Calling for an end to unjust workplace surveillance at Amazon and Walmart

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Amazon stunt
Oxfam staff and friends (left to right) CAUSE president the Rev. Ryan Brown, Mary Marchal, Sisters on the Planet Ambassador Ellen Southard, Mia Veal, Danielle Adams, and CAUSE member Italo Medelius at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. Photo: Danielle Adams/Oxfam

Oxfam's new campaign is pushing these megaretailers to improve the well-being of workers who are suffering under constant electronic monitoring.

On a Wednesday afternoon in April, a group of former Amazon employees, workers’ rights organizers, and Oxfam staff gathered outside Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. Another group of activists mobilized at Walmart’s campus in Bentonville, Arkansas. They stood at opposite ends of the country, but with a unified mission: bring workplace surveillance to an end.

Their actions marked the launch of Oxfam’s campaign against the corporate giants’ use of surveillance to drive unreasonable and unsafe levels of worker productivity.

How retailers stoke inequality

Amazon and Walmart are the largest private employers in the U.S., posting record profits year after year. They deliver products to us at lightning speeds and low prices. These days, it’s possible to order something through Prime and have it arrive at your doorstep within a few hours. The companies have made shopping with them so convenient and affordable that we often don’t think about what makes this possible.

What is happening behind the scenes, however, is the systematic dehumanization of workers. “We are tracked as if we are products,” said Italo Medelius, a worker from Amazon’s North Carolina facility and a member of organizing group and Oxfam partner Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment(CAUSE).

“We walk around with badges that have barcodes on them. Everything we do, we are scanned in. There are eyes on you at all times, which makes you feel like a criminal in your own workplace.” Both companies are getting rich off the backs of workers, and both employ sophisticated surveillance systems that they claim are there to safeguard workers—but that instead create dangerous working conditions.

In April, Oxfam released a report called At Work and Under Watch that includes testimonies from workers on what it’s like to work under constant surveillance. Many workers said they are unable to take care of basic needs, such as using the bathroom, for fear of falling behind production standards. Workers reported both physical and mental health impacts, ranging from increased injuries and pain to dehydration, exhaustion, and anxiety and depression.

“It’s like [the TV show Squid Game], you see co-workers, you see friends, … you see relatives who pass out, who are taken out of their facility on the stretcher,” said one North Carolina Amazon warehouse worker in the survey.

A worker in Alabama likened working in the warehouse to slavery. “[Amazon] care[s] more about quotas and meeting production rates than actually caring about us as human beings inside there. I feel more like a number."

The racial injustice in these surveillance practices is particularly troubling. Beyond feelings of being constantly watched and policed, women of color reported experiencing more adverse effects related to pain, safety, and health outcomes at both Amazon and Walmart facilities.

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xfam campaigns staff Ben Walton, Oliver Gottfried, Will Fenton, and Ben Grossman-Cohen at Walmart’s home office in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Shelby Bolen/Oxfam

Championing a safer, more dignified workplace

Oxfam and our allies have been advocating for workers’ rights for years, holding corporations accountable for workplace inequalities that disproportionately affect low-wage workers, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), immigrant, and other marginalized workers. In fact, this isn’t our first time pushing Amazon and Walmart to address human rights in their business practices.

In 2018, we took on Amazon subsidiary Whole Foods and Walmart as part of our Behind the Barcodes campaign, which advocated for the rights of supermarket food producers. That campaign resulted in Whole Foods adopting a Supplier Code of Conduct in 2019.

Consumer happiness doesn’t have to come at the expense of workers’ lives. We are simply asking Amazon and Walmart to stop prioritizing productivity over people.

“The majority of the people I work alongside are hard-working Americans,” said the Rev. Ryan Brown, CAUSE president. We just want them to be able to provide for their families and [to] be treated with dignity and respect.”

Oxfam isn’t calling for a boycott or asking people to change their shopping habits. We don’t believe shoppers should feel bad for purchasing what’s affordable for their wallets. We also know a boycott would negatively impact the workers we are advocating alongside.

What we want is for Amazon and Walmart to commit to practices that improve worker health and safety. This would entail stopping or at least significantly reforming their use of electronic surveillance; conducting a human rights impact assessment of working conditions inside
U.S. warehouses that includes a gender and racial justice lens for all issues uncovered; publicly disclosing the rate of worker injury claims and improving on-site medical care; and respecting workers’ right to freedom of association.

The companies are taking notice. After we published our report, Amazon posted a lengthy response on its website. A number of media outlets, including The Seattle Times and Business Insider, covered the report and asked the companies for comment.

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