UK must compel Amazon to improve worker conditions, say unions

The UK government should use the influence it has over Amazon through GBP630m of state contracts to compel the company to improve conditions for workers, trade unions have said.

The TUC issued a report criticising Amazon’s employment practices on Monday, the eve of Prime Day – an annual event when the online retailer offers deals but that unions have said pushes hardworking staff to their limit and beyond.

In a joint statement with the GMB union, the TUC called on the government to improve workers’ conditions through an upcoming employment bill but also to force Amazon’s hand by using its powers as a client of the company.

Amazon has won GBP23m in state-funded work since the pandemic started, including GBP8.3m related to the beleaguered NHS test and trace app, taking the total value of its UK government contracts since 2015 to GBP630m.

A spokesperson for Amazon said it was working with government to deliver testing kits rather than a test and trace service, adding: “We are continuing to work closely with the government on this service, have delivered more than 3m Covid-19 testing kits and to date, we have waived all fees and charges for this service.”

The TUC and GMB said these contracts – calculated by the specialist procurement organisation Tussell – meant ministers could force the company to improve conditions for workers.

They said workers have described gruelling conditions, unrealistic productivity targets, surveillance, bogus self-employment and a refusal to recognise or engage with unions unless forced.

Ambulances were called out 600 times to 14 Amazon warehouses in Britain between 2015 and 2018, which the GMB said was because workers were collapsing in unsafe, intense working conditions.

“If ministers are serious about improving lives they must help level up working conditions at places like Amazon,” said the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady.

“Amazon workers have played a key role during this pandemic. But many are treated like disposable labour. That is not right.

“Public contracts should not reward bad working practices.”

She said the government also had a “golden opportunity” to strengthen labour rights and improve pay in the upcoming employment bill.

The TUC want the bill to include:

  • Better union access to workplaces.

  • The banning of zero hours contracts.

  • Stronger laws to protect supply chain workers.

  • Ending “bogus” self-employment.

The TUC is holding an event on Monday entitled Challenging Amazon, discussing ways to address perceived injustices suffered by Amazon workers.

The GMB’s Mick Rix said: “This report is a warning to the public sector that it can no longer turn a blind eye to Amazon’s exploitative practices and appalling health and safety record.

“It’s time for UK government and safety regulators to either tell Amazon’s management to put their house in order or send them packing.”

Trade unions across Europe recently clashed with Amazon after it posted a recruitment advert for staff whose job description involved keeping tabs on organised labour.

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In the US, Amazon came under pressure after revealing that almost 20,000 of its workers in the US have contracted Covid-19 after months of demands for public disclosure from activists.

It has not published similar figures in the UK, where deliveries have continued and even increased during the pandemic as homebound shoppers turned to online retail.

The firm recently announced that it would create 7,000 jobs in the UK to meet increased demand of warehouse and distribution jobs.

A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson said: “The government will not tolerate the exploitation of vulnerable workers for commercial gain.

“We have committed to establishing a single enforcement body for employment rights to provide a clearer route for workers to raise a complain and get support, while providing a consistent approach to enforcement.”

A spokesperson for Amazon said: “Over the last 10 years we’ve invested more than GBP23bn in the UK, and this year we announced plans to create another 10,000 new jobs by the end of 2020, taking our total UK workforce to over 40,000.

“Amazon is a safe place to work. Yet again, our critics seem determined to paint a false picture of what it’s like to work for Amazon. They repeat the same sensationalised allegations time and time again.”

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