UNITED STATES Amazon : When profits rise, so do occupational injuries

According to a study by the trade union institute Strategic Organizing Center* based on data reported to the US Department of Labor, Amazon’s phenomenal growth in profits is closely linked to a high level of occupational injuries (OI). 

From 2010 to 2020, Amazon has grown from 33,700 to 1.3 million employees. Its annual net income has grown from $1.1 billion to $21.3 billion and its founder, Jeff Bezos, has become the richest man in the world with a fortune of over $170 billion. 

Since his beginnings in 1994, Bezos has been obsessed with the need for speed in all stages of the production process. At Amazon, these methods have resulted in an accident rate twice as high as that of their competitors, and accidents are more serious with longer sick leave. But at Amazon, employees are under pressure to return to work while they are still recovering. 

As a result of management methods, the accident rate has continued to rise: from 7.5% in 2017 to 9% in 2019. In 2020, it has dropped significantly, to 6.5 % (but is still 63% higher than the rate recorded by competitors). 

This is because in March 2020, in the face of protests and wildcat strikes 

by employees worried about the development of the pandemic, Amazon was forced to temporarily suspend its measures on processing time for production operations, as well as its system of penalties for employees in ‘underperforming’ warehouses. Hence the slight decrease in 2020. 

Delivery workers, however, did not benefit from this loosening of restrictions, and the study found that the accident rate did not fall in this category in 2020. While the accident rate in distribution centres is 6.3%, tnat rises to 9.5% in Amazon delivery stations and 13.3% among subcontracted delivery personnel. In terms of road accidents, serious accidents are up by 25% compared to 2019. The majority of delivery drivers work for Amazon’s thousands of subcontractors, but their operating conditions are subject to Amazon’s rules: number of packages, routes, driving information and soon on-board cameras that will film the driver! 

As of October 2020, Amazon has reintroduced its system for increasing productivity and speed. For the majority of workers who suffer accidents, this is a direct result of the pressure on productivity and speed. According to many testimonies, even during the 

pandemic, Amazon sanctioned or threatened workers who did not keep up with the required work pace. 

The use of robots in some distribution centres that ship small and medium-sized packages puts employees under increased pressure, and serious accidents were 50% higher in 2019 than in non-robot centres. When an employee picks up or puts away an item, a timer starts counting down until the employee handles the next item. If the time lag between tasks is too long or if not enough items are handled per employee, the computer system alerts managers to punish those who cannot keep up with the robots. 

This is nothing less than the horror of capitalist exploitation, which generates profits at the expense of workers’ health and lives. It is easy to understand why workers are so determined to form unions at Amazon’s warehouses in the United States… and why the Biden administration is so determined to maintain anti-union laws.

Nathan Gatot 

* Founded by four US unions representing more than four million workers: SEIU (service employees), Teamsters (truck drivers), CWA (communications) and United Farmworkers (farm workers).