Amazon employees are using Prime Day to push for better working conditions

Some Amazon employees in Europe are on strike, and people around the world are boycotting in support.

Seth King worked in an Amazon warehouse in Chesterfield, Virginia, for just two months last fall. But it was long enough for him to realize such “grueling, depressing” work conditions were bringing him to “the lowest point in my life.”

“You spend 10 hours on foot, there’s no windows in the place, and you’re not allowed to talk to people — there’s no interactions allowed,” King told Vox.

Plus, he added, the paycheck wasn’t even enough to cover his bills — he had to take a second job as a security guard to make enough money.

“I got a sense in no time at all that they work people to death, or until they get too tired to keep working,” he said. “After two months, I felt I couldn’t work there and maintain a healthy state of mind.”

King plans to speak out against Amazon Monday night in an event Sen. Bernie Sanders is organizing, CEOs vs. Workers Town Hall. King will join employees of Disney, McDonald’s, American Airlines, and Walmart to discuss the treatment of the companies’ workers.

And he’s not the only person criticizing Amazon. Amazon workers all across Europe are striking at warehouses. Shoppers are organizing boycotts.

Combined, these efforts are an attempt to draw attention to working conditions at Amazon on Prime Day — the annual shopping event that brings in more than $2 billion for the company. Amazon has come under fire for years over accusations of poor work conditions, and this year, employees all across Europe are determined to capitalize on publicity around Prime Day to push for change at their workplace.

In a statement to Vox, a spokesperson for Amazon said that “Amazon is a fair and responsible employer and as such we are committed to dialogue, which is an inseparable part of our culture. We are committed to ensuring a fair cooperation with all our employees, including positive working conditions and a caring and inclusive environment.”

The spokesperson added that Amazon has “invested over 15 billion EUR across Europe and have created over 65,000 permanent jobs since 2010 and provides a safe and positive workplace with competitive pay and benefits from day one.”

Why Amazon critics are picking Prime Day to protest

Amazon sees Prime Day as a PR opportunity and its own version of Black Friday. Prime Day attracts a ton of attention: Tech sites curate their picks of the best deals, competitors like Target predictably announce sales of their own, and random brands elbow their way forward on Twitter to make sure shoppers know they’re participating. Prime Day brought Amazon $2.41 billion last year, and it’s projected to hit $3.4 billion this year.

But after striking on Black Friday in 2017, Amazon workers are now using Prime Day as a chance to call for better working conditions. The strike from European employees officially started last week, with a European workers’ union, the Transnational Social Strike Platform, announcing that workers in Spain, Poland, Germany, Italy, and France would participate. The workers want “health and decent jobs for all Amazon workers,” and their specific reasons for striking depends on their location. In Poland, for example, it’s because of “miserable salaries”; in France, it’s due to “the very demanding measures to control times and efficiency.”

“The struggles against the abuses of the multinational company Amazon and for the distribution of its benefits are spreading throughout Europe,” the strike announcement stated. “In the rest of the world Amazon is making history, but hardly distributes its millions in profits.”

Shoppers are also vowing to boycott Amazon’s Prime Day, with the pledge spreading across social media (“Alexa, unionize your workplace,” reads one Tumblr post).

Some shoppers are going beyond boycotting just the Amazon Prime sale and are suggesting a stoppage at every company Amazon owns, like not shopping at Whole Foods, using Twitch, or streaming anything from Amazon Video.

“#AmazonStrike workers experience exhaustion, dehydration & workplace injuries,” wrote one Twitter user. “Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world. His workers deserve better!”

“Don’t make purchases, stream movies, even open the website,” tweeted another. “#AmazonStrike is a transnational movement protesting working conditions in facilities. Safety should never be second to profit.”

Some have been responding to media publications covering Prime Day: “Happy #PrimeDay remember that @amazon employees often receive less than minimum wage, their delivery van drivers are being forced to piss in bottles to keep productivity up and Spanish workers are on strike. Don’t give them your money.#AmazonStrike,” a Twitter user fired back at USA Today, regarding a story about “Black Friday in July.”

The effort has attracted many supporters, including Sen. Sanders.

“I stand with the Amazon workers fighting for decent working conditions and a living wage,” Sanders told Vox via email. “I hope Jeff Bezos will explain why he thinks it’s acceptable that he makes hundreds of millions of dollars a day while Amazon employees are grossly underpaid and forced to rely on government programs to survive.”

Criticism of Amazon has been growing for years

The concern about Amazon’s working conditions has been building for years. In 2015, the New York Times published an exposé on what it’s like to work for Amazon in Seattle, calling it a “bruising workplace” where “Amazonians,” as its workers are called, are pushed extremely hard and work abnormally long hours, under a sophisticated digital surveillance system. (In a response to the Times story, Bezos sent a memo to staff saying he didn’t recognize the description of his company, and urged workers to report poor work conditions to HR.)

Amazon workers have reportedly struggled with difficult conditions like unbearable temperatures, timed bathroom breaks, and dehydration (Amazon has denied these claims, although it did install air conditioning in some warehouses in 2012 following investigations into poor working conditions). In February 2018, the Atlantic reported that although an Amazon warehouse in San Bernardino, California, had helped the town’s unemployment rate improve, “Amazon has not been a ‘rare and wonderful’ opportunity for San Bernardino. Workers say the warehouse jobs are grueling and high-stress, and that few people are able to stay in them long enough to reap the offered benefits.”

The struggles Amazon workers face are certainly at odds with Bezos, who is the richest man in the world and enjoys a salary that is 140 times that of his average employee. But it also reflects the overall matter of income inequality that rages within Amazon. Just a few months after the company bought Whole Foods for $13.4 billion to dip its toes into the upscale grocery market, data found that one in three Amazon employees in Arizona relies on food stamps.

In June, Amazon helped convince its hometown of Seattle to repeal a tax that would have had the company shelling out extra money to fund homeless shelters and affordable housing. Seattle City Council members called Seattle’s killing of the tax just weeks after it was passed “backroom betrayal” as a result of “bullying by Amazon.” And while many Racked readers were quick to point out that Amazon wasn’t the only one to blame for the repeal, ongoing hostility toward Amazon is brewing in Seattle; over the past few weeks, graffiti that read “Fuck Bezos” and “Amazon Get Out” was spray-painted in several places across the city.

While boycotting a major sales event like Amazon Prime is certainly a privilege in itself — there are plenty who cannot afford to do so, or who rely on the shopping giant because they can’t patronize physical stores — Seth King believes every little bit of activism helps.

“We’re humans too, you know, and from my experience, Amazon doesn’t treat its people as such,” he said. “They’re treated as a statistic that will help it reach its bottom line.”

It’s doubtful the grassroots movement to boycott Prime Day will make a dent in the success of the shopping event, but King says “anything that hurts Amazon’s bottom line is a form of resistance.”

King, along with fellow activists who are speaking out against Amazon, isn’t looking to completely dismantle Amazon’s power (unlike outspoken politicians such as Sen. Cory Booker or President Trump). After all, Amazon provides some 500,000 jobs globally. But King also insists Amazon “could be doing better.”

“A positive work atmosphere is an important thing,” he says. “They promise benefits and 401(k), but what good is that if you can’t even survive there for two months?”