Former Amazon Web Services (AWS) vice president and senior principal engineer Tim Bray has slammed Amazon’s handling of workers’ concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, following his decision to quit his top-dollar role with the company over the matter.
“May 1st was my last day as a VP and distinguished engineer at Amazon Web Services, after five years and five months of rewarding fun,” Bray said in a blog post. “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19.
“What with big-tech salaries and share vestings, this will probably cost me over a million (pre-tax) dollars, not to mention the best job I’ve ever had, working with awfully good people. So I’m pretty blue,” he added.
Bray’s decision to leave the company came after a US labor and activist coalition in April said that employees of Amazon would take off work to draw attention to what it says are unsafe conditions at warehouses during the coronavirus pandemic.
The action involved more than 350 of Amazon's staff from 40 facilities, according to the coalition. The world's largest online retailer has faced several worker protests and demands by unions for it to close warehouses down amid the ongoing pandemic.
As of 22 April, cases of the virus had been reported among staff from more than 50 of Amazon's US warehouses, according to the New York Times.
As reported by The Guardian in April, Amazon is understood to have fired at least two employees after they “publicly denounced the company’s treatment of warehouse workers” during the pandemic.
According to Bray, this was the moment he “snapped”.
“Official statements claimed every possible safety precaution was being taken,” Bray said. “Then a worker organising for better safety conditions was fired, and brutally insensitive remarks appeared in leaked executive meeting notes where the focus was on defending Amazon ‘talking points’.
“VPs shouldn’t go publicly rogue, so I escalated through the proper channels and by the book. I’m not at liberty to disclose those discussions, but I made many of the arguments appearing in this essay. I think I made them to the appropriate people.
“That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned,” he added.
While Bray conceded that the Amazon subsidiary with which he was employed, AWS, treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance and is an ethical organisation, he suggested the same couldn’t be said for the parent company’s online retail marketplace business, specifically Amazon’s warehouse operations.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about power balances,” he said. “The warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and (in the US) job-linked health insurance.
“So they’re gonna get treated like crap, because capitalism. Any plausible solution has to start with increasing their collective strength,” he said.
(With additional Reuters reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; editing by Grant McCool)