NEW YORK – Union leaders and workers’ rights activists harshly criticized on Wednesday e-commerce and technology giant Amazon.com Inc. after one of its employees in New York City died of COVID-19, accusing the company of not doing enough to protect its staff from the novel coronavirus and firing individuals who have spoken out about working conditions.
The unidentified deceased employee worked at an Amazon fulfillment facility in the borough of Staten Island, where some workers had staged a walk-out in late March to denounce allegedly dangerous conditions inside the warehouse. In April, the company also acknowledged that two other workers had died of COVID-19 at a pair of facilities in California.
“The passing of a Staten Island Amazon worker yesterday due to COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for the tech giant. Too many workers still feel that, in the middle of this terrifying pandemic, Amazon is not doing enough to keep them and their communities safe,” Christy Hoffman, the general secretary of the UNI Global Union, which represents 20 million people in 13 work sectors worldwide, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“When workers are willing to risk their jobs and go on strike because they are in harm’s way, management should listen to their concerns,” Hoffman said. “Unfortunately, instead of rewarding the hard and often dangerous work of its warehouse employees, Amazon has fired those demanding that the company takes their health seriously and respects the protocols put in place to keep everyone safe.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the Seattle-based company is accused of firing several employees who publicly criticized its coronavirus safety conditions. One case that attracted the attention of the media and even Democratic Party senators was that of Chris Smalls, an assistant manager who lost his job on March 30 after organizing the Staten Island protest.
In a joint statement Tuesday night, a coalition of workers rights activists said the death of the Amazon worker in New York City was the “predictable outcome of Amazon’s and (founder and CEO) Jeff Bezos’s reckless drive to profiteer off of the pandemic at any cost to Amazon workers, their families and the public.”
Authorities must intervene in the wake of the first known death at Amazon’s massive Staten Island warehouse, according to the statement by workers rights leaders Jonathan Westin of New York Communities for Change, Deborah Axt of Make the Road New York and Maritza Silva-Farrell of ALIGN.
“This corporation will not act in the interest of protecting us. It is time for our government to listen to the workers’ demands and act,” they said, noting that workers across the country have unsuccessfully called on the company to close warehouses for a two-week sanitation period (with full pay for employees).
Earlier this week, a vice president at Amazon Web Services, Tim Bray, said in a blog post that he had resigned “in dismay at Amazon firing whistle-blowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19.”
On May 1 (Labor Day in much of the world, though not the United States), workers at Amazon and other retail and home-delivery companies held a coordinated sick-out to protest what they said were inadequate safety conditions during the pandemic.
Amazon has seen an unprecedented increase in its business volume since the onset of the coronavirus and accompanying stay-at-home and social-distancing measures, which have forced many brick-and-mortar stores to close and eliminated much of the e-commerce giant’s competition.
The Seattle-based company said on April 30 that it had hired an additional 175,000 people in its fulfillment and delivery network in the US in response to increased customer demand.