Venkata: Amazon basics

Entire businesses ignoring fundamental worker safety is a story we’ve heard before.

by Uma Venkata

It’s possible that I never learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire in school, but I certainly heard about it at home as a fixture of Manhattan’s abuse of the working class, in the days of Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives” living in penury on the Lower East Side. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire is a textbook example of what happens to workers when their employer, a large company with a large output target, cares more about production than the safety and health of the workers.

That disaster happened on March 25, 1911, starting as a spark in a rag bin. As the spark ballooned into a fire, the sweatshop workers began to flee – but for many of them, it was impossible. Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t quite exist yet. But even to 1911 standards, the Triangle Shirtwaist owners particularly didn’t care about their workers’ safety. The fire started on the eighth floor, and 145 workers died from there. They were locked in from the outside with no way to escape. On April 5, 1911, over 100 years ago, the workers’ union held a march on Fifth Avenue to protest those horrendous conditions. Eighty thousand people attended.

This is a century behind us. Politics have evolved. We may buy clothes made in sweatshops in Asia, but working conditions in the U.S. can’t be nearly this dreadful.

Yes, working conditions in the U.S. have come a long way. But some problems persist.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to bear the news of Amazon’s ethical infractions to you. You’re a consumer just like me; you value convenience and competitive pricing, especially as a college student without a car but a definite need for pen refills.

One of Amazon’s repeat offenses concerns employee miscarriages. You may imagine that a pregnant woman should probably not be bending and carrying heavy loads repeatedly, but emergency services were called to Amazon’s warehouses in the UK more than 600 times between 2015 and 2018 for various health issues, which included reports of pregnancy-related concerns, including miscarriage. Another Amazon employee was expected to get back to work the day after a miscarriage. Warehouse workers have died on the job.

XPO Logistics is a company similar to Amazon in this respect; you might not have heard of it, but you likely use its business. Pregnancies have also been miscarried in XPO warehouses due to continuous, strenuous lifting.

Companies keep doing this because we keep telling them to. After all, we select “same-day shipping” on our order of toilet paper, phone charger and a shirt. It’s because of demand that workers are bearing this horrible brunt.

This doesn’t make intuitive sense. If Amazon, XPO and their brethren can’t keep a healthy workplace, why would they offer services that hurt the workforce in the first place? They offer it because it makes money.

We have the choice to tell our suppliers the same. Maybe it means we have to get our stuff from smaller companies or physical stores. But maybe supporting them means more jobs in safer workplaces for the women who lost babies because of Amazon — or because of us.