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Amazon and the Exploitation of People of Color

“They know the level of desperation out there [for work]. We see almost entire families working in there; parents and their kids, husbands and their wives, fathers and sons. They hire the whole ‘hood. I find that to be insane.” — Courtenay Brown, Amazon worker. 
New York, NY – The death of Black Indiana physician Dr. Susan Moore five days before Christmas from COVID-19, is unfortunately, just one of the latest examples of the way systemic racism is chewing up the lives of  people of color during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Frontline Black and Brown people working at Amazon warehouses nationwide — where coronavirus cases conservatively hover around 20,000 — maintain that the reason Jeff Bezos’ abusive, anti-labor practices have been allowed to continue is because they largely impact minority workers. 

“It seems like the warehouses where we have high populations of minorities, there is a really big issue with that,” Jessica Sanchez, a former Amazon worker in Denver told me. “Minorities have been fired for speaking out about their health and safety.” 

Indeed, Chris Smalls, one of the main organizers of a lunch-hour walkout at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse and shipping center in New York City on March 30, was terminated less than five hours after helping to orchestrate the successful job action.

“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe,” Smalls said at the time. 

In October, When a coalition of Black-led organizations, including several labor unions and Black Lives Matter Brooklyn, marched through the streets of New York City to defund the police — they made sure to stop at Jeff Bezos’ tony residence to underscore how Amazon is “complicit in the wider oppression in our country.” 

“Police brutality is replicated by the way Amazon treats its workers,” lead organizer Robert Cuffy told me. “I think Amazon is continuing the practice that’s been the guiding principle for Black workers in businesses places where Black workers are the last hired and first fired. And should they actually start organizing on the job — they become targeted.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black people constitute just 13-percent of the U.S. workforce. But they comprise 26.5-percent of Amazon’s American employees.

Mario Crippen used to work at an Amazon warehouse in Romulus, Michigan, before he left last April, afraid he might expose his family to the virus that has now killed nearly 335,000 Americans. According to Crippen, Amazon warehouse employees like him were intensely monitored throughout the work day like “animals in a cage” and barred from wearing any item of clothing with “Black Lives Matter” written on it — even face masks. 

“They don’t want people to come together,” Crippen told me. “I should be able to wear that proudly.” 

In addition to having their safety concerns being dismissed in the middle of a pandemic, people of color working inside Amazon warehouses say they are also being denied professional advancement.

Black workers constitute just 8.3-percent of Amazon’s managerial workforce, while only 8.1-percent identify as Hispanic/Latinex. 

“I’m just going to say it — if you’re not the right color, you’re not gonna make it to that level,” another worker from Amazon’s Romulus warehouse told me on condition of anonymity.

Both Sanchez and Crippen are part of a non-profit group advocating for the rights of frontline workers called United For Respect [UFR]. 

Courtenay Brown is another UFR member who, along with her sister, works at an Amazon “fulfillment center” in West Deptford, New Jersey. The Navy veteran told me that Amazon exploits vulnerable people of color in dire economic straits. 

Amazon, in fact, is adding some 1,400 new employees daily during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They know the level of desperation out there [for work],” Brown told me. “We see almost entire families working in there; parents and their kids, husbands and their wives, fathers and sons. They hire the whole ‘hood. I find that to be insane.” 

With entire families dependent on Amazon for their economic survival, few are inclined to speak out against poor safety conditions and other workplace justice issues.

As Brown says, “It puts you in a bit of a predicament.” 

Amazon touts its “comprehensive benefits” and argues that the roughly 20,000 employees that have tested positive or are presumed to have tested positive for COVID-19 — are actually 42-percent less than might have been expected if the infection rates among its employees were the same as the general population. 

But the retail giant’s anti-worker reputation began long before the outbreak of the COVID-19. Last year, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU] President Stuart Appelbaum reminded a symposium on workers rights in Brussels that “Amazon has a well-documented history of mistreating and dehumanizing its workers around the world.” 

“Amazon needs to understand that human beings are not robots,” Appelbaum said. “Amazon needs to change.” 

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