A temporary worker at an Amazon facility in Avenel, New Jersey died on December 4 after being caught in between equipment and crushed. The unidentified worker is the second to have recently been killed in an Amazon warehouse. In November, a worker was crushed by a forklift in a Reno, Nevada plant.
During the holiday shopping season (i.e., right now), Amazon employs thousands of temporary workers to handle the increased volume of orders. The company’s warehouses have, says USA Today, a “solid record” with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Amazon likes to boast that, based on OSHA safety data, it is safer to work in its fulfillment centers than in a department store. But the fulfillment centers have recently been questioned for their physically demanding working conditions as well as their use of temporary workers.
The 964,000 square foot Avenel facility is a “fulfillment center,” which stores, packages and ships items to buyers; it has only been in operation for a few months. The sprawling plant is one of two Amazon facilities that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had announced would open in the state back in 2012. Avenel is located about 20 miles from Manhattan and is not far from the New Jersey Turnpike. The opening of the plant has aroused speculation that Amazon is making a serious bid to get into the business of delivering groceries through Amazon Fresh as the Avenel site is equipped with refrigeration units and had previously been used by a grocery wholesaler.
OSHA is now investigating the Avenel incident. In reference to the Avenel worker’s death, Leni Uddyback-Fortson, an OSHA regional director, comments that “cases like this are at the root of OSHA’s national initiative on temporary workers.” OSHA has raised concerns that companies like Amazon employ temporary workers (there are currently about three million in the U.S. workforce) to avoid adhering to workplace safety standards. The Avenel worker was actually employed by a temporary staffing firm, Abacus. The facility where the worker was killed is owned by Amazon but operated by a third-party logistics firm, Genco.
Amazon also hires thousands of temporary workers in Germany, where it does its second highest volume of business and where, since Monday, more than 1,000 workers have been on strike to demand better conditions and higher wages from Amazon. The company currently employs 9,000 workers at three sites in Germany and 14,000 temporary workers. Earlier this year, a TV documentary that showed seasonal workers being harassed by security guards added to rising tensions about the company’s labor practices.
“The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts,” Verdi board member Stefanie Nutzenberger said in a statement. Amazon counters that its workers are paid well (9.55 euros — about $13.11 — an hour). The company has recently announced that it will build three new logistics centers in Poland and two in the Czech Republic.While these plans have given rise to speculation that it could transfer jobs across the border should strikes continue in Germany, Amazon itself claims that it will continue operations in Germany and add fresh grocery delivery.
It’s easy not to give a thought to how our one-click, two-day shipping purchases get to us. The truth is that they are packed by the hands of human employees, at work in massive fulfillment centers. Recently, Amazn employees at a Delaware fulfillment center successfully petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections. Amazon has made it clear that it is opposed to organized labor and it will be an uphill battle to unionize its thousands of employees.
The deaths of two workers are a stark wake up call about why the company must enact better protections and working conditions for its employees — and why we should remember that the reason Amazon can offer such low prices on practically everything is that it is not paying its thousands of workers a just wage.
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