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Amazon Workers Demand Fair Pay & Conditions as Company Continues Undercutting Rivals

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While online shoppers around the world flocked to Amazon’s mega-sale “Prime Day” this week, the retail giant faced growing outrage from protesters, workers and lawmakers for its unsafe working conditions and collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Demonstrators in Seattle delivered a petition with over 270,000 signatures to Amazon headquarters demanding it stop exploiting workers and cooperating with ICE. Lawmakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar, co-signed a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration demanding a full investigation into Amazon’s workplace conditions on Tuesday, citing reports of Amazon workers facing severe physical and mental distress while on the job. Also on Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel challenged an Amazon executive on allegations that the company competes against its own sellers. We speak with Angeles Solis, lead organizer on the workplace justice team at Make the Road New York, and Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, who testified about Amazon Tuesday before a House Judiciary Subcommittee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While online shoppers around the country flocked to Amazon’s mega-sale “Prime Day” this week, the retail giant faced growing outrage from protesters, workers and lawmakers for its unsafe working conditions, collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and anti-competitive and anti-union business practices.

In Minnesota, workers at an Amazon warehouse, many of whom are immigrants from East African nations, walked out for a six-hour strike and demanded the company implement better working conditions and corporate responsibility policies.

In New York City, activists delivered a petition to the home of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Demonstrators in Seattle delivered a petition with over 270,000 signatures to Amazon headquarters, calling out its exploitation of workers and demanding it stop working with ICE. Amazon has contracted with U.S. government agencies, including ICE, to develop facial recognition software, which is being pitched as a tool for targeting immigrants.

This is activist Maru Mora-Villalpando.

MARU MORA-VILLALPANDO: We’re doing this because it’s Prime Day. And we hope that people choose who they give their money to. Do they want to give it to Amazon, that is making so much money out of the misery of our communities? I hope not.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Europe, workers in Germany, Britain, Spain and Poland are also taking part in protests this week, calling for fair wages and working conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: While the strike against Amazon unfolded, lawmakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressmember Ilhan Omar, co-signed a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, demanding a full investigation into Amazon’s workplace conditions Tuesday. The letter cited reports of Amazon workers facing severe physical and mental distress while on the job, often unable to take water or bathroom breaks, while working in unsafe conditions. It quoted one worker who called Amazon a “21st century sweatshop,” and multiple others who reported contemplating suicide due to the work.

The lawmakers write, quote, “Owing to the breadth and severity of past violations as well as mounting public revelations of brutal and hazardous working conditions, we request that OSHA launch a thorough and comprehensive investigation into the workplace conditions at all of Amazon’s warehouses … No employee, especially those who work for the wealthiest person in the world, should be forced to work in unsafe conditions.”

Also Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel challenged an Amazon executive on allegations that the company competes against its own sellers. The European Union’s competition commission has also launched an antitrust investigation into Amazon.

For more on the fight against Amazon, we’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, we’re joined by Angeles Solis, lead organizer on the workplace justice team at Make the Road New York. She helps lead the group’s Beyond Amazon coalition. And joining us from Portland, Maine, is Stacy Mitchell. She testified about Amazon on Tuesday before a House Judiciary Subcommittee. She’s co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses. Last year, Stacy Mitchell wrote a cover story for The Nation headlined “Amazon Doesn’t Just Want to Dominate the Market—It Wants to Become the Market.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Angeles, let’s start with you. Talk about the—as Prime Day is offered all over the world—and explain what that is—what people did on the ground.

ANGELES SOLIS: Well, Prime Day is essentially Amazon’s Black Friday in the middle of the summer. It’s a made-up holiday to sell products that many of us don’t need. However, our organizing against Prime Day actually started even before the 15th and the 16th.

On July 11th, Amazon had their annual Web Services summit here in New York City. Over 9,000 participants came to assist tech coding workshops, corporate clients of Amazon, and Amazon employees gathered. And we had over 500 immigrants, community members, warehouse workers demonstrating outside. We had over 30 disruptors on the inside, directly disrupting and speaking to vice president of Amazon and chief technical officer, Werner Vogels, demanding that they cut their ties with ICE and asking that they respect workers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Angeles, what about the working conditions at some of these Amazon—or most of these Amazon facilities? I remember back more than a year ago, some of my students at Rutgers University did an investigation on Amazon. They filed OSHA—Freedom of Information requests from OSHA about workplace injuries. They got back hundreds of pages, most of it redacted, with Amazon claiming it was part of their company-protected secrets that some of the information could not be let out. Yet it repeatedly received fines, over and over, from OSHA. What about these working conditions?

ANGELES SOLIS: Absolutely. Yeah, Amazon will do their best to cover up, to silence and divide workers that are speaking out. They also love to publish, especially around this time of year, as many of you may already have seen, the tours that they offer, the pictures and videos of Amazon warehouse employees holding Prime Day signs and dancing around.

But those stories do not match up with the stories of workers coming through our doors—stories of workers who have shared complaints of chronic nosebleeds from cutting up cardboard boxes and the dust getting inside of their noses, and not getting the proper protective equipment that they need; stories of workers who have been interrogated by management, asking what they did for 72 seconds when they slowed down; stories of workers that have faced repeated harassment, repeated discrimination, and have been made to feel like they’re machines, and not humans, working in a warehouse.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this issue that the company trumpets, that it’s now paying $15 an hour, what most people don’t realize is that there are a lot of temporary workers at Amazon, not just—there’s the full-time employees, but for every full-time employee, there’s a temporary worker. Are the salaries the same for the temp workers as they are—many of them which are contracted out by other labor suppliers?

ANGELES SOLIS: Amazon will claim that they are. Now, the reality is that they strategically subcontracted not just in their fulfillment and distribution centers, but across the entirety of their supply chain. Amazon has a routine record of mistreating workers in their corporate tech offices, to their at-base driving services and warehouse workers, as well.

And they may claim, yes, $15 an hour, but in this day and age, $15 an hour, across our economy, often isn’t enough. And let’s not just talk about a living wage; let’s talk about a fair wage. We’re talking about the richest man on the planet. Prime Day is estimated to make $5.8 billion in sales. Now, the stories of workers we have in our offices are ones of brutal conditions, and they see nothing in return. They see no fruits of that labor, no fruits of that profit coming back to their pockets.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as I said earlier, and Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota have called for a complete investigation into workplace safety at Amazon warehouses. This is part of a video the Sanders campaign released Tuesday on Twitter.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Let me briefly relay to you a few of the stories that Amazon employees have told us. A former employee from Fort Worth, Texas, said, “I was homeless, sleeping in the parking lot, after I no longer could afford rent.”

BRUCE TURKEL: Maybe that’s why Amazon is experimenting with drones: because they work, and they don’t complain.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: A former Amazon worker from San Antonio told us, “Amazon’s Fulfillment Centers are not designed with human beings in mind. If anyone wanted to experience what a turn of the 20th century American sweatshop might have looked, sounded, and felt like, they could look no further than Amazon.”

JOHN OLIVER: Amazon has faced criticism from workers over their willingness to accommodate basic human needs, like using the bathroom. Seven lawsuits have been filed against them by pregnant workers who say they were refused longer bathroom breaks and fewer continuous hours on their feet.

ROBERT: I actually gave myself a hernia trying to go to the bathroom faster, within one minute, 30 seconds, because over one minute, 30 seconds, it counts against you.

HIBAQ MOHAMED: Amazon increased the speed we have to work and pressure. This has caused injury and health issues. We need Amazon to reduce the speed we have to work, and treat us like humans, not like machines.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the video that Bernie Sanders, the senator and presidential candidate, released. Amazon has something like, around the world, 575,000 workers, over 200,000 workers here in the United States. As we hear about workplace conditions, also this issue of cooperation with ICE, can you talk about Amazon’s use of facial recognition software?

ANGELES SOLIS: Yes. Recently, Amazon has been marketing and soliciting to federal agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the use of their Rekognition—spelled with a K—technology. And this technology—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s their brand name, you mean, spelled with a K.

ANGELES SOLIS: That’s right. That’s right. This technology is absolutely concerning to us. It is absolutely dangerous to immigrant communities and communities of color. It has a higher rate on women, non-gender-conforming individuals and people of color. And this technology can identify up to 500 people in a photo or in a video.

Now, in the hands of ICE, in the hands of CBP, this is exactly the type of technology that Trump wants to expand the platforms of imprisonment, detainment, deportation, and even, yes, death of immigrants and children in ICE detention camps, in CBP holding facilities and in conditions on our border. So, Amazon is absolutely enabling the technology of ICE, Customs and Border [Protection] and DHS in perpetuating the harm on immigrant communities in our country.

And it’s not just the facial recognition software we have to be worried about. Amazon Web Services hosts all of the technology infrastructure for Palantir and a number of other companies that carry out their operations for ICE and DHS and CBP. Right? So, without Amazon Web Services, Palantir cannot rip families apart, cannot identify and collect and build profiles of immigrants that they will then ultimately harm and deport.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Stacy Mitchell, we’re also joined by you. You testified at Amazon on Tuesday before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. You’re the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of the Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses. What did you tell Congress?

STACY MITCHELL: Well, I talked about how Amazon’s market power has become really quite overwhelming. They are increasingly taking control of the entire consumer goods economy. They capture one out of every two dollars that Americans now spend online. And, of course, online sales are booming.

Perhaps the bigger measure of Amazon’s market power is that more than half of all shoppers, when they want to buy something online, are now starting directly on Amazon. And what that means is, if you’re any other company in the economy that makes or sells a consumer product, increasingly, you have to be on Amazon’s platform in order to reach the market. That’s an incredible amount of structural power in our economy.

And I think, you know, just more broadly speaking, as Amazon amasses that power and wealth, it’s really working as a kind of undertow on local economies across the country. It’s affecting the ability of people to earn a living.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Stacy, 20 years ago, people used to complain about Walmart, because as Walmarts were being built all across America, they were supposedly destroying the local mom-and-pop stores. But you could at least say for Walmart that they employ 1.5 million people in the United States. Here, we’re talking about Amazon, which is bigger, much bigger, than Walmart today, but is only employing 200,000 people. What is Amazon’s effect on small businesses, and even big retailers now, across the country?

STACY MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah. Well, Amazon is not, in fact, bigger than Walmart yet. They are certainly more dominant online. There’s a distinction that’s important. You know, I think Walmart is a very concerning company because of its market dominance, particularly in the grocery sector, and the effect that it’s having on local communities. You know, 35 years ago, we essentially shelved our antitrust laws. You know, we used to—antitrust was a tool of democracy, of keeping power dispersed. And we basically put those laws on the shelf and stopped enforcing them. Walmart grew up in that time period. It owes its dominance in part to that lax in enforcement. So does Amazon.

The distinction with Amazon is, you know, Walmart dominates the retail market, but Amazon is essentially infrastructure for the economy. It would be almost as if Walmart came into your community and not only built this giant store on the edge of town, but also bought up all of your Main Street retail spaces, all of the—you know, bought the malls, and basically could dictate which businesses could be in those spaces, what they could sell, and which ones were going to succeed.

I mean, that’s essentially what’s going on online now. Amazon calls the shots. All these other retailers and merchants that depend on its platform in order to reach the market are subject to it. It can change the rules. It can close their account. It can favor its own products. It can mine all the data from those sellers’ transactions to learn what’s selling well, and bring that into its own inventory and then award itself, you know, the top placement in the search results. I mean, this is no longer a market in the sense of a market; it is a private arena governed by this single company. And that really gets to the anti-competitive issue that was the subject of the hearing yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Democratic Congressmember David Cicilline of Rhode Island questioned the associate general counsel at Amazon, Nate Sutton.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE: I just want to give you an example of an entrepreneur in Rhode Island who creates a better set of headphones. She sells her product on Amazon, on the Marketplace. Sales soar, which is great for her, great for Amazon, because more people will become Amazon Prime customers to buy this great Rhode Island product.

But instead of seeing the fruits of her success, the next thing that happens is that this hard-working Rhode Islander discovers that Amazon has rolled out a direct replica of her product. And because Amazon controls the platform, Amazon gives itself top billing and demotes the entrepreneur to page three results, which most people will never see.

So, how would anyone—in light of that kind of sequence of events, how would any entrepreneur invest in this kind of environment where that can happen, where there’s no assurance it won’t?

NATE SUTTON: Our incentive is to help the seller succeed, because we rely on them. If we did that, we know they’d go elsewhere. They have many options. So we apply the same criteria to both, and we do not use their individual data when we’re making decisions to launch private brands.

AMY GOODMAN: Nate Sutton, the associate general counsel at Amazon, answering the questions of the Rhode Island Congressmember David Cicilline. Stacy Mitchell, your response?

STACY MITCHELL: Yeah, well, it’s simply not true that merchants have other options. Amazon’s one out of every two dollars spent online and a huge amount of shopping search. You know, the next biggest one is eBay, at about 6%. So it really drops off from there. You know, I interview, for our research, lots of sellers, and they consistently tell me Amazon is the main deal. There is really nowhere else. And increasingly, more and more over time, particularly as Prime memberships grow, as Alexa becomes the voice interface for a lot of homes, people are more and more defaulting to Amazon.

And so, we have to start to recognize that this is a different sort of company. This is an infrastructure company, like a railroad or a telephone system. And that requires a different kind of public obligation, that there’s a set of rules that need to go along with that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you precisely about that, the comparison to the railroads. Should part of the legislative reform be to consider them a common carrier, where they couldn’t necessarily discriminate, by one particular company whose products they carry versus another?

STACY MITCHELL: That’s right. And I believe that that’s one of the ideas that’s in the mix here, is that we need to have a kind of nondiscrimination standard, a common carrier standard, for Amazon, so that all buyers and sellers in that marketplace are treated the same. It’s not just sellers; it’s also consumers. We could face a potential future in which Amazon price discriminates. That is, it uses the data it has on all of us to charge one person more than another person. We don’t think that it’s doing that yet, but that’s certainly something that could happen. So we do need these nondiscrimination rules.

I will say, though, that because of the overwhelming conflict of interest here, that Amazon is competing directly with the companies that depend on its business—it is also a manufacturer of goods, it is a retailer of goods—that fundamental conflict, combined with the fact that the algorithms are so opaque and Amazon has like a godlike view of all of the data, all of the transactions that are going on—it can use that in all sorts of ways—I think that we also need to separate Amazon, that we need to call for a structural separation of this company, which is exactly what we did with the railroads.

You know, in the early days of the railroads, big industrialists, like John D. Rockefeller, who was famous for the monopoly he amassed in oil, Standard Oil, he did that in part because he got control of the rails, and he used the rail lines. He would keep his competing oil companies off those lines, or he would charge them more. And that’s how he came to dominate the oil industry. In 1906, Congress passed a law and said, “Look, if you own a railroad, you can’t also be engaged in lines of business that compete with the businesses that rely on that.” Essentially, a breakup. And that’s what we need with Amazon.

AMY GOODMAN: Angeles, we’re going to end with you. What are you calling for?

ANGELES SOLIS: I’m calling for Amazon—we are calling for Amazon to drop all of their contracts, all of the relationships, all of their ties to Immigration Customs and Enforcement, Customs and Border [Protection] and the Department of Homeland Security. We’re calling for ICE to meet with workers, bargain with them at the table, respect workers, slow down on these grueling quotas, and really listen to the immigrants and communities that are calling for Amazon to actually be a better neighbor to our communities, and not a corporate monopoly that’s threatening our economy, our democracy and the livelihoods of our families.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Angeles Solis is Make the Road New York. Stacy Mitchell testified before Congress yesterday about Amazon, before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, a co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Portland, Maine, and author of the book Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.

When we come back, we’re going to speak with a Disney heiress. She went to Disneyland and spoke with workers there and was appalled by what she saw. Stay with us.

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