Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in his final letter to shareholders as CEO that the e-commerce giant has to “do a better job for our employees.” The letter comes amid ongoing reports of untenable conditions for Amazon workers. And it outlines a strategy that seems odd for a company that has been accused of treating workers like robots: a robotic scheme that will develop new staffing schedules using an algorithm.
Bezos pushed back on the idea that, according to news reports, Amazon doesn’t care for its employees. “In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots. That’s not accurate,” he wrote.
To address concerns about working conditions, Bezos said the company will develop new staffing schedules “that use sophisticated algorithms to rotate employees among jobs that use different muscle-tendon groups to decrease repetitive motion and help protect employees from MSD risks.” The technology will roll out throughout 2021, he said.
In addition to giving a nod to working conditions at Amazon, the letter is the first time Bezos has publicly addressed the failed union drive at its Bessemer, Alabama plant. “Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t,” Bezos wrote. “I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”
Amazon issued a rare public apology earlier this month, after it was caught publicly lying to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) that its workers have not ever had to pee in water bottles to meet their work demands. This is a well-documented issue at Amazon because of how it robotically tracks and fires workers. An Amazon worker told Motherboard as recently as late March that bathroom breaks (or the lack of) were still a problem. “You’re sitting there and you have to go take a piss, but you don’t want to rack up ‘time off task,’” the worker said. In addition, Amazon is facing a lawsuit over workers’ missed lunch breaks.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that led the Bessemer unionization drive, said in a statement Thursday that the impact of the union drive, regardless of the outcome, has been “devastating” for Amazon’s reputation.
“We have initiated a global debate about the way Amazon treats its employees,” Appelbaum wrote. “Bezos’s admission today demonstrates that what we have been saying about workplace conditions is correct. But his admission won’t change anything, workers need a union – not just another Amazon public relations effort in damage control.”