Amazon’s growing wealth and power during COVID-19
People die – and the rich get richer
by Omar A. Sulaiman
COVID-19 has had many huge detrimental effects on society. Hospitals are overcrowded, businesses are shutting down, and thousands are dying. According to Statistics Canada, over three million Canadians have lost their jobs. In the United States, workers have lost 38.5 million jobs since March (at this writing). The COVID-19 crisis has driven unemployment rates not seen since the 1930s Great Depression. But the crisis is not affecting everyone in the same way.
As millions of working class households lose income, the world’s billionaire class gets richer. According to Inequality.org, American billionaires have seen a collective wealth increase of $434 billion, up by 15%. The wealth of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, increased by $34.6 billion, bringing his total net worth to 147.6 billion USD. Fellow
billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have seen their wealth increase by $25.3 billion and $11.8 billion, respectively.
Why is it that – as the world’s workers struggle to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic—the obscenely rich just keep getting richer?
The societal effects of COVID-19 have boosted online businesses. As people practice social distancing, they turn to the Internet to stay in touch with one another, watch movies, and shop. For example, Zoom, a popular video-calling app, saw its usage increase by 200 million users in March alone.
No entity has been luckier than Amazon.
In an article published by The Guardian, Amazon reported an astounding $75.4 billion in revenue during the first quarter of 2020. Company sales – more than $33 million an hour – are 26 per cent higher than at this same time last year. For the second quarter, the company projects a revenue of $75 to $81 billion. Amazon sales are higher than ever. A worldwide pandemic seems to be a financial bonanza for Jeff Bezos.
Amazon’s increased revenue has come not only from a surge in sales. In April, the Canadian government and Amazon came to an agreement that would allow the company to use its national distribution network to deliver medical equipment across the country. Previously, this had been the job of Canada Post, but Ottawa chose to put Amazon ahead of our own public corporation. Why not fund Canada Post – a public service that deserves the means to protect its workers during this pandemic?
While Amazon’s efficient delivery system seems appealing, turning to Amazon as a resort for delivering medical supplies sets a dangerous precedent. As countries face emergencies, corporations like Amazon will seek ways to maximize their profits and monopolize essential services. For now, it’s the distribution and delivery of medical equipment. Tomorrow it could be transportation. Government should not rely on private businesses to get through a crisis.
In the state of New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would be pressing several billionaires to help get the state through this crisis. Bill Gates is to lead the ‘re-imagination’ of New York’s education system in preparation for the upcoming fall school term, which will be
conducted online. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt is to plan New York’s tech infrastructure, reimagining the economy post-COVID with a technology-centered focus. To top it off, Michael Bloomberg has ‘volunteered’ to set up a new test-and-tracing program that will be able to find the contacts of those infected with COVID-19 through their phones. As New York struggles against the coronavirus, the government is giving billionaires more and more control over various aspects of our lives, referring to it as ‘aid’. Not only is the government allowing billionaires to profit from a crisis, it is allowing them to encroach on many elements of public life.
Billionaires are seizing control of education, technology, and tracking. What’s next? Can you imagine Jeff Bezos leading the health care system, while Elon Musk takes over transportation? The rich are seeking more power in the context of the crisis. When the crisis ends, will they surrender this power? This is the new normal – where for-profit businesses have a hand in controlling every facet of our lives.
As billionaires make record profits, are workers reaping any gains?
Long before the pandemic, Amazon was notorious for its mistreatment of warehouse workers. An average day in an Amazon warehouse could include constant harassment to meet sale goals, as well as repeated threats of firing. Emily Guendelsberger, a former Amazon warehouse employee, highlights her experiences in her book On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America. She states that the job itself is physically demanding – workers are expected to be on their feet for 12 hours a day, with minimal breaks, carrying a scan gun that lists timed tasks. The scan gun not only tracks a worker’s ‘productivity’, i.e. their ability to complete the tasks within the allotted time, but also tracks their live location. Workers are expected to carry this gun with them even to the bathroom, allowing managers to take note of how often an employee takes breaks. Under these severely hostile conditions, some employees have even reported having to pee in a bottle when refused bathroom breaks, and failing to receive medical attention when injured. Some warehouses do not have air conditioning, and after hours of grueling labor, workers pass out from heat stress.
The ridiculous amount of revenue that Amazon generates is not reflected in the wages that its workers receive. They are subjected to
brutal working conditions, cartoonish abuse, and are still expected to surpass expectations daily. This has not changed with the pandemic – in fact, Amazon’s treatment of its workers has gotten worse.
In April, workers staged a walk-out strike at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, New York to demand increased protections against COVID-19. They demanded the shutdown of the facility for cleaning after multiple employees tested positive for the virus. The lead organizer of the strike, Chris Smalls, was fired for his role in demanding safer working conditions. Amazon claims Smalls was let go because he encountered someone who was sick. In an article written for The Guardian, Smalls emphasized that he was the only person fired and suspects that it is because of his efforts to organize. Further, in a leaked memo acquired by Vice News, Amazon executives referred to Smalls as “not smart or articulate” during a meeting with Jeff Bezos. Rather than listen to workers’ demands, Amazon chooses to ignore the problem and fire the organizer. They denigrated his character and tried to sweep the issue under the rug. This is how Amazon feels about its employees – they are not smart, not articulate, and not worthy of protection.
Recently, a warehouse employee in Brampton, Ontario told Global News that the company did not inform its employees that a worker at that facility had tested positive for COVID-19. He found out via casual conversation with a fellow co-worker. This failure to inform employees of COVID-19 cases puts workers and their families at risk. Had a fellow employee not told him, he would have continued his shift, potentially putting himself and others around him at risk. Employees have a right to know of any cases in their warehouse, but Amazon expects them just to continue working.
Tim Bray, an Amazon vice president, resigned at the beginning of May over Amazon’s mistreatment of its employees. He reported that Amazon fired three whistleblowers who spoke up for workers concerned about COVID-19. The whistleblowers – who had also been pushing for better climate change policy at Amazon – were said to have violated internal policies and were subsequently removed.
To top it off, Amazon in Canada recently announced that by the end of May, it will be ending ‘hero pay’ – given in recognition of hazardous working conditions due to the pandemic. The $2 wage increase and
double overtime pay will end by May 30, despite Amazon continuing to see a heavy demand for its products and services which are not likely to decrease any time soon. Amazon workers are generating company record-breaking sales in the midst of a crisis and cannot even expect to retain a measly $2 increase in their wages. Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, is billions of dollars richer.
It is now clearer than ever what Amazon thinks about its workforce. Employees often lack proper safety gear; whistleblowers and organizers are fired; and as they make Amazon record profits – workers can’t keep a wage increase. The bottom line: Amazon views its workers as an expendable commodity. The corporation cares much more about its profits than people. Amazon workers are referred to as the new ‘Red Cross’, providing essential items for customers across the country – so why aren’t they treated better?
What is the answer to Amazon’s misconduct? Should consumers boycott the company and force Bezos out of business? No. Amazon employs 840,000 people worldwide, and many customers rely on the e-commerce giant. Amazon, one might say, is a necessary evil, especially at a time when it is difficult for many people to shop elsewhere.
The answer is to nationalize Amazon. Amazon is a monopoly with a strong supply chain and distribution network – we can use this to benefit the public good over private profit. A nationalized Amazon would guarantee that its workers are protected by unions while maintaining its current operations. Employees would then be able to negotiate for better working conditions and wages. Amazon’s postal infrastructure could also be combined with national postal services in different countries, delivering essential goods everywhere. The corporation owns Whole Foods, which, under government control, could be used to deliver food to individuals that are unable to visit food banks due to the virus. The possibilities are endless.
The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that corporations do not care about us. The world’s billionaires do not care. Millions have lost their jobs and thousands are dying daily. Billionaires are taking advantage of the pandemic to increase their wealth and power. This dynamic is at the heart of capitalism – workers die, and the rich keep winning. The new normal isn’t just physical distancing and face masks; it’s a world where
corporations and capitalism control every facet of our lives, more than ever. But this is an important moment in history. The tide is turning against capitalism. We have a chance to transform our society, to put workers first. It is up to us to seize the opportunity.