Amazon’s unbelievably quick turnaround times on deliveries have become a given for many people in the U.S. Order a bottle of mouthwash on a weekday morning and your breath will be minty fresh within a day or even just a few hours.
But the success of the e-commerce giant’s rapid-fire delivery model depends on what happens inside Amazon’s “fulfillment centers” — sprawling warehouses where workers sort and pack orders for shipment, all under the watchful eye of technical systems that track their every move. For years, workers have said that the company’s algorithmically-driven approach pushes them to the brink, treating them “like robots” in the service of meeting unattainable productivity quotes and driving up injuries in the process.
On May 16, lawmakers in Minnesota passed a pioneering workplace safety bill that could improve labor conditions for Amazon employees subjected to the company’s worker tracking system. Organizers behind the legislation say it will provide the strongest labor protections in the nation for people working in warehouses like Amazon’s.
Work in Amazon warehouses is overseen entirely by technology: Algorithms track workers’ speed and productivity, measure the so-called “time off task” that employees spend logged out of their workstations and alert managers when workers don’t meet their productivity quotas. Mohamed Farah, a 50-year-old Amazon employee who came to the U.S. in the mid-1990s as a refugee from Somalia, works a 10-hour shift packaging items for shipment at a Minnesota warehouse. He said the company’s grueling pace of work and “time off task” rules have worn on workers’ bodies and minds, including his own. “They say you have to pack a minimum of 80 boxes per hour, but you cannot do it,” he told me. “If you try to pack 80 per hour, you cannot go to the bathroom. If you go to the bathroom, the rate is down.”
Amazon’s “time off task” measurement is a constant source of worry for many workers. The company tracks the time employees are gone from their workstations. If you spend too much time away from your station, you get in trouble. Internal company documents obtained by VICE revealed that Amazon can fire employees who accumulate 30 minutes of “time off task” on three separate days over the course of a year. The documents also showed that the company tracks the amount of time employees spend in the bathroom. Some employees have described needing to urinate in bottles while working to avoid penalties for using the bathroom.
Farah, who has worked for Amazon for seven years, said that workers get hurt trying to keep pace with packaging quotas. He has come home with three injuries over the last few years. “You go home feeling very tired. Headache, muscle aches, leg aches,” he told me. “They want us to work like robots.”
Farah’s experience is common across the company. A recent survey of more than 2,000 Amazon workers across eight countries found that the company’s performance monitoring and tracking system has taken a physical and emotional toll on employees’ well-being: 57% of respondents said their mental health suffered due to the company’s productivity monitoring, and 51% claimed it harmed their physical health. Amazon has twice the injury rate of comparable warehouses in the U.S., according to a recent analysis of injury data submitted to federal safety regulators.
“You do a lot of bending and back-and-forth walking for hours. You get thirsty, and you go to the bathroom, and it’s on a different floor,” explained Qali Jama, a 39-year-old Amazon warehouse worker who also hails from Somalia. “And then you go to the bathroom, which only has two toilets. If those toilets are occupied, you need to wait to go to the bathroom. The whole time you’re gone your time accumulates, it adds up. And next thing you know, the manager goes up to you and tells you a couple of days later, ‘You have time off task.’”
It was these conditions that fueled a raft of organizing efforts in Amazon facilities across the U.S., including the nation’s first successful union drive at a company warehouse in New York last year. Workers from East Africa, like Qali, were among the first Amazon employees in the nation to confront the company over its labor practices and have been at the helm of organizing efforts in Minnesota.
The Minnesota bill, which state lawmakers passed on May 16, will not just apply to Amazon — though lawmakers who supported the legislation said it was spurred by reports of injuries at Amazon and a lack of transparency around the company’s productivity quotas. The policy will require any warehouse with more than 250 employees to provide employees with the quotas and work speed metrics used to evaluate workers’ performance. The law also requires for this information to be communicated in employees’ preferred language. Organizers say this will force Amazon to be transparent with its employees about the company’s often opaque workplace productivity metrics — a system they claim increases injuries among workers. The legislation also prohibits employers from imposing quotas on workers that prevent them from taking bathroom, food, rest and prayer breaks.
The law is the product of years of organizing by East African migrant workers, many of whom came to Minnesota as refugees escaping Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s and formed what became the largest Somali diaspora community in the United States. Somali workers now make up large numbers of Amazon’s labor force at warehouses. They were the first in the country to take on Amazon’s labor practices in 2018, when a cohort of workers in the Minneapolis area staged a walkout over working conditions at local warehouses, forcing the company to the negotiating table.
“Before anyone in the labor movement, we took on Amazon,” said Abdirahman Muse, the executive director of the Awood Center, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that advocates for East African workers’ rights. “And everybody thought we were crazy. But we were not.” Muse compared the Minnesota Somali workers’ trajectory to “the story of David and Goliath” — a small group of refugees and immigrants “facing one of the biggest companies in the world.”
It was the realities of working inside Amazon’s warehouses that prompted Qali to begin organizing for better labor conditions last year. “When I started working there, I said, ‘This is not right what they are doing,’” she recalled. “I always felt like we were slaves there. I always fought against them, I knew my rights. I felt that there were people who have only been in the United States for 30 days. They need money. They come from hunger. They will take anything. And I think that’s what Amazon depends on.”
“I want people when they come to America to know that they are still human,” she added. “This country does stand for what they believe, but you have to speak — and act.”