US oversight panel to probe Amazon’s labor practices for severe weather events

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Workers remove debris from an Amazon fulfillment centre in Edwardsville, Illinois, on 11 December 2021, after it was hit by a tornado. Tornadoes ripped through five US states, causing multiple fatalities at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois that suffered “catastrophic damage” with around 100 people trapped inside.

Image: Getty Images

Democrats on the US House Oversight Committee have commenced a work safety probe into Amazon’s labor practices after tornadoes killed six of the company’s employees at its Edwardsville distribution centre in Illinois.

According to allegations brought to the committee, Amazon employees and contractors were threatened by their supervisors with termination or other adverse employment consequences if they left work to seek adequate shelter and safety as the tornadoes approached.

In a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy late last week informing him of the probe, three Democrats — committee chair Carolyn Maloney, Cori Bush, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — expressed concern around Amazon’s labour practices during tornadoes, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events.

“As one of our country’s largest and most profitable corporations, it is imperative that Amazon protect workers’ safety and refrain from practices that could put them in danger,” the Democrat committee members wrote in the letter.

As part of the probe, the oversight committee is requesting Amazon provide an explanation for how the deaths occurred at its Illinois distribution centre. The committee is also seeking Amazon’s documentation containing its attendance and leave policies, as well as its emergency drills and communications before last year’s tornado regarding severe weather protocol and preparedness.

The letter also requested information on disciplinary actions taken against employees or contractors who did not continue to work during the 2018 Californian wildfires, extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest last summer, and flooding during Hurricanes Irma in 2017 and Ida in 2021.

According to reports provided to the committee, Amazon forced employees to “stay on the job” during those extreme weather events too.

“Edwardsville was not an isolated incident,” the letter said.

This isn’t the first time Amazon’s labour practices have faced scrutiny for putting its employees in danger, as the tech giant is already facing a lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James for its alleged lack of adequate health and safety measures for employees throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The probe also comes as workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York City voted to unionise, which marked the first time workers at the company have done so. The final tally was 2,654 yes votes, and 2,131 opposed, with 67 challenges. In an online statement, Amazon said it was “disappointed with the outcome of the election because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” before stating that it would assess its options.

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