Politics of Poverty

Amazon, listening to workers is good business

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Workers on the floor at Amazon warehouses know the details of how the business works better than anyone--and know how to make changes that will benefit shareholders, consumers, and workers. Oxfam has introduced a shareholder resolution to put a worker on the Amazon Board of Directors; it will be considered at the Annual General Meeting on May 26, 2021. Photo: Frederic Legrand - COMEO

Oxfam will be attending the Annual General Meeting of Amazon this week to speak in support of our shareholder resolution, which would put an hourly associate on the Board. Our message is simple: Amazon, listen to your workers.

UPDATE JUNE 4, 2021: The resolution introduced by Oxfam garnered 26.4% of the independent vote on May 26. The independent vote total represents all shares held by external shareholders who are not within the company. It should be noted that Amazon's CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, is the company's biggest shareholder, and holds a full 14 percent of shares (as of February 2021). Including both internal and external shareholder votes, the Oxfam proposal received a total vote of 17.5%.

Each of the other ESG resolutions (Environmental, Social and Governance) received significantly more votes than in previous years; we interpret the numbers as a shift in sentiment about corporate accountability, and hope that corporations feel the growing pressure from investors to engage in more responsible practices.

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“I know, from my own experience working at Amazon, that it does not listen to its workers. I have tried on many occasions to raise concerns about workplace safety, scheduling, and disciplinebut managers are unavailable, don’t listen, or simply dismiss me. I’m not alone.”
Jennifer Bates, Amazon warehouse worker in Bessemer, AL

When we join other shareholders at Amazon’s Annual General Meeting on May 26, we anticipate the format will look a lot like it did last year—online, condensed to about an hour, with very strict limits on speaking time.

However, a lot has changed in the last year. The momentum building—outside on the streets and inside on warehouse floors—is distinctly different this time.

Amazon workers, like Jennifer Bates, are tired of the constant battles they face daily just to have their voices heard, and are increasingly standing up and speaking out.

Workers report being treated like robots, constantly watched and squeezed to work every second, faster and faster. Amazon can afford to do better: the company reaped extraordinary profits during the pandemic, making $66 million in profits EVERY DAY in 2020. Allies like Athena and #MakeAmazonPay are organizing actions across the country this week to amplify this message.

This is why we filed a proposal calling on the company to put an hourly associate, like Jennifer, on its Board of Directors. It has the potential to make a huge difference in workers’ lives and well-being.

Currently, Amazon’s corporate board is missing a lot of important voices. The board doesn’t include any of the hourly associates who thoroughly understand the company’s daily operations. And it remains predominantly male and white, even though a large percentage of Amazon’s hourly associates are women and of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Holding Amazon accountable

Last year, our shareholder proposal called on Amazon to address human rights abuses in its supply chain, specifically pushing the company to conduct at least one human rights impact assessment in a high-risk sector. That proposal won nearly 40% of the independent vote (very high for this type of proposal).

We were encouraged, at the time, to see that Amazon responded by setting time-bound deliverables:

“In 2020, we will expand our risk assessment approach by engaging in an enterprise-wide assessment of our salient human rights risks and conduct human rights impact assessments to deep dive on specific products, regions, or risk areas, which we will communicate to customers and stakeholders.”

Now, it’s a year later, and the company has not provided any evidence that this work is happening-nor any explanation about the delay. In the meantime, the second largest US supermarket, Kroger, just released a bold commitment to human rights due diligence with even greater specificity and clarity. And, in the EU, Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence is in the works following from other European Countries who have already enacted legislation. If Amazon is not willing to listen to its shareholders on this front, then maybe impending legislation will get it to move.

Listening to workers is good business

Increasingly, the business community is coming to realize that employees’ perspectives are valuable to boards. Institutional Shareholder Services is supporting Oxfam’s resolution this year.

The Council of Institutional Investors recently conducted a survey on employee access to boards at S&P100 companies, and uncovered growing support for policies that encourage director interaction with employees. 97 percent had policies that board members have access to either management or employees; roughly half had policies granting board members access to all employees; and 36 percent detailed a process by which boards interact with employees.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, those companies with employee representatives on the board have done better than companies without; benefits include higher profits, capital market valuation, employee development, and investments in capital and R&D. One study found that, between 2006 and 2011, cumulative shareholder returns in companies with employee representatives on boards were 28 percent higher than at firms without.

This isn’t a partisan issue

Polling in the US shows substantial public support (over 53 percent) across party lines for employee representation, and a growing number of legislators support the idea. Senator Marco Rubio, along with twelve other conservatives, suggest that workers on boards is one avenue to strengthen worker voice and corporate governance.

Although Amazon claims it has systems in place to allow workers to safely provide feedback, the situation is clearly inadequate; workers continue to speak out in the media or through protests about conditions and compensation; in some cases filing lawsuits.

When Jennifer speaks directly to Jeff Bezos and the board on May 26, her message will be clear:

“Having one of us on the Amazon board would be transformative. It would demonstrate to all of us working at Amazon that the company values and wants to hear from its workers within the top levels of leadership. It would send a signal that our voices matter. It would also be good for the company. We want this company to succeed, and we can make sure that leadership understands its most important asset—its workers.”

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Jennifer Bates, a warehouse worker in Alabama, will present remarks about the Oxfam resolution to the Amazon AGM on May 26, 2021. Courtesy Photo
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