Workers and Labor Groups Protest the Opening of Amazon New Distribution Centers

“Amazon opened this warehouse in the dark of the night without community input.”
December 17, 2019, 5:05pm
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Lauren Kaori Gurley

Earlier this year, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York City activists celebrated Amazon’s decision to withdraw plans to open a second corporate headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. But amidst that celebration, Amazon was quietly setting up a new distribution center three miles down the road in Woodside, a working class section of Queens that falls within Ocasio-Cortez’s district. It’s New York City’s second Amazon distribution center (shipping warehouses that are smaller than the company’s cavernous “fulfillment centers”), and Amazon has said it will create 2,000 new jobs. But the types of jobs Amazon is offering aren’t necessarily welcome.

On Tuesday—in the midst of the most dangerous week of the year for Amazon warehouse workers—former employees, labor activists, and politicians protested high injury and production rates outside the new Queens distribution center, which opened in July, as well as the anticipated opening of two additional distribution centers in Queens and the Bronx.

“Amazon opened this warehouse in the dark of the night without community input,” Jessica Ramos, a state senator from New York’s 13th district, where the newest distribution center is located, told Motherboard at the protest. “We really want the workers here to understand the red flags about working with Amazon directly from people who’ve worked here.”

“It’s not that we don’t want jobs,” Ramos continued. “It’s that we want these jobs to be good paying jobs where workers have a voice at the table when it comes to health and safety, and where they’re recognized formally.”

Amazon has said it pays its full and part time workers at the distribution center between $18 and $25 an hour.

"No current Amazon associates participated in the event… and it was obvious to the hundreds of individuals who work in our building that an outside organization used our site to raise its own visibility and spread misinformation," an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard.

“I’m here because they fired me. They said my production rates were too slow,” Xuepeng Pang, a former Amazon warehouse worker, told Motherboard in Spanish at the protest. “I want them to improve working conditions and to treat us like humans.” After working less than a year in several different positions at Amazon’s Staten Island Fulfillment Center, Peng said Amazon terminated him from his role as a “counter”—one of Amazon’s most physically strenuous positions.

The rally coincides with the release of a new report and website called “Packing Pain,” which summarizes workplace injury rates in 28 Amazon warehouse facilities across 16 states. The report was published by Athena, a grassroots coalition comprised of several dozen labor rights, digital rights, and antitrust groups, who have formally launched the first unified national effort to rein in Amazon’s power on a number of issues. With 200,000 employees, Amazon is now the second largest employer in the United States, falling second only to Walmart.

"The report was developed and promoted by a collection of self-interested critics," an Amazon spokesperson said in response to the new report. "The fact is nothing is more important to us than safety—last year we provided more than one million hours of safety training to employees and invested more than $55 million on safety improvement projects, including ergonomic improvements."

The report found that Amazon workers face an injury rate that is three times higher than the rest of the private warehouse industry, and that the federal government has fined Amazon $262,132 over the past five years for 67 health and safety violations.

“The thing that stands out about Amazon is that they’re a tech company, but technology for workers is dangerous,” said Ilya Geller, another former Amazon warehouse worker from Staten Island. “It puts us in the line of fire for injuries because every single moment you’re in there, they’ve got you calibrated… We’re just demanding basic dignity. Workers need to push from the point of production.”

The report likely covers only a fraction of the company’s total violations. Over the past five years, 78 percent of Amazon’s facilities have not received a single visit from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency tasked with workplace safety. The data was collected from logs Amazon is required to file with OSHA.

Between Black Friday and Christmas, injury rates soar, peaking at more than 2.5 times the company’s annual average two weeks before Christmas.

The protest in Queens was sponsored by two founding Athena member organizations, New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York. Within the past month, Amazon warehouse workers have protested safety and health issues at facilities in Staten Island, California’s Inland Empire, and Chicago.