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September 30, 2021

Amazon vs humans: Fired staff who criticised Covid conditions must be compensated

By Robert Scammell

Amazon has reached a settlement with two former employees who alleged they were fired for “speaking up about workers’ conditions during Covid”.

Amazon will be required to pay lost wages to Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, who were sacked in April 2020.

The tech giant is also required by the settlement to notify its employees across the US that they cannot be fired for “organising and exercising their rights”.

Amazon has avoided a potentially lengthy process that could have seen witnesses publicly describe their experiences working for Amazon.

“This is a win for protecting workers’ rights, and shows that we were right to stand up for each other, for justice, and for our world,” the pair said in a statement. “Amazon will be required to pay us our lost wages and post a notice to all of its tech and warehouse workers nationwide that Amazon can’t fire workers for organizing and exercising their rights.”

An Amazon spokesperson said on Wednesday: “We have reached a mutual agreement that resolves the legal issues in this case and welcome the resolution of this matter.”

The two workers complained to the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) in October 2020. In April this year, the NLRB found that Amazon had illegally fired them.

Amazon reached a private settlement with the two women on Wednesday.

The NLRB regional director must first approve the settlement before the charges against Amazon can be officially withdrawn.

The pair had worked as user experience (UX) designers at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters for 15 years.

They began criticising Amazon’s efforts on climate change in 2018, creating an employee advocacy group. During the pandemic they publicly questioned Amazon’s safety protocols and shared a petition from warehouse workers asking for more Covid-19 protections.

This resulted in Costa and Cunningham’s dismissal, sparking a backlash from US Democrats at the time.

Amazon working conditions scrutinised again

It is not the first time that Amazon’s workplace environment has come under scrutiny. It apologised for falsely denying that its drivers are sometimes forced to urinate in plastic bottles while out on deliveries, allegedly due to punishing schedules.

In June a leaked document showed that Amazon expected its warehouse workers to burn 400 calories per hour, a similar work rate to being a galley slave.

Amazon workers in Germany this year went on a four-day strike to coincide with the company’s Prime Day, one of its busiest events, to make Amazon acknowledge collective bargaining agreements.

The Jeff Bezos-founded company has also faced criticism for its hiring practices in the past. In 2018 it was forced to scrap an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that showed bias against women because the model was trained to spot patterns in previous hiring history. Because most previous successful applications were from men, the AI system learned that male candidates were preferable.

More recently, a California judge signed a bill into law banning large retailers such as Amazon from using productivity algorithms to fire warehouse staff.

Amazon has been on a hiring spree throughout the pandemic because of soaring demand for its products. On Tuesday, Amazon said it has started recruiting for 20,000 temporary positions across the UK to deal with the expected Christmas and Black Friday surge. It has 55,000 permanent employees in the country. It has offered signing on bonuses in a bid to secure workers in a tight labour market.

The company has often struggled to maintain staffing levels. A New York Times investigation in June found that Amazon has a staff turnover rate so high that executives were reportedly running out of new people to hire.

“Covid has shown that people, more than the technology, are Amazon’s key resource,” Laura Petrone, principal thematic analyst at GlobalData, previously told Verdict. “Even Jeff Bezos recognised that Amazon should move from a customer-centric company to one that creates more value for its employees.”