The plight of American warehouse workers

  Amazon and Walmart earning billions of dollars but forcing the workers to work in unsafe working conditions  

The American warehouse workers are worried about their safety and wellbeing as the spike in coronavirus infections has made the working conditions more unsafe and dangerous. The daily COVID-19 infections in America have crossed 1, 80,000 while nearly 2, 50,000 people already dead.

The 1.27 million workers are working in warehouses across America to send the online shopping orders to customers on time. The number of warehouse and storage jobs has doubled since 2010, reaching 1.27 million this October, up from 629,000 in 2010.

 The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the people to opt for online shopping during the peak season of Thanksgiving festivities. More people have given up the traditional shopping as the fears of COVID-19 infections are growing. The success or failure of the season sales depends on warehouse workers more than ever before in 2020. 

The E-commerce giants like Amazon and Walmart has increased their profits significantly since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic. The companies’ profits are growing but wages of workers are almost stagnant. The exploitation of workers has increased and their working conditions are worsening.

They are earning billions of dollars every month as online shopping grows. But they are not doing enough to provide their workers safer working conditions. They are not spending enough to improve the working conditions and providing all the necessary personal protection equipments (PPEs).  

 Many coworkers fail to follow mask requirements; social distancing is difficult, especially as groups’ crowd together at the beginning and ends of shifts. Rumors of COVID cases permeate the distribution center, with little communication from higher-ups when coworkers stop showing up to work. And, with the holiday shopping season in full swing, more and more workers are being hired. 

From April to October, the US added 146,700 warehouse and storage jobs, as people stuck inside turned to online shopping. The end of the year is already peak time for warehouses, when companies hire thousands of seasonal workers to make sure presents arrive at stores and shoppers' homes before Christmas Day. This holiday season, even more workers will be needed in warehouses — just as COVID cases surge across the US. 

Working in warehouses comes with risks, even before the pandemic. Warehouse workers are injured at a significantly higher rate than workers of other industries, whether by being struck by stacked boxes, forklift turnovers, or repetitive motion injuries. Twenty-eight warehouse workers died on the job in 2018, the most recent year the Bureau of Labor Statistics has recorded data on industry deaths. 

The Center of Investigative Journalism report has revealed that 14,000 workers were injured in Amazon's distribution centers from 2016 to 2019. The injuries typically spike around the holidays and Prime Day.  Some warehouse employees worry that more work and hires could also increase the chances of catching COVID during peak season, just as the virus surges across the US. 

By October, warehouse and storage workers had become a rare type of job that had not only recovered but beat pre-pandemic employment numbers. Retailers rely on a web of warehouses across America to keep shelves stocked and deliver packages to online shoppers.

Companies need warehouse workers to guarantee the delivery of holiday packages amid the e-commerce boom. But, hiring more could make warehouse workers' jobs riskier — and, if that risk escalates into an outbreak, send the entire system crashing down. 

For a lot of people, warehouse workers are sort of like an invisible part of the supply chain. They're not the one behind the cash register. They're not the ones you see in the stores. But they're the ones that make it all possible.

When there are already concerns about social distancing, already concerns about sanitation — more workers in a facility does mean more risk. It is often easier for unsafe practices to go overlooked in warehouses because, unlike a store, most customers do not see what is actually happening.

This shift to warehouse hiring has been exacerbated by the pandemic, as companies investing in the crucial last-mile delivery go on hiring sprees. Transportation and warehousing industries added 108,200 jobs in October, a whopping 198% more than in October 2019, according to recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. 

Booming e-commerce sales, skyrocketing warehouse employment, and COVID anxiety are the backdrop for an unprecedented holiday shopping season. Adobe Analytics predicts US online holiday sales will reach $189 billion in 2020, up 33% compare to last year.   

But the companies are failing the workers on occupational health and safety at workplace. A Walmart worker said he called the health department to ask if the company was required to alert workers or close the warehouse if someone caught COVID. He was told that these decisions were up to Walmart. 

One worker said that “no one seems to really care. No one knows who to go to, who to speak with, if anything will even be done. "That's the scariest part — knowing that all of this is happening and nothing seems able to be done." 

Amazon was fined in California State in October after workers filed a pair of complaints saying the company did not notify workers of a COVID case, failed to enforce physical distancing, and prevented them from taking hand washing breaks. At the beginning of the pandemic, it became obvious pretty quickly that Amazon still put productivity ahead of worker safety and wellbeing.

The workers inside Amazon fulfillment centers since the pandemic started in March, prompting an unprecedented series of protests, strike actions and public petitions that have united some of Amazon’s corporate and warehouse workers against their employer for the first time. In turn, this unrest has attracted scrutiny from top politicians over the company’s labor practices, and threatens to harm Amazon’s reputation in the eyes of the hundreds of millions of people who shop on the platform every year. It also reveals inequalities in the economy that Amazon has flourished in, an economy that the e-commerce giant is also shaping as its size and influence expand.

Amazon, the second-largest private US employer after Walmart, pays its fulfillment center workers a $15 minimum hourly wage and offers superior benefits when compared to some major competitors. But many of the company’s workers still say they find it hard to meet the daily needs, and they have such limited work options that they keep showing up to sort, pack, and deliver shipments for Amazon even as they fear the company isn’t doing enough to keep them safe during a global health crisis.

Amazon has responded to workers’ complaints by cracking down on dissenters. The company has fired at least six employees who were involved in recent worker protests or who spoke out about working conditions at Amazon, including several who were visible leaders within the company on worker issues. Sources told Recode the company has also reprimanded at least six other employees during the same period who were involved in recent protests.

                                                                   Khalid Bhatti

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