Workers Are Dying Because Amazon Treats Human Beings as Disposable
Six workers were killed last month because Amazon insisted they keep working during a tornado. The corporation's poor safety record and sky-high staff turnover are caused by one thing: treating people as disposable is better for Amazon’s profits.
On December 10, a tornado touched down in Edwardsville, Illinois. At the time, De’Andre Morrow, a twenty-eight-year-old from St. Louis, was working his shift at an Amazon delivery warehouse. De’Andre had been saving up money to take a trip with his girlfriend. He told his father he was planning on proposing during that trip to Thailand.
De’Andre Morrow was one of six Amazon workers killed at the Edwardsville, Illinois, warehouse. When the tornado struck, there were forty-six workers trapped in the building, but only one designated safe room. The safe room was located at the northern edge of the 1.1-million-square-foot facility. Some accounts have the tornado touching down at 8:28 p.m. and the Amazon warehouse collapsing at 8:33 p.m. All six workers who died that night were unable to reach this segmented safe area.
Morrow and his coworkers died during a natural disaster. But it would be a mistake to view their deaths as accidental or as isolated tragedies. These workers were killed because Amazon has an ongoing policy of threatening people’s jobs and coercing employees to continue working through dangerous situations, whether it’s a tornado, a pandemic, or just the daily grind of “making rate” during a ten-hour shift.
While Amazon has kept the national scope of worker deaths under lock and key, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren are now demanding a ten-year list of all on-site deaths with an explanation. Amazon has ignored previous requests of this type in the past. What we do know is that serious worker injuries at Amazon are increasing year after year, despite the company’s chronic underreporting, and they are already 80 percent higher than industry averages.
During the tornado in Edwardsville, one of Amazon’s contract delivery drivers was texting with their supervisor. In the hour leading up to the tornado’s touchdown, the driver was told to “just keep delivering,” despite their requests for a chance to find shelter. When their supervisor said no, the delivery worker accused Amazon of “wanting to turn this van into a casket.”
A recurring complaint from Amazon warehouse and delivery workers has been the feeling that they are completely disposable. Amazon has a nationwide weekly turnover rate of 3 percent, or roughly thirty thousand employees — equivalent to a total replacement of all its hourly workers every eight months. While many companies consider high turnover costly, Amazon’s workplace is designed for rapidly replacing workers. Jeff Bezos famously called an entrenched workforce a “march to mediocrity.” Rapid turnover also benefits Amazon’s bottom line by making long-term strategies like unionizing more difficult and stopping employees from accessing the benefits accrued over time, repeatedly touted by company spokespersons as an advantage of working there.
High turnover thus accelerates a race to the bottom whereby wages get repeatedly reset to their starting point. In a practice being mainstreamed by Amazon, workers, after their first year of employment, are offered increasing sums of cash up front if they choose to quit. In 2019, to make the point clearer, Amazon hired around 770,000 new hourly workers but had fired or lost more than 660,000 of them by the year’s end. By all accounts, these trends only accelerated with the pandemic. And that’s not to mention the fate of part-time employees.
The politics and policy of disposability can also be seen, specifically, in the death of these six workers inside the Edwardsville warehouse. Theories of disposability were popularized by critical race scholars to describe how structural violence operates to abandon racialized populations, killing by neglect. Disposability politics asks how we can understand Morrow and his coworkers’ deaths as an outcome Amazon allowed, expected, and predicted.
Perhaps no one has addressed this question more acutely than James Tyner, author of Dead Labor: Toward a Political Economy of Premature Death, published in 2019. Tyner’s work traces history back to the 1600s in order to understand how the premature death of workers became something “calculable, manageable, predictable, and even profitable.” Tyner’s work explores the long-standing contradiction within capitalism between increasing work demands and keeping workers alive. As Tyner points out, citing Karl Marx, “Capital . . . takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so.”
Natural disasters such as this tornado cannot themselves be controlled. But they are predictable and, in fact, predicted. Far from this being a freak accident, Illinois weathers an average of fifty-four tornadoes each year, and it’s located on the border of what’s known as “tornado alley.” When Amazon decided to construct this Edwardsville facility in 2018, it was always a question of when, not if, a tornado would hit.
During a press conference the following Monday, Amazon’s senior vice president of global delivery serviced, John Felton, said “all procedures were followed correctly.” In a sense, he was right: it is company procedure to keep scores of workers on-site during natural disasters; it is company procedure to continue working through severe weather alerts and tornado sirens; and it is company procedure to wait until a tornado has actually touched down before allowing workers to stop working and find shelter.
Looking at what Tyner calls the political economy of death, we can infer from this catastrophe that the value of workers’ lives at Amazon is less than the potential profits from a single day, or even a single hour, of their labor. If those calculations were otherwise, Amazon would have simply allowed workers to go home once the National Weather Service issued an emergency alert. These calculations, in the aggregate, are what Tyner calls an “economic bio-arithmetic,” whereby many are “left to die so that others may enjoy the fruits of (dead) laborers.” This is the price of Amazon Prime’s next-day deliveries.
Every day, Amazon shifts the burden onto employees to make these life-and-death decisions, weighing their job against their safety. In Boulder, Colorado, an Amazon driver was hailed as a “hero” and an “angel” for rescuing a family of three during the urban firestorm that consumed six thousand acres and one thousand homes last week. As the fire blazed, the driver — “Lou Ann” — drove through the evacuated emergency area in order to deliver a bike pump to the family. Newsweek reported on the incident, taking a baffled tone, writing that the Amazon driver had “apparently decided to risk life and limb to deliver a bicycle pump amid the inferno” [italics added].
Newsweek’s description is both true and egregiously devoid of a labor perspective. Of the 190 people employed at the Edwardsville delivery depot, only seven are full-time Amazon workers. Subcontract capitalism, embodied by the gig economy, depends on these illusory notions of worker choice and agency. Tyner writes, “Neither corporations nor the state take responsibility for the plight of any particular individual if, as totally free agents, he or she is assumed to be fully responsible for his or her condition.”
All workers are compelled to participate in the wage labor market in order to get by — so all labor is, to some degree, forced. Yet Newsweek ascribes this worker the status of a free agent — an autonomous actor making the unconstrained yet illogical decision to deliver bike pumps into a wildfire.
We have to insist on a reinterpretation of these tragic deaths in Edwardsville as what they are: murder. While they happened during a natural disaster, these were not natural deaths. Speaking of the premature death of English workers in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Engels wrote of this same common misrepresentation: “because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.” For Amazon, workers dying is the cost of doing business, and it often costs less than keeping them alive. In a capitalist system, allowing workers to die in this way is a rational choice for Amazon’s bottom line — and it is a choice the company makes time and again.
Marx further identified this equation in Capital, writing that what interests capital
is purely and simply the maximum of labor power that can be set in motion in a working day. It attains this objective by shortening the life of labor-power, in the same way as a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.
Marx, and more recently Tyner, both point to the idea that capitalists like Bezos, in the most literal sense, plan on their workers dying in preventable fashions. Capital, Tyner writes, “reproduces itself at the cost of the life of the laborer.”
Yet the United States is seeing a resurgence of the labor movement, with historic numbers of strikes and union drives across multiple industries. Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are now entering the second year of their struggle to form a union. Amid that struggle, the Bessemer warehouse also made headlines recently when two workers died on the warehouse floor, only hours apart. One of the workers had been denied sick leave just a few hours prior. In all, six people have died at the Bessemer site during 2021 alone.
If they win the necessary votes, Bessemer would be the first Amazon warehouse to unionize in the country. And ultimately, the collective bargaining power of workers is one of the only, if not the only, thing that can force Amazon to change. The company is growing exponentially and is set to surpass Walmart as the nation’s largest employer by the year’s end. In 2022, the stakes have never been higher for American workers.
No one understands this better than the workers at Amazon. As one Bessemer employee put it: “You’re a body. Once that body’s used up, they’ll just bring somebody else in and do the work.”