Amazon labor conditions under scrutiny by California lawmakers

by Avi Asher-Schapiro | @AASchapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 September 2021 16:25 GMT

FILE PHOTO: People protest in support of the unionizing efforts of the Alabama Amazon workers, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 22, 2021. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

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Warehouses in California could be forced to disclose productivity quotas and ban harmful targets under draft law

* California mulls landmark law on warehouse productivity quotas

* Draft bill could transform how Amazon warehouses are run

* Industry groups say proposed regulations risk driving jobs away

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

LOS ANGELES, Sept 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After five months working at an Amazon warehouse in Southern California, Yesenia Barrera lost her job in the summer of 2019 after being warned about spending too much time in the bathroom.

The 22-year-old, who was not told she had been fired but arrived to work one day to find her pass deactivated, said she felt let down by Amazon.com Inc and criticized the e-commerce giant's productivity quotas and workplace surveillance.

"I was working as hard as I could, but a supervisor gave me one warning," Barrera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "One day I showed up, and I wasn't allowed in - like I was fired by an algorithm for going to the bathroom."

Her case is not uncommon nor specific to Amazon, according to lawmakers in California who have drafted a landmark bill that would require warehouses to disclose productivity quotas and ban any such targets that endanger the health and safety of workers.

Proponents of the draft law say it could help address power imbalances between workers and employers and ultimately lead to similar regulation in other industries, while critics have called it too broad and misguided due to the focus on quotas.

"This is the first of its kind we know of in the U.S," said Democrat Lorena Gonzalez, author of the bill known as AB 701, which passed the California Assembly in May and is awaiting a vote by the state Senate.

"We need to step in to make sure that workers remain safe," said the Assembly member, whose bill also offers new protections for workers who raise concerns about unreasonable quotas.

While the bill covers the entire warehouse sector, Gonzalez said Amazon had pioneered a combination of worker surveillance and algorithm-led management that allows employers to set unsafe productivity goals, and quickly dismiss workers who fall short.

The company declined to comment on the bill or Barrera's case, but said in a statement that it supported its workers.

"(We are) committed to giving our employees the resources they need to be successful, creating time for regular breaks and a comfortable pace, and working directly with anyone who needs additional support," an Amazon spokesperson said by email.

FUTURE OF WORK

Home to the two busiest ports in the U.S, the California logistics and warehouse sector is seen as a bellwether for trends in the e-commerce industry, and has emerged as a battle ground between labor unions and Amazon over working conditions.

Amazon - one of the top employers in California - said in a report last year it had created more than 150,000 jobs in the state, yet labor advocates fear that excessive productivity quotas are fuelling increasingly harsh working conditions.

A 2020 report by the union-backed Strategic Organizing Center found that the serious injury rate for Amazon workers last year was more than double the rest of the warehouse sector.

The Amazon spokesperson defended its safety record, saying that the company worked closely with health and safety experts and conducted thousands of inspections daily in its buildings.

Assembly member Gonzalez said the issue of quotas was not unique to Amazon or the warehouse industry, and hoped the bill could set the stage for oversight in other sectors including the gig economy.

"Workplaces are changing - and when we talk about the future of work, we need to think about the future of our workers," she said.

However, Rachel Michelin - head of the California Retailers Association - said the bill was too wide-ranging and would place an undue burden on the whole logistics sector, not just Amazon.

"We will see some of these warehouse distribution centers move out of the state of California," said Michelin, whose association features Amazon among its board members.

Michelin said she would support giving more resources to health and safety inspectors to ensure warehouses comply with existing law, but that focusing on quotas did not make sense.

Yet Caitlin Vega, who is backing the bill on behalf of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said it would boost transparency around labor conditions and better protect workers who hail mainly from marginalized and low-income communities.

A 2019 study by the University of California at Berkeley found that workers of color are overrepresented in the warehouse industry, constituting two-thirds of such staff despite accounting for just 37% of the total U.S. labor force.

The bill is set to be voted on by the California Senate before the end of its session on Friday, and Barrera is hopeful.

"If the law had been in place (in 2019), I don't think Amazon would have penalized me for going to the bathroom," said Barrera, who now works as an organizer for the Warehouse Worker Resource Center. "And that is a good thing."

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(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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