Thanksgiving weekend 2018 will go down as a historic event for Amazon: It was the company’s biggest shopping event in history, with shoppers ordering a record 180 million items over the five-day period. Cyber Monday alone broke company records as Amazon’s biggest shopping day ever.
But the weekend was not just about sales. Shopping holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday come with a serious human cost, particularly for Amazon warehouse workers. While hundreds of millions of people around the globe were placing Amazon orders, the company’s European workers were staging strikes in an effort to protest wages and poor work conditions.
In England, workers protested outside five major Amazon warehouses, starting at 6:30 am on Black Friday; the protestors shouted chants like, “Next-day delivery should not mean a lifetime of pain for Amazon workers,” according to reports covering the protests.
In Germany, about 600 workers walked out of their warehouses in the towns of Bad Hersfeld and Rheinberg, according to Reuters. In Vercelli, Italy, managers had to pack boxes after workers walked out of the facility, according to Italian press.
In Spain, the trade union organization CCOO told the Associated Press that 90 percent of workers at a warehouse near Madrid staged a walkout on Friday and Saturday, leaving only two people to staff the loading dock. (In a statement to Vox, Amazon denied these claims, saying that the “on Friday, the majority of our associates at Amazon’s Fulfillment Center in [Madrid] were working and processing our customers’ orders, as they do every day.”)
This is not the first time Amazon warehouse workers in Europe have held protests. On Prime Day, Amazon’s very own Christmas in July, workers in Spain, Poland, Germany, Italy, and France staged strikes and boycotts. And just as Prime Day was chosen to derail sales and get the most publicity for the strikes, European workers who protested over Black Friday weekend said they chose the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to purposely hit the e-commerce giant.
“It is one of the days that Amazon has most sales, and these are days when we can hurt more and make ourselves be heard because the company has not listened to us and does not want to reach any agreement,” a five-year Amazon employee told the AP.
Amazon are treating their workers like robots. Workers are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and being taken away in ambulances.— GMBCouncillorsNet (@GMBCouncillors) November 24, 2018
These are people make Amazon its money, it's time they were treated with dignity and respect.#AmazonWeAreNotRobots pic.twitter.com/cnm750Zv0Q
The workers who protested over Thanksgiving weekend are asking for a number of things, including increased wages, better work conditions, and the ability to unionize. In a video put together by England’s general trade union GMB that was posted to Twitter Saturday, Amazon warehouse workers also simply demanded they not be “treated like robots.”
It might be an ongoing battle, though, seeing as Amazon’s logistics center, according to one former warehouse manager, is to operate like a “well-oiled machine.”
There are reports of poor conditions inside Amazon warehouses
The fight for fair wages and decent conditions inside Amazon warehouses is long and tumultuous. For years, workers have complained about long and grueling hours, timed bathroom breaks, unbearable temperatures, automatic firings for taking breaks that are longer than an hour, and an eerie surveillance system.
Over the summer, the discussion over poor work conditions at Amazon in the US peaked when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) challenged founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, to increase wages. Amazon initially denied it treated or paid workers unfairly, calling allegations “inaccurate and misleading,” but shortly afterward, it announced it was increasing rates for its US employees to $15 an hour (a move that cut company stock grants and bonuses).
Just last week in Minnesota, East African workers from an Amazon warehouse in Minneapolis had a rare win when Amazon agreed, in an unprecedented move, to listen to complaints. The workers had brought up issues of dehydration, exhaustion, and injuries from the job, as well as Amazon’s overall insensitivity to Muslim practices.
In Europe, though, the fight continues to wage on. GMB, the union that helped Amazon warehouses in the UK protest, found in an investigation that 600 ambulances visited British Amazon facilities, and that that there were 602 reports to England’s Health and Safety Executive; medical issues included electric shocks, bleeding, trauma, and issues with pregnant women who were forced to stand for 10 hours.
Announcing the Black Friday protests last week, GMB general secretary Tim Roache said in a statement that Amazon workers were working in conditions that were “inhumane.”
“They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious, and being taken away in ambulances,” he said. “We’re standing up and saying enough is enough, these are people making Amazon its money. People with kids, homes, bills to pay — they’re not robots.”
“You’d think making the workplace safer so people aren’t carted out of the warehouse in an ambulance is in everyone’s interest, but Amazon seemingly have no will to get round the table with us as the union representing hundreds of their staff,” Roache continued, calling Bezos “the richest bloke on the planet” and saying, “Working people and the communities Amazon operates in deserve better than this. That’s what we’re campaigning for.”
In a response to the Black Friday weekend protests, Amazon sent the following statement to Vox:
Amazon has invested over 27 billion EUR and created over 75,000 permanent jobs across Europe since 2010. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay, full benefits, and innovative training programs like Career Choice that pre-pays 95% of tuition for associates. We provide safe and positive working conditions, and encourage anyone to come see for themselves by taking a tour at one of our fulfillment centers.
Amazon continues to deny claims
Amazon denies that these worker strikes in Europe affected its operations over the holiday weekend.
“Our European Fulfillment Network was fully operational on Friday as our associates focused on delivering for our customers,” Amazon said. “Any reports to the contrary are simply wrong. We respect the rights of groups and individuals to have their voice, but for us it was business as usual inside our Fulfillment Centers.”
Amazon also told Vox it was a “fair and responsible employer.” Union reps from GMB claim workers had to strike because Amazon will not address work conditions or wages, but Amazon said it believes “in continuous improvement across our network and maintain an open and direct dialogue with our associates.”
According to TechCrunch, two members of Parliament have already reached out to Amazon in the UK and Ireland to ask for a meeting in Parliament with union organizers, but Amazon has yet to respond.
Ahead of tomorrow's protest at Amazon Rugeley, I’m calling on the company to sit down with @GMB_union to talk about union recognition and decent conditions for Amazon workers. Do the decent thing, or wait for a Labour govt to do it for you. #AmazonWeAreNotRobots @GMBWestMidlands pic.twitter.com/FoU6EgcncK— Tom Watson (@tom_watson) November 22, 2018
In the meantime, it’s unlikely that workers will back down, especially since the holiday season is just upon us and shifts in Amazon warehouses leading up to Christmas can get punishing.
“The global fight to get Amazon to treat its workers with respect is growing,” GMB’s Roache tweeted. “We’re seeing this, we’re feeling this. We’re going to fight and we’re going to win.”
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Update 11/27: This post has been updated to clarify details about protests outside Amazon warehouses in the UK.