Amazon Says It Complies With International Labor Standards. It Absolutely Does Not.

Amazon has released a laughable statement denying what’s been obvious since the company’s founding: that it, like many other US companies, actively and systematically violates international labor standards prohibiting anti-union interference in workers’ business.

A worker sorts out packages in the outbound dock at Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale, California, on Tuesday, August 31, 2021. (Watchara Phomicinda / MediaNews Group / The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

On March 11, 2022, Amazon published a policy statement professing a commitment to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The human-rights policy opens by affirming that “Amazon employees are the foundation of our success as a company, and we are committed to respecting the fundamental human rights and the dignity of workers everywhere we operate around the world.” The company notes that the International Labor Organization (ILO) and United Nations recognize workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. “We respect and support these standards,” the statement reads.

While anyone who has followed the company’s union busting as of late knows that is untrue, a new report from the UC Berkeley Labor Center details the extent of the problem. Titled Failure to Deliver: Assessing Amazon’s Freedom of Association Policy under International Labor Standards, the report details Amazon’s violations of the international standards to which the company has now pledged allegiance.

As Lance Compa, the report’s author, notes, a key foundation of such international standards is the principle of noninterference in workers’ organizing.

“The principle of non-interference was articulated as long ago as 1949, shortly after the ILO adopted Conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association, organizing, and collective bargaining,” writes Compa:

The ILO said at that time that Convention 87’s Article 11 “lays down an obligation for the State to take measures to prevent any interference with such rights without qualification, that is, interference by individuals, by organizations or by public authorities.”

While the United States has not ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98, the ILO “has determined that ILO member countries are ‘bound to respect a certain number of general rules which have been established for the common good. . . . Among these principles, freedom of association has become a customary rule above the Conventions.’” The United States has accepted “this rule and jurisdiction of the Committee on Freedom of Association in complaints filed against it under these conventions.”

Examples of what the committee has deemed employer interference in workers’ organizing and bargaining rights include: imposing pressure, instilling fear, and making threats of any kind that undermine workers’ right to freedom of association; harassing and intimidating workers by reason of trade union membership or legitimate union activities; and dismissing a worker by reason of union membership or legitimate union activities, including by invoking “neglect of duty” [or other employer rules] when the real motive for dismissal is a worker’s trade union activities.

Amazon has not only engaged in all of those activities in the past; it was engaged in them when it published its freedom-of-association policy statement and continues to engage in them now.

As Compa notes, US labor law has long been interpreted as allowing employers to behave in such ways, which is why the United States hasn’t ratified the ILO Conventions. As the US Council for International Business, the US employer representative at the ILO, once explained:

ILO core conventions [87 and 98] have been found to directly conflict with US law and practice. . . . US ratification of the conventions would prohibit all acts of employer and union interference in organizing, which would eliminate employers’ rights under the NLRA to oppose unions.

But if Amazon insists that it is not only following US labor law but international standards, US ratification is irrelevant. It is no wonder that Amazon’s policy makes no reference to the details of ILO standards: it is without question noncompliant. (It is also noncompliant with the far more lenient standards of US labor law, as it has just been sued by the National Labor Relations Board and was found to have broken the law during the union election in Bessemer, Alabama; it is also currently facing dozens of new unfair labor practice charges by workers at a number of facilities.)

Further, Amazon operates internationally. The company’s policy statement states that many European countries have works councils, and that “Amazon is in the process of establishing a European Works Council (EWC),” as is required of firms with at least one thousand workers in two or more European Union countries.

“In countries with legal requirements for works councils, Amazon has a long record of first resisting formation of works councils, then dealing with them as grudgingly as possible,” writes Compa, citing extensive research by journalists Jörn Boewe and Johannes Schulten. Further, Compa notes that Amazon met the EWC threshold more than twenty years ago, making its assertion that it is only now establishing an EWC more damning than exculpatory.

Throughout Amazon’s policy statement is an emphasis on what the company calls “direct employee participation in the workplace,” by which it means “employees and management have direct interactions.” Such direct forms of “freedom of association” — here the twisting of what that concept refers to becomes outright absurd, as Amazon means employees are not unionized in any capacity but simply interacting with their bosses — include associate forums, all-hands meetings, and Amazon’s “Voice of the Associates Board.” Amazon’s statement insists that these paths provide workers with plenty of options for remedying complaints and that “any employee can go directly to Human Resources, the Legal Department, or any manager with a suggestion, concern, feedback or complaint.”

“Amazon’s idiosyncratic formulation of ‘direct’  and ‘indirect’ employee participation in the workplace is simply not part of international labor rights discourse,” writes Compa. None of this has any resemblance to ILO or UN standards for freedom of association or collective bargaining. If Amazon is to respect such standards rather than use its policy as a shield against criticism, Compa recommends the company go back to the drawing board, enshrining the principle of noninterference into its policy.

In Compa’s estimation, that would mean, at a minimum, the following:

  1. Not hiring anti-union consultants to wage campaigns against workers’ organizing efforts;
  2. Not forcing workers into anti-union captive-audience meetings;
  3. Not creating anti-union websites or using company communication systems to convey anti-union messages;
  4. Not disparaging, deriding, or imputing corrupt motives to unions or union representatives;
  5. Not telling workers that they could lose pay and benefits if they form a union; and
  6. Not telling workers management will replace them if they exercise the right to strike.