Tracking or Backing? Learnings from Amazon Black Friday Protests

By Amanda Beattie
29 Nov 2021
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Just as a report highlighted the detrimental effect of AI monitoring on workers, the online retailer faced a Black Friday of protests. While workers cannot legally organise Amazon strikes in the UK, a lack of union representation contributed to the escalation.  

Let us look at how the situation developed, and what learnings employers can take from this.

Get in touch with any queries you might have around unionisation, salary benchmarking or workplace mediation. Call us today on 01455 858 132.

Global protests instead of Amazon strikes by workers

What happened on Black Friday 2021 with anti-Amazon protests?

An international coalition staged a day of action under the slogan “Make Amazon Pay”. Nearly 50 unions and organisations worldwide signed the list of demands under the campaign. Protesters gathered at company buildings across the UK, the US and Europe, as workers were arriving for one of their busiest days of the year. They demanded improved workers’ pay, ending surveillance and encouraging unionisation.

In the UK, protests took place in Coalville, Leicestershire, Coventry, Peterborough and Amazon’s London headquarters, according to the BBC. Organisations such as the Trades Union Congress, Momentum, and International Transport Worker’s Federation participated.

Looking back, tensions seem to have grown over the whole of 2021. Earlier in the year, Unite union urged Amazon to respect employees’ right to freedom of association in the UK and Ireland. This came after a failed attempt by workers in Alabama, US, to unionise.

Analysing how the situation evolved, we see that tensions seem to have aggravated in only half a year. The Black Friday protests put a further strain on the retailer’s reputation. Instead of negotiating with workers’ representatives, Amazon found itself in the spotlight over working conditions.

No employer wants to face a situation where tensions escalate to this point. Preventing such a revolt is always better than having to deal with a loss of trust and of reputation.

AI tracking and workers' health

Amazon faces further criticism outside of the Black Friday 2021 staged action day. Besides unions and environmental organisations taking on the slogan “Make Amazon Pay”, a group of MPs raised concern too.

Tired delivery driver

The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) called for an act to regulate the use of AI to monitor workers. Their “New Frontier: Artificial Intelligence at Work”, published on November 11th 2021, highlights risks to health from work-related surveillance. The report describes how workers experience “the extreme pressure of constant, real-time micro-management and automated assessment”.

In March 2021, Amazon made the news with their use of digital monitoring. Several media outlets accused the retailer of forcing machine learning surveillance cameras on their US drivers.

To support their Black Friday 2021 protests, the GMB union also released concerning figures. They showed an increase in ambulance callouts of almost 50% to Amazon warehouses in November. The company defended itself by saying that they have 40% fewer injuries than other warehouse-based businesses in the UK.

Correlating all these facts, further questions arise:

  • Is the company placing workers’ safety below business targets?
  • Does the retailer do enough to support their employees’ mental and physical health?
  • Will they be caught out by new laws that will restrict and regulate workplace monitoring?

If you have concerns over the health & safety of your workers, we offer 24/7 free advice on any matters you might want to look into. 

How Jeff Bezos responded to criticism

The company owner repeatedly stood accused of placing metrics before people. And while it is true that Amazon runs on strict efficiency rules, Bezos found himself on both the accused and the praised box on various occasions.

In 2018, he reacted positively to criticism from Senator Bernie Sanders. The Senator attacked the company and its owner for low wages paid to employees. Shortly after, Amazon released a statement to announce it had more than doubled the federal minimum wage. The company’s American worker's wages jumped from a minimum of $7.25/h to $15/h.

The 2018 situation counts as a good example of an employer reacting positively to criticism. The change attracted praise from the same Senator, who said that Bezos and Amazon were leading the way with the wage increase.

HR and employment law lessons to learn

Amazon’s situation could come across as one of a kind. As the second-largest employer in the US, after Walmart, and the fifth in the world, it can seem that the company has overgrown. However, several of the issues that campaigners and the MPs group raised are not specific to Amazon only.  

Amazon strikes no union

Other companies, big or small, face challenges as the global economy and ways of working change. Hybrid working has increased the use of employee monitoring, even when they work from home.  

With new employment law proposals, it is important that you prepare for future changes ahead of time. Also, preventing workplace conflict early will cause less disruption to your business than dealing with heightened tensions.

Discussing with workers’ representatives could spare you time and further complications. We can help you decide on the best way forward should your workers decide to unionise where they haven’t previously.

While business leaders can do all they can to avoid situations like the above, they cannot personally supervise everything that happens within the company. If workplace conflict does develop, make sure your contracts and documents are watertight.

A poorly written contract of employment, lacking confidentiality points, could expose your business to reputation damage. Imagine an employee who feels aggrieved over a conflict with their team leader talking to the media directly. If their contract and/or the handbook doesn’t provide strong guidance on such a situation you might find yourself in a very difficult position.

Get in touch today

The workplace is changing, and your business needs to change with it. While one of the biggest employers in the world is facing global protests demanding better working conditions and pay, your company doesn’t need to get caught in a similar situation.

Get in touch today so we can help you with any concerns around staff pay, monitoring or workplace tensions. Our professional mediators will support you through any difficulties you might face.

Call us today on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Amanda Beattie

Amanda represents corporate clients and large public bodies, including complex discrimination and whistleblowing claims. Amanda also drafts and delivers bespoke training regarding all aspects of employment law, including ‘mock tribunal’ events; in addition she also frequently drafts employment law articles for various publications for Croner and their clients.

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