By Brett Wilkins

A senior engineer and vice president at Amazon announced on Monday that he is resigning “in dismay” over the company’s termination of employees who speak out against dangerous and potentially deadly working conditions during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A ‘Chickenshit’ Company

Motherboard first reported the departure of Tim Bray, an Amazon vice president and Distinguished Engineer, citing a blog post in which he originally called the Seattle-based tech giant “chickenshit” for its “firing of whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19,” the potentially deadly disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed over 266,000 people worldwide, including more than 70,000 in the United States. Several Amazon warehouse workers have died from the illness, including ones in New York, California and, most recently, Illinois.

“The victims weren’t abstract entities but real people,” wrote Bray. “Here are some of their names: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed, and Chris Smalls.” He sarcastically added that, “I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both.”

“Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised,” Bray, who had worked at the company for almost six years, wrote.

Life and Death

According to one crowdsourced Covid-19 tracker, at least 270 Amazon warehouse workers have tested positive for coronavirus; at least 29 workers at the JFK8 fulfillment center warehouse in Staten Island, New York have become ill. Experts continue to warn that the number of positive cases is “likely to exponentially increase” in the near future as Amazon leadership fails to devise and implement an effective nationwide safety plan.

“I have a weak autoimmune system and have been on unpaid leave since February 28,” Jordan Flowers, a robotics technician at JFK8, who signed the petition, told Motherboard. “I’m not planning to go back to work, and I will most likely be penalized for that. This is a scary time for any Amazon worker with health problems.”

“Treat your workers like you treat your customers” was a common refrain during recent protests against Amazon, an appeal based on the company’s guiding principle of “customer obsession.” However, it seems as if CEO Jeff Bezos is more obsessed with punishing employees who dare speak out against Amazon policies and actions than pretty much anything else these days.

Adding literal insult to injury, a leaked email first published by Vice News last month revealed how an Amazon executive mocked Smalls, the fired black organizer, as “not smart or articulate.”

Christmas in February

Another of Amazon’s core principles is “frugality,” as infamously illustrated by Ethics In Tech founder and chairman Vahid Razavi in his free e-book, Ethics In Tech & Lack Thereof: Sleeping Under the Cell Tower. Razavi, a former Amazon manager, wrote that “frugality is the genesis of many water cooler jokes” at the company, which “holds its ‘holiday party’ in February.”

“I’m not talking about Presidents’ Day or Valentines Day, or Black History month, either,” Razavi wryly added.

Frugality, however, is more than a joke, as lately it means Amazon is treating the lives of its essential employees as if they were worth less than a cheap package. For example, on April 1 it announced it would terminate its unpaid leave policy, which allowed workers to call in sick without facing repercussions. Amazon warehouse workers must now apply for a leave of absence and provide documentation to human resources personnel in order to be granted time off if they haven’t saved up sufficient vacation time.

Amazon also drew widespread rebuke after Bezos and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey said that one of the options available to workers was for them to “donate” their “paid time off” days to a pool that other workers could draw from. “The burden of coping with this pandemic should not fall on those who are least able to pay for it,” said a MoveOn petition against the policy. “Especially when Amazon and Whole Foods receive huge tax breaks from the government. Bezos can afford to pay for these needy workers from his own personal wealth without breaking the bank. It is obscene that he is trying to foist this responsibility off onto his hourly workers.”

Fighting Back

Amazon workers have responded to the company’s recent policies and actions in a variety of ways. Some plan to deliver thousands of signed petitions to the homes of Bezos and Jay Carney, the former Obama administration White House press secretary who is now, through the ever-revolving door between public and private sectors, Amazon’s spokesperson. The petitioners are demanding the reinstatement of the company’s unlimited unpaid leave policy. Carney has come under fire, including from former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for defending Amazon’s termination of Smalls.

Other Amazon workers are staging walkouts in New York City, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan. Last month,  more than 400 Amazon warehouse workers staged a mass “sickout” to protest the company’s treatment of its workers during the ongoing pandemic. On May 1, International Workers Day, Amazon employees, as well as workers from its Whole Foods subsidiary, joined workers from many other companies in a one-day strike to protest their treatment during the outbreak. Grassroots labor organizations including United for Respect, Warehouse Worker Resource Center, the Athena Coalition, New York Communities for Change, and Make The Road New York have been organizing the demonstrations.

“This is a matter of life or death,” Christian Smalls, a former Amazon worker mentioned in Bray’s resignation blog post who was fired from a Staten Island warehouse in March, told the Washington Post at the May Day event he helped organize. “The virus is killing some of our employees.”

C’est le Capitalisme…

Amazon claims that “nothing is more important than the safety of our teams,” and that its “employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis.” However, the way it shows its appreciation — a $2 an hour increase in wages and two weeks of paid sick leave for those who test positive for coronavirus and are placed in quarantine — has been slammed as woefully inadequate, even insulting, given the essential nature of the work done by employees.

Collectively, America’s billionaires increased their wealth by $282 billion during just 23 days during the initial coronavirus lockdown, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive Washington, DC-based think tank. During that same period — March 18 to April 10 — more than 22 million people in the United States lost their jobs and the unemployment rate soared to around 15 percent. The same study found that Bezos, the world’s wealthiest human being, increased his fortune by over $25 billion this year, an “unprecedented wealth surge” larger than the gross domestic product of Honduras.

Bray’s resignation post concluded with a harsh indictment of capitalism. “At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response,” he wrote. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”

Photo credit: Democracy Now/Creative Commons, via @SumOfUs (Twitter)

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