'Prime' time to take on Amazon

Gov’t must force retail giant Amazon to treat workers better and pay more tax

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Online retail giant Amazon has been handed millions in government contracts over the years – including £23m since the pandemic started – but shamelessly presses on with an extractive and exploitative business model where the company pays little in tax and treats its warehouse staff horrendously. 

A new analysis from the TUC and other unions found that Amazon has benefited from a total £630m in government contracts over the last five years alone. This covers 82 contracts worth £225m and an additional £405 contract from the Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation (YPO) to create a digital marketplace for 13 local authorities in the area.

Since the pandemic started, Amazon has been granted £23m in government contracts, including more than £8m for work related to the NHS test and trace app which has been beset with delays and technical glitches.

The Mirror also revealed this week that Amazon had received nearly £11m in government grants – free taxpayer cash – since 2010. Amazon claims it used this money to build warehouses which it said has helped create jobs, despite the firm being among the richest in the world.

Aggressively anti-union

Despite benefitting from millions in government contracts and grants, workers at Amazon warehouses in the UK, across Europe and the US, have highlighted terrible working conditions, including unreasonable productivity targets, bogus self-employment contracts, covert employee surveillance and an aggressively anti-union stance where the company pointedly refuses to engage with unions.

It is understood that ambulances were called almost 600 times to Amazon warehouses in the UK between 2015 and 2018.

Amazon recently announced that in the US, nearly 20,000 of its warehouse staff had contracted Covid-19. The retail giant has come under increasing fire for its handling of the pandemic at a time when their profits have surged as consumers have flocked to online shopping over the last several months.

Last week, a leaked memo revealed the lengths to which Amazon will go to spy on its employees and restrict union activity. The memo showed that Amazon was in discussion over plans for a new software system to analyse and visualise data on unions around the globe, among other ‘threats’ to the company such as crime and weather.

Out of 40 of the data points listed in the memo, more than half were related to union activity or employee issues, Vox reported.  

‘Golden opportunity’

Today (October 14) is the last day of Amazon’s Prime Days, when the retail giant offers its Prime members major discounts – and the TUC and other unions have called for the government to use its influence through its contracts with Amazon to force the retail giant to treat its workers better.

The TUC has also called on the government to use the ‘golden opportunity’ of an upcoming employment bill to strengthen the rights of workers such as those who work in Amazon warehouses.

The bill should include the banning of zero-hours contracts, an end to bogus self-employment, stronger laws to protect supply chain workers and strengthened rights for union access to workplaces, the TUC has said.  

Commenting, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said, “This is a key test for the government’s levelling up agenda. If ministers are serious about improving lives, they must help ‘level up’ working conditions at places like Amazon.

“Amazon workers have played a key role during this pandemic. But many are treated like disposable labour. That is not right. Public contracts should not reward bad working practices,” she added.

“The government must use its purchasing power to ensure people are given dignity at work and a wage they can live on. And the government must get on with introducing its long-awaited employment bill. This is a golden opportunity to boost rights and pay.”

Amazon’s latest tax dodge

Meanwhile, in the latest blow for tax justice, it was revealed today (October 14) that Amazon won’t have to pay the new digital services tax – first announced in 2018 to ensure tech giants pay more tax in the UK. Instead, Amazon has said that it will pass on the 2 per cent levy to sellers and advertisers that use their platforms, many of which are small businesses.

According to the Times, Amazon paid only £14.4m in corporation tax last year, despite its UK revenues totaling £13.7bn.

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner slammed the government for not doing more to take Amazon to task.

“It’s shocking but perhaps not surprising that Amazon has been very happy to reap the benefit of UK government contracts and grants to the tune of millions, while shamelessly avoiding its fair share of tax and disgracefully treating its workforce with little more than contempt,” he said.

“Amazon’s workforce of warehouse, distribution, backroom ‘tech’ and delivery workers were among the millions of key workers who kept this and other nations going in crisis during lockdown.  And they’ve been repaid for their commitment, hard work and bravery with low wages, long and often unsafe working hours and conditions that have contributed to warehouse outbreaks of Covid-19. 

“It is unforgivable in any circumstances, let alone those we’ve witnessed over the current pandemic for the government to stand idly by, slashing budgets on inspection and enforcement activities, turning a blind eye to unregulated work and refusing to provide adequate support to those expected to do their civic duty by self-isolating, all the while handing the company millions of pounds of our money. It is a gross dereliction of duty,” Turner went on to say.

“Just last month the government tightened procurement criteria so that businesses vying for government work must explicitly demonstrate how they will deliver social value – but for this to mean anything it must include the creation of safe, secure, decently paid jobs with good terms and conditions and access to trade unions in the workplace,” he continued.

“That Amazon is also ducking out of the new digital services tax, a tax created specifically to be levied on tax-dodging tech giants, shows that we need a radical rethink of our tax regime to introduce much fairer tax laws alongside strong enforcement and regulatory bodies with teeth to bite back. Working people, our communities and businesses alike, deserve better.”

By Hajera Blagg

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