Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, is the richest man in the world and controls one of the internet’s most powerful shopping destination. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is an outspoken advocate for America’s working class and has spent much of his political career campaigning for the restructuring of the country’s financial and corporate system.
And so it seems fitting that Bezos and Sanders are now locked in a battle over workers’ rights.
Sanders has repeatedly spoken out against Amazon, and last week, he sent out an email to his supporters asking them to join forces against Amazon, which he accused of paying its workers poor wages while its CEO and founder amasses unprecedented wealth. The email accused Amazon of engaging in “greed which seems to have no end” and encouraged readers to sign a petition that would impel Bezos to improve work conditions and increase wages.
The petition has received 120,000 signatures and garnered plenty of support across social media. Sanders also requested to hear from Amazon workers who have “used public assistance, such as food stamps, Medicaid or subsidized housing, in order to make ends meet.”
In a rare move from a company that seldom responds to complaints, Amazon fired back Wednesday, calling Sanders’s allegations “inaccurate and misleading.” Amazon accused Sanders of purposely seeking out negative stories, and insisted that it’s doing plenty for its workers.
Its response is a signal that while Amazon would probably prefer to remain silent when it comes to worker treatment and income inequality, those conversations have become more and more difficult to ignore — in part due to Sanders and the rising socialist wave he represents.
While Bezos is staggeringly wealthy, his employees are not
In 2017, Amazon reported nearly $178 billion in revenue. This success helped Bezos earn his title as the richest man of all time. According to Forbes, his net worth is $165.2 billion.
Amazon employs about 566,000 people around the world. That number does not include the independent contractors and third-party workers that help it operate, like drivers with Amazon Flex, who are not technically employees but are paid to deliver Amazon packages with their own cars. The company is often celebrated as a major source of employment opportunities, especially in its hometown of Seattle, where 40,000 people work for Amazon.
But Amazon has been followed for years by negative reports regarding workplace conditions and worker treatment. From reports about poor air conditioning to timed bathroom breaks to constant video surveillance, the list runs long. As Seth King, a former Amazon warehouse worker, told Vox in July 2018, Amazon’s work conditions are “grueling” and “depressing.”
“You spend 10 hours on foot, there’s no windows in the place, and you’re not allowed to talk to people — there’s no interactions allowed,” he said. “I got a sense in no time at all that they work people to death, or until they get too tired to keep working. After two months, I felt I couldn’t work there and maintain a healthy state of mind.”
Last year, only a few months after Amazon dropped $13.4 billion to buy the upscale grocery chain Whole Foods, data found that one in three Amazon employees living in Arizona must rely on food stamps because they do not earn a living wage.
In addition to immense wealth, Amazon also has plenty of muscle to flex. It’s had states bending over backward, offering tax deductions in order to court the e-commerce giant as it searches for a home for its second headquarters. In June, only a few weeks after Seattle passed a tax that would make big companies like Amazon pay extra to fund affordable housing and programs for the homeless, Amazon helped get the tax repealed.
Sanders takes issue with Amazon’s employment practices, and Bezos’s wealth
In the email sent out to supporters Wednesday, August 22, with the subject line “Jeff Bezos,” Sanders pointed out this discrepancy.
“I want to ask you to clear your mind for a moment and count to 10,” the email read. “In those 10 seconds, Jeff Bezos, the owner and founder of Amazon, made more money than the median employee of Amazon makes in an entire year. An entire year. Think about that.”
The senator wrote about how the issue of Amazon employees relying on tax-funded programs is a national one.
“Thousands of Amazon employees are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and public housing because their wages are too low. And guess who pays for that? You do,” he wrote. “Frankly, I don’t believe that ordinary Americans should be subsidizing the wealthiest person in the world because he pays his employees inadequate wages.”
Amazon isn’t the only large American company Sanders has come after. He recently focused his attention on Disney, working with the Disneyland Resort union to advocate for the company to raise its wages for workers inside its parks. In July, Disney agreed to raise its wages from $11 to $15 over the next two years.
Sanders has spoken about Bezos’s wealth and his treatment of employees in the past. On Amazon Prime Day, he organized a town hall meeting in Washington, DC, where he invited King, the former Amazon warehouse worker, as well as workers from Disney, McDonald’s, American Airlines, and Walmart, to talk about their employers.
Amazon workers in Europe were striking on Prime Day to illustrate these exact issues, and at the time, Sanders told Vox that he hoped Bezos “will explain why he thinks it’s acceptable that he makes hundreds of millions of dollars a day while Amazon employees are grossly underpaid and forced to rely on government programs to survive.”
In the email sent to supporters on August 22, Sanders also took issue with the fact that Bezos intends to spend his wealth on a pet project: space travel through Blue Origin, his secretive aerospace company that he’s called his “most important work.”
“Well here is a radical idea: Instead of attempting to explore Mars or go to the moon, how about Jeff Bezos pays his workers a living wage? How about he improves the working conditions at Amazon warehouses across the country so people stop dying on the job?” the email read. “He can no doubt do that and have billions of dollars left over to spend on anything he wants.”
Amazon responded by showing off its muscles
Amazon rarely responds to criticism. President Trump has called out the company — and Bezos — multiple times on Twitter, tweeting about its questionable tax practices, as well as its usage of the United States Postal Service, and yet Amazon has never responded.
The uproar Sanders has created is clearly striking a nerve, though. In a blog post published Wednesday, Amazon accused Sanders of continuing to “spread misleading statements about pay and benefits.”
For example, the company says that Sanders’s characterization of its employees who are on food stamps is inaccurate, as the workers in question chose to work on a part-time schedule, which automatically qualifies them for SNAP benefits. It also points out that Amazon created 130,000 new jobs over the past year, with salaries commensurate with the average hourly wage in retail — and challenges “anyone to compare our pay and benefits to other retailers.”
The response notes its “climate controlled, safe workplace” and says its employee benefits include “health insurance, disability insurance, retirement savings plans, and company stock.” Amazon also wrote about additional perks it offers, like 20 weeks of paid leave for parents, as well as a program that covers the cost of tuition, textbooks, and school fees for 16,000 employees.
Amazon is also inviting people to take tours of its fulfillment centers; the invitation comes right on the heels of the company trying to orchestrate a PR campaign.
Fourteen Twitter accounts identifying themselves as Amazon fulfillment center workers suddenly appeared last week and have been openly lauding Amazon’s employee treatment. The FC ambassadors, as Amazon calls them, share how they receive bathroom breaks, sit in tolerant temperatures, and work under pleasant management.
No food stamps needed for this Amazonian!— Phil - Amazon FC Ambassador (@AmazonFCPhil) August 10, 2018
In the US average full-time associates earn more than $15/hr' with full benefits from day one on a 40 hr work week. I feel happy with my job and am looking forward to space vacations — Adam - Amazon FC Ambassador (@AmazonFCAdam) August 18, 2018
While it initially seemed to be a grassroots movement, a reporter for Yahoo found that while FC ambassadors volunteer to tweet, they are also being rewarded with Amazon gift cards and an extra day off.
Amazon won’t address the Bezos wealth issue, and it probably can’t
Even with Amazon calling out Sanders so publicly, the senator is not budging on the issues he’s raising, and says the company’s response is not adequate. A few hours after Amazon published its blog post, Sanders responded to the e-commerce giant that he was looking forward to visiting a fulfillment center in September, and that regardless, he’ll be asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate the work conditions at Amazon warehouses.
Amazon is remaining decidedly mum about anything pertaining to Bezos, and doesn’t even mention its CEO in its defensive blog post addressed to Sanders — even though Sanders has called out Bezos out by name many times and takes issue specifically with the discrepancy between his wealth and the wages of his employees.
It’s a typical strategy straight out of Amazon’s playbook, probably because the only way to address a controversy of this size is to not address it at all.
The fact that the company is taking issue with statements from Sanders speaks to its awareness that some people view Amazon as the epitome of income inequality — a topic that Sanders himself has helped bring to the surface. The belief that capitalism is a broken system, and that giant corporations only feed the problem, was once relegated to the relative fringes of public conversation. But it was brought to the forefront of American discussion during Sanders’s presidential bid in 2016. The senator is still on this crusade, and he’s also galvanized an entire new crop of leaders who follow in his footsteps, like New York Democratic House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Amazon’s position at the center of this discussion is clearly a narrative it wants to counter, and silence is no longer an option. Once a small shopping site operating out of a garage in Seattle, Amazon is now slated to account for 50 percent of American e-commerce sales by 2019. As it reigns, it can’t ignore glaring inconsistencies, like how it easily earns billions while its workers complain of not being able to earn a decent living. And whether or not Amazon wants to address it, this conversation about inequality inevitably will involve Bezos — if not for the fact that his wealth will only continue to grow, then because he is now a public, global figure who is under constant scrutiny.
As for accounts of employee treatment, they are rolling in to Sanders, and they are grueling. One former worker from Fort Worth, Texas, wrote how he “was homeless sleeping in the parking lot after I no longer could afford rent.” Another worker from Harrisburg, North Carolina, told Sanders that “it felt worse than being in jail some days. There is so much more to the story and if had the money and resources I would have sued them.”