Retail giant Amazon condemned for refusal to take part in workers’ rights debate with MEPs

Company of Amazon’s size and importance ‘should not shy away from participating in dialogue with lawmakers’, says Dutch MEP Agnes Jongerius.
PA

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

31 May 2021

Amazon has been condemned for “shying away” from taking part in a European Parliamentary debate on its global activities which have been criticised for alleged work rights violations.

Dutch Socialist MEP Agnes Jongerius was among several members who attacked the company’s refusal to join the debate late last week.

She said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos or a senior representative had been invited “but unfortunately they declined our invitation.”

“I very much regret that they chose not to take part and use this chance to present their views and explain themselves over recent attacks.”

She said, “A company of this size and importance has a responsibility and should not shy away from participating in dialogue with lawmakers.

“Instead, they told us they would be available to answer our questions in writing so at least send some to them. They also said we would be more than welcome to visit one of their sites so, when travel restrictions ease, this should be discussed further.”

The Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee had organised the hearing, entitled ‘Amazon attacks on fundamental workers' rights and freedoms: freedom of assembly and association and the right to collective bargain and action’ for last Thursday.

“A company of this size and importance has a responsibility and should not shy away from participating in dialogue with lawmakers. Instead, they told us they would be available to answer our questions in writing so at least send some to them. They also said we would be more than welcome to visit one of their sites so, when travel restrictions ease, this should be discussed further” Dutch Socialist MEP Agnes Jongerius

The aim was to examine reports about Amazon potentially monitoring its workers as well as its other business and workplace practices. The meeting also aimed to identify the impact of these alleged activities on the fundamental rights of assembly, association, collective bargaining and action.

Jongerius said this might be in breach of European labour, data and privacy laws.

She said, “They roll out the same formula everywhere, both in the US and Europe: hiring staff on the most precarious contracts available and squeezing workers.

“But my biggest concern is about Amazon’s push to break health and safety standards and to make staff work even faster. I am also concerned about its plans for cross-border agency work.”

She said the company “disrespects core EU values” and that there is “clearly a need for EU action”.

This, she said, could involve bringing a case for breaching health and safety regulations.

The meeting heard that Amazon made €44bn last year in sales throughout Europe, yet the tech giant is reportedly violating workers’ rights and union-busting.

Jorg Tagger, head of unit for social dialogue at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said, “We attach great importance to social dialogue and the rights of workers to organise themselves is a core EU right.”

Orhan Akman, responsible for the retail and mail order at German trade union Ver.di, said, “I too regret Amazon is not taking part today.

“Amazon has huge power, a €385bn turnover last year, and if you want to sell products online you often have to go do it through Amazon but we have to look at Amazon workers’ rights.”

“This is not just a trading company but a tech company that operates as a state without borders. It has bigger financial power than some Member States but it also does more damage to the environment than some individual countries.”

We need regulation and rules for example on collective bargaining agreements to decide what conditions Amazon staff work under. Some have had to work even if they had Coronavirus virus symptoms so we have to see whether the company is inflicting damage on its workers’ health” Orhan Akman of German trade union Ver.di

He said Amazon workers were “being used as robots. They have no power in how they work and are told what to do by algorithms. But they are not robots or cogs in the wheel. They have values and want to be treated as such.”

“This is why we need regulation and rules for example on collective bargaining agreements to decide what conditions Amazon staff work under. Some have had to work even if they had Coronavirus virus symptoms so we have to see whether the company is inflicting damage on its workers’ health.”

“Amazon has refused to talk to trade unions for eight years and this is not just about working conditions but basic rights, including work free Sundays.”

Another speaker, Carmen Collado Rosique, director of the National Anti-fraud Office in Spain said, “The world of work is subject to constant change and the most significant example is Amazon.”

“Companies sometimes shirking labour laws is nothing new but these laws are an attempt to balance powers in the employer/employee relationship. We must ensure Amazon does not undermine its workers and also ensure it pays its full contributions to social security systems.”

Marcin Zieleniecki, professor for labour law at the University of Gdansk and a member of the European Economic and Social Committee, said there were 18,000 Amazon workers in distribution centres in Poland, most on short term contracts.

He added, “There’s a big turnover of workers because they don’t have chance to work for an extended period of time, that is, more than two years.

“There are two main problems here: low level of collective agreements and low basic pay.”

The meeting heard that in a letter sent last October, MEPs called for urgent action in response to labour unions’ demands for an EU-wide investigation into what they considered a ‘breach of European labour, data and privacy laws’ by Amazon.

“Companies sometimes shirking labour laws is nothing new but these laws are an attempt to balance powers in the employer/employee relationship. We must ensure Amazon does not undermine its workers and also ensure it pays its full contributions to social security systems” Carmen Collado Rosique, director of the National Anti-fraud Office in Spain

Further comment came from committee member French ID Group MEP France Jamet who said, “Belos’ refusal to come and answer our questions is an insult to democracy and shows he doesn’t give a damn about his workers or for us.

“Amazon doesn’t pay any tax in Europe while its staff are treated like slaves so the EU must work to break his slave running and other monopolies like this.”

German EPP Group MEP Denis Radtke said, “We can only shake our heads at what we have heard today and at Amazon’s refusal to get round a table and speak about collective bargaining. This is a targeted attempt to stop its employees from working together.”

Meanwhile, Amazon’s global tax strategy is the subject of a new study, called “The Amazon Method" where researchers analysed Amazon’s “Tax Credit Arbitrage Scheme”.

GUE/NGL Group leader Martin Schirdewan said, “In the middle of a costly pandemic, delivering tax justice and fairness worldwide is more vital than ever. We cannot afford the tax abuses of multinationals.”

“Scammers like Amazon must pay their fair share back to the taxpayers they’ve been fleecing for years.”

The German member added, “What’s certain is that Amazon is not the only major international company using methods like these. This research gives us precious insight into the tax planning strategies of global corporations more generally – especially Big Tech.”

“Enough of this rip-off, we need tax justice. For a start, this would mean proactive action by EU leaders to tackle tax dodging by companies such as Amazon, and a new, proper investigation by the European Commission.”

“It means transparency and mandatory public country-by-country reporting for all large corporations. It also means not letting corporations play countries against each other by enforcing an effective global corporate minimum tax rate of 25 percent.”

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