Unions: Amazon conditions ‘outrageous’ (but workers skip rally)
Earlier this month a can of bear repellent ruptured at the Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville, sending more than 20 workers to the hospital.
In response, about two dozen leaders of different workers groups and unions rallied outside the sprawling fulfillment center today, calling for better training and protections for warehouse workers -- and what they say are fairer production quotas to lessen the chance of a future accident.
Not a single worker from the Robbinsville warehouse attended the rally.
Yadhira Alvarez, a spokesperson for Workers United, called the bear repellent incident and other accidents “outrageous and unacceptable.”
“We are here today to tell the Amazon workers we are with you,” she said.
Debra Coyle McFadden, the executive director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, said with only a week to go before Christmas, the pace of work inside the Amazon warehouse is chaotic, but conditions must be safe.
She said Amazon, as a leading e-commerce business, “needs to take a stand and they need to invest in a serious health and safety program for their workers. These workers are not robots. They cannot just speed up.”
She said another bear repellent accident was reported earlier this year in Indiana, and in 2015 bear repellent was released at an Amazon Fulfillment center in Texas.
“Amazon as a leader needs to set the standard, and they need to do more," she said. "They need to invest their profit into a serious health and safety program.”
Other groups joining in the protest included New Jersey Working Families Alliance and New Labor.
State Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) attended the rally and said she stands in solidarity with the workers.
She said after the recent bear repellent incident, “it’s clear we need to step up the standards and work conditions at this facility.”
“Worker safety is more than important," she said. "It’s critical and based on some of the incidents that have happened, something needs to be done.”
A federal OSHA inspection at the Robbinsville warehouse in 2015 found 26 work-related accidents and illnesses had not been properly recorded by management.
Megan Chambers, co-manager of the laundry, distribution and food service joint board of Workers United SEIU, a member of the Warehouse Workers Standup Coalition, said the bear repellent incident and other problems reported at Amazon are not acceptable.
“That is unprecedented," she said. "It is shocking, we are not going to forget this, we are not going to let Amazon sweep this under the rug.”
She also said the workers "are going to continue to fight until every warehouse worker in New Jersey, at Amazon and every other fulfillment center has a safe job with good working conditions.”
After the rally Amazon released a statement that says it's a large and growing employer, "so it’s natural for union organizers to target our employees as a new source of profit for their business."
"We respect the rights of employees to join a union, but the fact is that what unions claim they want for Amazon employees already exist today — industry-leading pay, comprehensive healthcare, education benefits, and a safe, comfortable workplace," Amazon said in the statement. "At this site, employees earn $15 to $18.15 an hour. That is why most people at today’s media event are union employees and not current Amazon employees – Amazon employees are inside working together with leadership as a team to continually improve and provide a world class customer experience.”
Amazon went on to say it's not true its fulfillment centers are unsafe. It said operational meetings, new hire orientation, process training and new process development "begin with safety," and that safety audits are part of each program. Amazon said ongoing training focuses on preventing injuries while using new technology in its facilities.
"I encourage you to compare Amazon’s safety practices – as well as our pay and benefits -- with other retailers or employers," Amazon said in its statement.
It said the investigation into the recent bear mace incident is still ongoing, "and it’s too early to make too many suppositions about the root cause but the can was not ripped open or punctured by a robot."
"I can confirm that we’re in the process of removing that item from all robotics fulfillment centers and are making other adjustments to ensure it doesn’t happen again," Amazon said. "We’ve been working closely with OSHA through this investigation.”
Amazon said it has performance expectations for its employees "like most companies," but performance is evaluated over a long period of time to avoid undue short-term pressure on employees. Those falling short get dedicated coaching, the company said.