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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Amazon faces backlash over US worker’s ‘inhumane’ sacking after coronavirus walkout
WASHINGTON: The complimentary hand sanitizer that was once on offer at every Whole Foods entrance is no longer available.
Walk into the 14th Street branch of the US multinational supermarket, bought by Amazon three years ago, and all the “wildcat” strikes and workers’ walk-offs that have rattled the company since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic will begin to make sense.
On the second floor, a group of 20 delivery workers are crammed in a small space near the public restrooms.
As their supervisor tells me about the safety protocols in place, the workers, wearing no masks and with bare hands, pass all sorts of goods to each other, packing them into paper bags emblazoned with the Amazon logo and loading them on to carts for shipping.
These unsafe practices are taking place at a time when Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has warned that up to 93,000 of the capital’s residents could test positive for coronavirus by July and as many as 1,000 could die.
“Sick or not, I have to come to work no matter what. I can’t afford to stay home. The bills are stacking up,” said one Whole Foods worker who waited for his shift to end to speak and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
“You talk to the press, you lose your job,” he said.
“The bosses only care about money, we are just robots to them.
“They’re bringing in a lot of people and giving them jobs. We have new people coming in all the time. We don’t know whether or not they have been tested. And we are in close contact with them all day,” he said.
Warehouse workers in Chicago, New York City and Detroit have walked out in protest at Amazon’s handling of the pandemic.
The company does not provide employees with paid sick leave. Workers who fall ill and are able to get tested for the virus are required to report for work while waiting for test results.
This can take days, leaving thousands of others in the warehouse and anyone they interact with outside at risk of contracting the virus.
Whole Foods workers across the country staged a “sick out” this week, the first collective national action in the company’s 40-year history.
Workers are demanding hazard pay, paid sick leave that doesn’t require coronavirus testing, and basic health and safety precautions during the pandemic, especially when their colleagues fall sick.
But when a warehouse worker, Chris Smalls, led a staff walkout over fears of a coronavirus outbreak at JFK8, one of the company’s busiest distribution centers in Staten Island, he was fired.
In a statement to ABC News, Amazon said that Smalls was sacked for breaking a 14-day quarantine and returning to work after he came in close contact with an employee who had tested positive for the virus.
But Smalls said that the employee who tested positive came into contact with many other workers for longer periods of time before her test results came back.
Smalls believes he was singled out after calling on management to be more honest about the number of workers who were sick.
“We’re not asking for much,” Smalls said. “We’re asking for the building to be closed and sanitized, and for us to be paid (during that process),” he said.
The JFK8 strike comes days after workers at another Amazon facility in Queens refused to work their shift after a fellow employee tested positive.
Smalls’ firing sparked indignation across TV networks and on social media.
“I am boycotting Amazon and Whole Foods this month, that’s just my personal plan,” one tweet said.
“Amazon, the company responsible for the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars in local state and federal taxes, and the destruction of millions of jobs, should be able to afford the best protective equipment for their employees and no one should be fired for saying that,” tweeted another.
New York attorney general Letitia James criticized Amazon and called for an investigation into Smalls’ dismissal.
“It is disgraceful that Amazon would fire an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues,” James said in a statement.
“In New York, the right to organize is codified in law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited.
“At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane,” she added.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts backed calls for an investigation, saying: “Corporations have a responsibility to protect their employees during this crisis. If they’re failing, employees must be able to raise concerns without fear of retribution.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio later announced that he has ordered the city’s Commission on Human Rights to launch an immediate investigation into Smalls’ dismissal, calling it “a violation of our city human rights law.”
The wave of negative publicity left Amazon scrambling for ways to deal with the growing scrutiny.
But what followed only made matters worse.
A leaked email from an Amazon executive meeting, published by Vice News, revealed company bosses discussed a PR plan to smear Smalls and make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” wrote Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in notes he took during the meeting which was attended by CEO Jeff Bezos.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the attempt to smear Smalls “a racist and classist PR campaign.”
“If execs are as concerned about worker health and safety as they claim, they should provide the fully paid sick leave all workers deserve,” she tweeted.
Labor rights advocates urged the public to support the Amazon workers.
“The richest man in the world can’t even provide basic protection for his workers during this crisis because it hurts his bottom line,” tweeted New York Assembly member Ron Kim, referring to Bezos.
“I stand in solidarity with Amazon workers.”
The “gig economy” workers — warehouse and supermarket workers, delivery drivers and those who produce food — used to be told their jobs were only transitional.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic, their role is deemed essential. Key workers know they are responsible for the transport of goods to people who desperately need them — and they are putting their own lives and the lives of their loved ones on the line to do their work.
This shift in public sentiment makes it unlikely that workers will be muzzled after Smalls’ episode.
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