Amazon, Taxpayer Subsidies and Worker Safety


At press time, local and state government officials across the US were pursuing Amazon in a bid to attract its $5 billion headquarters with up to 50,000 jobs. To this end, the officials dangled taxpayer subsidies before the company. In this courtship, the issue of safety for its warehouse workers get short shrift, according to labor advocates.

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb is the co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities nationwide. To this end, the group seeks to end preventable workplace hazards such as those that have killed eight workers in Amazon warehouses since 2013.

“One question that has not been asked of Amazon is what kind of jobs it creates in communities,” according to Goldstein-Gelb. This is no academic matter. The company’s use, for example, of temporary employment agencies to staff its warehouses can present safety problems that put at-risk the lives and limbs of workers.

Ronald Smith, 57, was a temporary employee who died after a conveyer belt dragged and crushed him at an Amazon warehouse in Avenel, N.J., on Dec. 4, 2013. Two Amazon warehouse workers, Devan Michael Shoemaker, 28, in Carlisle, Penn., and Phillip Terry, 59, in Plainfield, Ind., lost their lives in September 2017.

Meanwhile, many eyes were on Amazon and its Oct. 19 deadline to choose a US location for its second headquarters, based on the incentive-packages that local and state governments offered. Since 2000, Amazon has received $1.1 billion in taxpayer subsidies to construct data centers and warehouses across the US, according to Good Jobs First, which advocates for accountability in economic development.

One thing is clear. Taxpayer subsidies to lure Amazon to build a second headquarters shatters the myth of a free market. What does freedom mean when government’s hand is all over the market?

In the meantime, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Amazon and temporary agencies it uses to staff its warehouses many times for safety violations, according to NCOSH. “Governments considering whether to bid for white-collar jobs at Amazon should first look at how the company and its temp agency subcontractors treat blue-collar workers,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, in a statement.

Amazon contracting with temporary staffing agencies to staff warehouses absolves the company of responsibility for workers’ safety, Goldstein-Gelb said. NCOSH is active on the federal level to change finger pointing between Amazon and its labor contractors, which leaves workers in the lurch, poorly protected if at all from harm.

Precarious labor conditions pave the way for workers’ fatalities and injuries, according to Goldstein-Gelb. To reduce such risk, NCOSH is lobbying for OSHA to look at worker logs to ensure that temporary agencies do not simply fire whistleblowers who attempt to call attention to unsafe labor conditions.

For instance, inside Amazon warehouses, the company pushes workers to work faster. This labor speedup ensures more rapid delivery of consumer goods to customers’ doorsteps. This is not rocket science.

“Moments are the elements of profits,” Karl Marx wrote in Capital, his masterwork, over 150 years ago. In modern terms, time is money. The boss who can squeeze more labor out of workers by intensifying their workday has more goods and services to sell for a profit.

To make laboring in Amazon warehouses safer, NCOSH in part supports the self-activity of the rank-and-file groups such as Warehouse Workers for Justice, according to Goldstein-Gelb. On that note, NCOSH is also pushing local and state governments to include safe labor conditions for workers of companies such as Amazon that reap taxpayer subsidies to locate warehouses and other facilities in communities.

“Before a city or state finalizes an offer to Amazon,” Goldstein-Gelb said, “it is important to have provisions that improve the quality of the jobs the company offers.”

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2017

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