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Making Amazon Pay: Organised Labour and the Climate Movement Strike Back

By Cassius Smith Frazer

As the first quarter of the 21st century draws to a close, major players in the once revered tech sector are now facing a significant backlash against their exploitative practices.

On this year’s Black Friday, an international coalition of trade unions, activists groups and NGOs have taken coordinated action under the banner of the Make Amazon Pay campaign to demand Amazon stops its exploitation of both the environment and workers.

Make Amazon Pay
We are workers and citizens divided by geography and our role in the global economy but united in our commitment to Make Amazon Pay fair wages, its taxes and for its impact on the planet. Join us and #MakeAmazonPay

A Global Infrastructure of Exploitation

Most people will be familiar with Amazon through their direct experience with its online retail and delivery service, and perhaps the opulent antics of its erstwhile CEO Jeff Bezos.

However, whilst its logistics operation is vast, Amazon generates the lion’s share of its profits from Amazon Web Services (AWS), a subsidiary which provides on demand data and cloud services all underpinned by the company’s massive data centres.

From humble beginnings as an online book retailer, Amazon has grown rapidly into a global behemoth, ubiquitous across multiple dimensions of the fundamental infrastructure of the global economy.

But the company’s reputation has fallen from grace as case after case of workplace exploitation has come to light, alongside other misdemeanours.

In a recent article a reporter for voice.wales who went undercover as an Amazon courier summarized the situation faced by workers as consisting in “… ridiculous van rental fees, overbearing employee surveillance, and … dire working conditions within the warehouse itself”

The article included evidence that suggests overworked employees had to resort to urinating in bottles and defecating in bags due to productivity pressures and insufficient toilette facilities (this is not the first time this has been documented at Amazon).

On another note, massive concentrations of privatised computing infrastructure, such as Amazon’s data centres, underpin much of the contemporary boom in so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ and data science.

The company also has a service for the equally crucial task of sorting and labelling data needed to train AI algorithms, facilitated via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace, a gig economy platform which subjects workers to atomisation, and intense exploitation.

Furthermore, recent reports have shown that the company is leveraging its data and AI muscle to help ramp up fossil fuel extraction.

A Coalition Strikes Back

Workers across the Amazon’s supply chain have started to push back, with major unionisation efforts being undertaken in the US, UK union leaders publicly stating their intention to follow suit, and walkouts occurring at company HQ over inaction on climate change.

This Black Friday’s campaign against the company consisted in strikes from warehouse workers and delivery drivers in Germany, Italy and France and supportive protests in a further 22 countries around the world. 

It is significant in both its international scale, its targeting of multiple domains of the company’s operations, and also the coalition it embodies between organised labour and the climate movement.

According to a Diem25 press release, the coalition carrying out today’s action was convened by UNI Global Union and the Progressive International and includes “…over 70 trade unions, civil society organisations, environmentalists and tax watchdogs including UNI Global Union, the Progressive International, DiEM25, Oxfam, Greenpeace, 350.org, Tax Justice Network and Amazon Workers International.”

The coalition demanded that the company “… pays its workers fairly and respects their right to join unions, pays its fair share of taxes and commits to real environmental sustainability” (a full list of ‘Common demands’ can be found here)

Amongst the activist groups engaging in supportive protest was Stroud founded Extinction Rebellion, which according to a BBC article carried out demonstrations at 13 UK Amazon sites including the largest distribution centre in Dunfermline, Fife.

Quoted in the same article, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson said “The action is intended to draw attention to Amazon’s exploitative and environmentally destructive business practices, disregard for workers’ rights in the name of company profits, as well as the wastefulness of Black Friday.”

Ecological Politics of Solidarity

Along with the broader environmentalist movement in the global north, Extinction Rebellion has often faced criticism from the left for ignoring that exploitation of the working class shares a common cause with environmental destruction and climate change under capitalism.

Some have called for a more concerted effort to enjoin workers struggles and environmental activism to develop an ecological politics of the working class, and the Make Amazon Pay campaign may be a sign that such calls have proved influential.

Make Amazon Pay may be telegraphing that the future of the labour and climate movements will lie in a political recognition that the culprits behind worker and environmental exploitation are the same and efforts to gain leverage over giants of global capitalism should be carried out through international solidarity, and coalitions which take class seriously.