Striking Essential Workers Are Today’s Human Rights Defenders

Protestors wearing face coverings and holding signs
Former Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls protests at the company's Staten Island distribution facility in New York City on March 30, 2020. © Spencer Platt/Getty

On March 30, Christian Smalls and his co-workers led a walk-out and protest at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island in New York City. They held signs calling for stronger health and safety protections, and hazard pay. The number of employees able to work their shifts at Amazon warehouses has fallen as much as 30% due to the coronavirus pandemic, with hundreds of workers sick and at least one worker in California who has died. 

Days after the walk-out, Amazon fired Chris, a member of the advocacy organizations Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, claiming he had violated a mandatory quarantine. A leaked memo written by Amazon’s top lawyers revealed the company’s strategy, littered with racist undertones, to smear him. The letter acknowledged he was the face of an increasingly powerful worker’s rights movement inside their facilities, which Amazon has aggressively fought for years.

Smalls and his co-workers, who are not unionized and make an hourly wage, decided to rally because they say Amazon had done little to prevent its workers—primarily from low-income communities of color who are hardest hit by COVID-19—from getting sick. Those that are still working at Amazon face increased workloads and growing anxiety over the infection risks they and their families face.

Amazon’s delivery services, which include grocery deliveries, have increased by upwards of 50 percent due to mandatory lockdowns across the United States, sending Amazon’s shares skyrocketing, despite the costs currently being incurred by the company. The share price jump has benefited the world’s wealthiest person, Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is now about $140 billion dollars. Companies that are profiting from the current crisis have a responsibility to protect public health and welfare. Instead, underpaid, essential workers are stepping into that leadership role.

Since the U.S.’s economic shutdowns began in March, the public has quickly shifted on whom it defines as a “hero” or heroine. Nurses, grocery store cashiers, and delivery workers continue to serve on the frontlines so that we can stay safely at home. It is time we take the definition of “hero” a step further and see essential workers, like Chris and his co-workers standing up for their rights for who they are: the human rights defenders of our time.

The strikers at JFK8 argue that Amazon is forcing them to choose between their health—an internationally recognized human right—and a paycheck. Frontline workers are risking their jobs, their health, and the well-being of their children and families by raising alerts about unsafe conditions and the lack of safeguards in their workplaces. Employers and the public should value workers’ role in protecting public health and respect the right of essential workers to organize and take collective action to protect their health and economic security.

Staten Island Amazon workers are not alone in this fight. In the last two months, Amazon workers in Darlington, England walked out over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). In Calenzano, Italy, one-third of workers left the Amazon facilities while calling for similar protections. French Amazon workers held protests over sanitation and overcrowding in facilities, and won.

In the U.S., the Trump administration has remained silent on the issue. Worse yet, the U.S. government’s stimulus bill mandating paid sick leave for companies with fewer than 500 employees left Amazon and a shocking 80% of American workers behind. New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James, has called Amazon’s workplace safety “inadequate” warning that Amazon’s practices may have violated federal standards and state whistleblower protections.

On May 1, popularly known as May Day or International Workers’ Day, workers from “essential” big box retail and grocery stores across the U.S. plan to strike together to continue to drive attention to their issues and build public support. Civil society and governments in so-called democracies must also vehemently defend the courage of these workers who are speaking out. Open Society Justice Initiative and Make the Road New York are proud to stand with and support essential workers everywhere, and the courage they have demonstrated in standing up for their rights and the rights of all workers.

Businesses, too, should see workers as partners in protecting communities, and that perspective must be at the core of their business model. Unfortunately, too many corporations and business leaders have decided that the current crisis is simply an opportunity to protect themselves, and their profits. In Washington D.C., lobbyists have swarmed Congress to influence not only how restrictions on businesses are lifted in the next few months, but also to advance strategies to protect corporations from the demands of their own workers and customers.

Recent reporting suggest that retailers and manufacturers are pushing to protect companies from worker demands. Some companies are going as far as to target workers attempting to form unions, attacking efforts which were underway prior to and during the coronavirus outbreak.

It never had to be this way. Respect for human rights all along could have meant protecting worker safety and economic well-being, while maintaining good business practices. Research by the B-Team, a U.S.-based organization that brings together leaders for better business practices, found that limiting civic freedoms, like the right to organize and defend rights, may be correlated with negative economic outcomes. And, increasingly, the risk of inaction by Amazon and other retailers is outweighing action. The public is bearing witness to corporations who are profit hungry and gaining huge economic gains from stimulus packages at the expense of basic human and worker rights.

This International Workers’ Day, corporate leaders like Jeff Bezos, who continue to operate essential businesses, must ask themselves which side of history they want to be on before any more lives are lost to a preventable public health crisis. 

It is time to listen to your workers, see them as partners, respect their rights and dignity, and act. Fast. 

Frank Kearl is Staff Attorney at Make the Road New York. Mr. Kearl currently represents Christian Smalls and advocates on behalf of workers at Amazon’s JFK8 facility.

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