Amazon to change employee monitoring system criticised for treating workers as “robots”
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Amazon Store at Purdue

Amazon is to update its controversial employee monitoring system as serious injury rates soar at its US warehouses, while union leaders and politicians in Europe accuse the e-commerce juggernaut of treating its workers as “robots” and “slaves”.

The tech giant’s “Time off Task” programme, which uses algorithms to record workers’ hourly productivity, has come under intense criticism by unions and politicians who argue the system sets unrealistic targets for workers.

A fear of falling behind targets and being dismissed for poor productivity is leading to serious injuries among workers at the global employer, critics of the system state.

With six serious injuries per 100 workers, new data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows Amazon warehouse staff are suffering injuries at nearly twice the rate of other US employers, the Washington Post has reported.

A spokesperson for the company told the Post that Amazon had spent more than $1bn on safety measures in 2020, while in a letter to shareholders in April, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said his company “set achievable performance goals that take into account tenure and actual employee performance data”.

In a blog post published 1 June, Amazon’s Dave Clark said the company’s productivity metric “can easily be misunderstood”, but that it is primarily utilised to understand issues with workers’ software productivity tools.

While admitting the system can be used to identify underperforming employees, Clark said that, as of yesterday, US employees would see Time off Task average out “over a longer period”.

“The goal is to re-focus the conversations on instances where there are likely true operational issues to resolve,” he added. “We believe this change will help ensure the Time off Task policy is used in the way it was intended.”

My biggest concern is about Amazon’s push to break health and safety standards and to make staff work even faster

In addition to fears that Amazon’s surveillance of workers contributes to workplace injuries, the Seattle-headquartered firm has also been accused of spying on employees engaging in legal union-related activity in Europe.

Last October, trade union leaders signed a letter urging the European Commission to “open an investigation into Amazon’s potentially illegal activities against Amazon workers in Europe”. In response, 37 MEPs wrote to Bezos expressing concern over the retail giant’s “approach to ‘threat monitoring,’ which aims to repress collective action and trade union organising”.

The European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee organised a hearing last week to examine the impact of Amazon monitoring its workers and the company’s alleged anti-union activities.

In the hearing, Dutch trade unionist and MEP Agnes Jongerius said Amazon “disrespects core EU values” and that its surveillance of workers might be in breach of European labour, data, and privacy laws, as well as health and safety regulations.

“They roll out the same formula everywhere, both in the US and Europe: hiring staff on the most precarious contracts available and squeezing workers,” she said. “But my biggest concern is about Amazon’s push to break health and safety standards and to make staff work even faster. I am also concerned about its plans for cross-border agency work.”

Amazon recorded record sales during the height of the pandemic, with €44bn (£38bn) in Europe alone last year, despite the corporation paying no corporation tax in Luxembourg where the online retailer has based its European headquarters.

As scrutiny of Amazon’s tax planning increases, the company also faces questions over how it treats its more than 135,000 European employees to achieve its impressive financial results.

Giving evidence to the commission last week, Orhan Akman, a member of German trade union Ver.di, which in March called for strikes across six Amazon sites in Germany, said the company’s workers were “being used as robots”.

“They have no power in how they work and are told what to do by algorithms. But they are not robots or cogs in the wheel,” he said. “They have values and want to be treated as such.

“This is why we need regulation and rules on collective bargaining agreements to decide what conditions Amazon staff work under. Some have had to work even if they had coronavirus symptoms so we have to see whether the company is inflicting damage on its workers’ health.

Akman accused Amazon of refusing to discuss working conditions and basic rights, such as work-free Sundays, with trade unions for eight years.

The trade unionist also described Amazon as not just a trading company, but a tech company that operates as a state without borders with more financial power than some member states.

We must ensure Amazon does not undermine its workers and also ensure it pays its full contributions to social security systems

According to the committee, Amazon’s Bezos was invited to attend the public hearing last Thursday, but “declined” the invitation, instead choosing to answer questions in writing.

Jongerius criticised Amazon’s refusal to join the debate, saying, “a company of this size and importance has a responsibility and should not shy away from participating in dialogue with lawmakers”.

Seemingly in agreement, MEP France Jamet, a member of the Identity and Democracy Party and France’s National Rally, said Bezos’ failure to attend was “an insult to democracy and shows he doesn’t give a damn about his workers or for us”.

“Amazon doesn’t pay any tax in Europe, while its staff are treated like slaves, so the EU must work to break his slave running and other monopolies like this,” she added.

Also speaking at the hearing, Carmen Collado Rosique, director of Spain’s National Anti-fraud Office, said that while attempts by companies to shirk labour laws was nothing new, there needed to be a balance of power in the employer-employee relationship.

“We must ensure Amazon does not undermine its workers and also ensure it pays its full contributions to social security systems,” she remarked.

German Christian Democrats MEP Denis Radtke was also critical of Amazon’s refusal to engage with collective bargaining, describing the company’s tactics as “a targeted attempt to stop its employees from working together”.

Amazon has been contacted for comment.