billion on COVID-related charges in the second quarter. “If you’re a shareholder in Amazon you may want to take a seat.”
But workers say the company’s efforts have fallen far short, and Bray writes that it’s a structural problem that existed before COVID-19.
“The big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” he wrote, adding that it was the nature of 21st century capitalism. “Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”