While COVID-19 cases at Amazon warehouses across North America spike, workers at the company’s Ontario facilities say the sites are a powder keg for militancy—one in need of coordination and leadership.

Amazon has been a flashpoint for industrial COVID-19 infections during the second wave, especially in the Greater Toronto Area. Over 400 infections had been reported at just four of the company’s Peel Region facilities by late December and there is little doubt as to why.

These spiking infections aren’t accidents of nature. Workers and advocates have noted again and again cases are spiking because Amazon’s hundreds of employees are forced to hurry through long shifts and through cramped spaces for low pay and without job security.

Pre-pandemic, that already meant rising workplace injury rates—more than double the US industry standard—in many of Amazon’s Canadian facilities. WSIB Ontario Data finds Amazon workers recorded over 400 injury claims in 2019 alone, chiefly related to “strains”, “sprains” and “overexertion.” With the pandemic, workers say, the risks have only increased.

In the United States, Amazon’s workplace conditions have brought at least one prominent union drive to the fore. In Canada, workers have expressed enormous anger over the same issues in media reports and elsewhere, but no clear organizing effort has yet been initiated.

Fightback spoke with two Amazon workers in the GTA about the conditions in Amazon’s facilities and about the seething anger they and their coworkers feel. 

“Joe”, outbound ship dock

Fightback: How long have you worked at Amazon?

Joe: Three and a half months

FB: What are your usual job responsibilities?

J: I work in the outbound ship dock, where boxes are stacked on pallets and loaded onto trailers.

FB: The company has a reputation, and even brags about its high pace-of-work expectations. Have you felt that pressure?

J: I work in a non-rated section, but there are still pressures related to timing and rate of work.

In my section there is something referred to as “critical pull time”, where certain pallets need to be loaded onto trucks by a certain time. This often creates chaotic, high-pressure, and crowded situations near the entrances to the trailers.

When stacking boxes on the pallets there is a line which each worker, or group of workers, is responsible for. If your line fills up with boxes you will often be reprimanded by managers, though this is sometimes framed as an effort to “coach” you.

You are required to be on your feet moving around for nine-and-a-half or ten-and-a-half hour days. There is a strong taboo against sitting down on or even leaning against things on the pretense that this is somehow “unsafe.” This is very hard on my body as a young person who is in relatively good shape; many older co-workers complain of having chronic pain in their knees and back, as well as tendonitis which interferes with their ability to close and open their hands.

FB: What are your main concerns about the company’s response to the pandemic?

J: The type and pace of work make it impossible to social distance. For example, pallets and boxes need to be lifted by two people, multiple people need to work in a small area to meet the pace being set, etc. The noise of the machines also makes it effectively impossible to understand people when social distancing. It’s effectively been admitted to me by managerial staff who work on the floor that social distancing is not feasible under these conditions. Despite this the company periodically sends people around to bark “six feet!” at people, despite everyone knowing Amazon’s policies are making it impossible.

The policies related to giving time-off to those who have been infected with COVID are very unclear. After I had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID, I was told that I would only be paid for my time off if I also tested positive in the future. I was essentially being encouraged to come to work without receiving a negative test, despite serious concerns about being exposed. I ended up taking unpaid time off to wait to get a test and receive the results, but for many of my co-workers (people who have families and other responsibilities, who may be in more financially precarious positions) this wouldn’t really be feasible.

There is not adequate break seating which leads to people being unable to sit down and properly social distance at break.

FB: How do your colleagues feel about the company’s response to the pandemic?

J: There is a widespread sense that the owners of Amazon are getting rich off the risks being taken by the workers. After the company offered a special COVID bonus of $300 for full-time workers and $150 for seasonal workers, this was viewed by most as an inadequate substitute for a substantial hazard pay premium. More than one co-worker rhetorically asked me: “I wonder how big Bezos’ COVID ‘bonus’ is?”

The company continuously intones that the safety of Amazon workers is their top priority, but this is widely disbelieved and mocked. Everyone knows that profits come before safety at Amazon.

FB: What is the mood in the workplace like?

J: There is definitely a sense of indignation in the workplace and I would describe it as a powder-keg. There is a widespread sense that workers are treated in a dehumanizing manner by the company. Co-workers express this in various ways, complaining that we are treated like “animals,” “slaves,” or “machines,” but the fundamental sentiment is the same: that the company does not treat us with dignity but instead sees as less than human, as objects which can be milked for profit and then discarded.

This is in sharp contrast to Amazon’s rhetoric in which we are told we are heroes, valued team members, etc. The dissonance between the way the company talks about us and the way it actually treats us creates a deep sense of injustice among the workforce, and a willingness to fight so that we are actually treated like we matter by the company, instead of just talked about like we do.

“Liz”, Ontario fulfillment centre picker

Fightback: When did you start at Amazon?

Liz: I started there in October of 2019.

FB: What are your usual responsibilities? What was your training like?

L: I’m picker primarily, I also do sorting. I was given basic training around how to call out and basic training as how to do the job—how to find the items that you’re supposed to pick, and then there was a portion on how to make your “rate”. You get “coached” if you don’t meet your rate.

FB: Can you tell me what you mean by “rate”?

L: There is an hourly number you have to meet, in terms of how many items you need to scan. And you have to meet that rate. You can check your rate on your scanner and it tells you how much per hour you’re picking, so you can be sure you’re in the range you’re supposed to be in.

There’s another qualitative bit where you’re not supposed to scan the wrong item, that counts as negative quality points—incorrect items picked in an hour.

The rate changes. But let’s say the average rate was 60 per hour—they’ll ask everyone to do 65. They’ll constantly say, “We’re trying to raise our collective rate.” And, in terms of your score, they do put up your average hourly rate on a big board so you can go and compare your rate to other people, along with a general score for the entire building that you’re told you’re all contributing to. It’s individual, and it’s by your log-in, which is a combination of your last name and your first name, so it’s not clear if other people know yours but you can compare yourself to other people.

But it’s resetting all the time, and if you’re going faster it calculates how much it thinks you will hit in an hour. If you’re going slower, your rate will also go down and some people will get messages on your scanner saying, “Your rate is falling.”

FB: What happens if you can’t meet Amazon’s required rate?

L: They “coach” you to help you meet your rate, or cut down on your “Time Off Task”, or if you’re standing “incorrectly”—they go over the correct procedure—before they give you a written warning. I don’t know how you can coach someone to go faster, that was confusing.

It sucks because if you get a written warning, you can’t transfer to different positions, or apply for other positions, or become an ambassador where you train other people, it doesn’t go away for like three to six months.

There’s also a thing called “stand up” that they do, basically every morning and before the second break. We all huddle and the manager gives updates, talks about what the rates should be and then we do some stretches. One day I remember was particularly bad for people getting Time Off Task (TOT). Essentially every second you’re not scanning items—if you go to the washroom or whatever—that’s TOT. Even if you’re walking from one end to another to get an item that’s far away, that’s TOT basically. Anything you do other than the work. You’ll hear there’s a certain amount of okay TOT you can take off in a day, but it was ridiculous, like 30 minutes in a ten-and-a-half hour day. You use that up just going to the washroom a few times, and we’d walked maybe 30 km in a day. People were really tired. And we felt like we couldn’t even use the washroom. 

FB: How do you usually feel at the end of a workday?

L: They’re long days. They’re ten-and-a-half hours, with two half-hour breaks, one paid the other unpaid. But you really need an hour lunch, which is just not a thing, and I found it really strenuous. 

The last hour is never very productive and I don’t understand why they structure it that way instead of just eight hour shifts.

FB: Since the pandemic began, has the pressure in the workplace eased significantly?

L: At the very beginning, in March, there was a lot of “compassion”. They put up with things they would never allow. They got rid of the point system, if you didn’t come in you wouldn’t get a warning, we got a bit of a raise, you were allowed to have your phone on the floor which wasn’t allowed before. 

But halfway through the pandemic there was a real increase in demand. And those two things—health and safety and meeting demand—were at odds at that point.

I’m told at other warehouses they continued to be more lenient on TOT and rate, to allow for social distancing. Although, at my fulfillment centre that wasn’t the case. There were more warnings being issued for TOT and rates, and people were saying explicitly, “The reason I have more TOT and my rate is lower is I’m trying to social distance.” I don’t think it mattered to management.

FB: Do you feel safe at work?

L: Not really, no. You can’t actually maintain any social distance, especially in the non-sorting facilities. It’s very crammed.

There are repetitive movement issues, a lack of rotation. You have to do things quickly so you can’t really get things like a ladder if you needed to, because it would eat into your rate. So the types of injuries people would get would be stress fractures, like I got one on my foot because I just wasn’t resting it as much as I should. Other people were told by their doctors that they shouldn’t be walking as much as they are, it’s just not healthy. Or, “you shouldn’t lift this way,” but you can’t lift any other way with your rate.

It’s very clear the bottom line is more important to Amazon than anyone’s safety.

FB: How many COVID-19 cases have there been?

L: There’s a lack of transparency there. We’re supposed to get a text whenever someone tests positive but some will get it and others won’t, there’s a lack of a working system there for some reason. But at the beginning of the second wave, around October, we were getting text messages sometimes three times a week about positive cases.

FB: How angry are workers? What is the mood like in the facility?

L: I remember among the pickers just how angry people were all the time, it led to certain moments when—you saw things I wouldn’t expect of some people. People who were very dedicated to their job, a little older with more stakes in the job—I saw some of them risking their jobs and speaking up sometimes out of anger about the conditions. Whenever we were out smoking, there was not a single time people would not be complaining about the company and how Bezos himself would not survive a day in the warehouse.

Not only did I find people were very angry about the conditions but I found they were quite conscious, there’s a level of class consciousness that I didn’t expect. 

It’s obvious [Amazon] is building an empire by offering this ridiculous “innovation in logistics” with same-day shipping. That has a lot to do with the stock value—it’s very clear to everyone in the warehouse it’s the speed of the workplace and how much we’re pushed that makes these things possible. That’s why Amazon is expanding its empire as it is.

People constantly say in the warehouse, “We’re not robots and yet we’re expected to work like them to fulfill these ridiculous standards.”

It disrupts the workflow too. As a picker you could have a clear path up and down the aisles that, although it’s a long day, makes sense. But because of this same-day shipping or whatever, if a Prime order is put in, the scanner might send you to the other end of the warehouse, just to grab this one item so it is shipped more quickly.

That happens a lot and it’s ridiculous, you walk 20-30km a day to meet these quick orders. Workers are being pushed to the brink to make these things possible

Amazon has shown again and again that it is willing to sacrifice working class lives to maximize profit. The company, and others like it, will continue to do so, unless labour steps up efforts to help these workers protect themselves.

While the advocacy campaigns and research that labour organizations have supported thus far have done a good job of bringing Amazon’s workplace conditions to light, workers have been clear that the conditions have not at all improved.

The organizations of the labour movement need to step up organizing efforts—putting real money and real resources into helping workers at Amazon protect themselves. If Amazon remains intent on profiting at the direct expense of workers’ safety, that profiting must be stopped by workers’ action.

Amazon’s thousands of workers, concentrated in massive facilities and moving huge numbers of parcels every day, have enormous power. United and organized, they can bring Amazon and its billionaire owner, Jeff Bezos, to heel.