May is here, which for the investor class means the return of the annual shareholder meeting, in which the leadership of public corporations addresses the one group to which they are theoretically answerable. For Amazon investors, at least during the long reign of founder Jeff Bezos, a highlight of the season has always been the CEO’s letter to shareholders, typically issued in April. Not at all content to offer up the usual anodyne reassurances to investors, Bezos regularly exceeded expectations, dispensing savory bits of execupreneurial wisdom eagerly consumed by the business press and by fellow strivers the world over.
This began to change two years ago, for an ominous cloud had appeared over the company’s carefully managed reputation. A September 2020 exposé by journalist Will Evans had revealed to the public what had long been apparent to the hundreds of thousands of Amazon’s warehouse workers: the firm’s novel techniques of labor extraction were inflicting a terrible toll on the health and well-being of its legions of pickers and packers.
As Evans reported, the rate of serious injury in the warehouses had steadily climbed in recent years, reaching an unprecedented peak of 7.7 per hundred workers in 2019, nearly double that of the industry standard. A second independent analysis, released by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) in June 2021, further demonstrated that the company’s extraordinarily high clip of worker injury is directly related to the punishing work rate inflicted on its workers.
Thus Bezos’s 2021 letter, his last as CEO, as well as Andy Jassy’s first effort as new CEO, issued last April, were distinguished by a new tone of defensiveness, as company leadership attempted to respond to a gathering storm of negative press.
Over the past two years, Amazon has focused its defense on three particular arguments, none of which stand up to even casual scrutiny.
“We Don’t Set Unreasonable Performance Goals”
First, the firm simply disputes the statistics compiled by the SOC, instead providing its own set of alternative facts. A particularly clumsy example is that the company includes its own workforce when computing the “industry average,” permitting Jassy to insist that the firm’s injury rates are “about average.” In 2022, for example, Amazon employed 36 percent of US warehouse workers, yet was responsible for no less than 53 percent of recordable injuries. A far more honest assessment would compare Amazon’s serious injury rate (6.6) and that of the remainder of the industry (3.2).
Second, when the company does acknowledge the safety problem, it brazenly denies what is obviously its source: “we don’t set unreasonable performance goals,” Bezos claimed in his April 2021 letter. And even more counterintuitively, the company has consistently maintained that the solution to a problem caused by innovative techniques of labor extraction is . . . more innovation. Thus Jassy, in his 2022 letter, asserts that what is needed is “rigorous analysis, thoughtful problem-solving, and a willingness to invent,” and further reassures investors that the firm will continue “learning, inventing, and iterating” until the problem is resolved. What he did not own up to is that Amazon’s rate of serious injury actually rose in 2022 by 13 percent.
Third, and most invidiously, Amazon has resorted to blaming workers themselves, in particular the hundreds of thousands of new people brought on during the past few years of rapid expansion. Since the great majority of the new hires are “new to this sort of work,” and since Amazon’s number crunchers have determined that most injuries occur within the first six months of employment, it is only natural that, as Jassy informed shareholders at the 2022 meeting, “your rates tend to go up.”
If this is indeed true, then it would seem that the company would have every incentive to retain as many of its warehouse workers as possible. Why expend so much effort to train up “industrial athletes” if most of them don’t stick around for the long haul? And yet turnover rates in the warehouses are astronomical; as the New York Times reported in 2021, even before the so-called Great Resignation, the company’s rate reached as high as 150 percent annually, meaning the entire workforce is replaced every eight months.
A measure of Amazon’s commitment to “Burn and Churn” is the “Pay to Quit” program that Bezos introduced in 2014, in which hourly employees are annually offered a payout — $1,000 initially, increased yearly up to a maximum of $5,000 after five years — to move along. (Facing the prospect of running out of human fuel, Jassy suspended the program for most employees in January 2022.)
Profits Over Safety
In retrospect, the May 2022 Amazon shareholder meeting probably represents the high tide of criticism of the firm’s labor practices. The blowback had reached such intensity that Amazon faced a record fifteen shareholder proposals, many of which concerned labor and safety issues. These included a call for board representation from an hourly worker, a request for a report on the company’s compliance with freedom of association standards as established by the International Labor Organization and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a proposal for an independent audit of working conditions in Amazon warehouses, and something of a Hail Mary demand from an enterprising Texas warehouse worker for the immediate suspension of all productivity quotas in the interest of safety.
But all fifteen proposals, each vigorously opposed by company leadership, were comfortably defeated — the demand to overturn the whole system of labor extraction was voted down by no less than 99.8 percent of Amazon investors.
If a solid majority of Amazon shareholders were untroubled by the company’s disgraceful safety record, they found the matter of the stock price more concerning. Although the firm had posted record profits for 2021 — more than $33 billion — disturbing trends had begun to appear in the second half of the year, triggering a precipitous fall in the stock price, from a peak of $186.12 in July 2021 to $104.10 by the May 24, 2022 meeting.
While there were many reasons for the plunge, much of it can be attributed to the lifting of COVID restrictions. Company leadership appears to have presumed that the meteoric, lockdown-driven growth in its consumer division was here to stay — that US consumers would not return to Walmart or Kroger. When the opposite happened, retail sales plummeted, and suddenly all that feverish expansion in the fulfillment network had become a burdensome drain on profits.
It should be stressed that criticism of the company’s injury mills has hardly abated in the twelve months since the May 2021 meeting, generating increased scrutiny from the government. At present, the company is under investigation from an unprecedented array of state institutions, including numerous state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) branches, the federal OSHA office under the Department of Labor, and the Southern District of New York. Wherever these agencies have looked they have found an abundance of violations; federal investigations in five states between December 2021 and February 2022 netted the company a raft of citations, but Amazon has dug in its heels, appealing each and every one of them.
While all this was dutifully reported by the business press, the orientation of coverage began to change in the second half of 2022, as more and more reports of the company’s falling profitability began to appear. Shortly after the meeting, for example, Amazon announced a net loss of $2 billion for Q2, compared to a 2021 Q2 profit of $7.8 billion. With little improvement in the third and fourth quarters — the firm would reveal a net loss of $2.7 billion for 2022 as a whole — rumors began to swirl that Bezos himself would soon return to save the day.
Somehow, some way, mighty Amazon had become a money-losing operation again, and it was Jassy himself bearing the brunt of the blame. But at the same time, all the bad financial news served to distract from the issue of injuries, and if he had failed spectacularly in resolving the latter, there were many relatively easy measures he could take to address the former.
Like so many of his fellow tech chieftains, Jassy began to respond in November by announcing a plan for mass layoffs in the corporate sector: by April 2023, the company had eliminated no less than twenty-seven thousand employees, and a new round is currently underway. Wildly cheered on by Wall Street, the stock price — which in December had dipped all the way into the eighties — began to recover, and by the end of March it was back above $100, where it remains as of this writing.
And yet the matter of the company’s shameful injury record was still out there, and given how poorly the firm had responded the past two years, a new strategy was needed. One of the cleverer moves of the SOC had been releasing its 2022 report on April 13, thereby preempting Jassy’s first shareholder letter, published the following day. Learning from its mistakes, this year Amazon preempted the preemptor, issuing a new edition of its own safety report on March 14. An exercise in spin, statistical manipulation, and outright lying, the “Delivered With Care” report managed to garner little if any attention, although as shall be discussed, this was probably the intention.
The SOC responded on April 13 with its own annual report, “In Denial: Amazon’s Continuing Failure to Fix Its Injury Crisis,” providing a comprehensive critique of “Delivered With Care” and managing to drum up at least some interest from the business press. Based on its own analysis, the SOC had to concede that Amazon can claim a reduction in its rate of serious injury, from 6.8 in 2021 to 6.6 in 2022 — a little less than 3 percent lower.
But there is significant reason to be skeptical of even this modest improvement, since the joint federal OSHA/Southern District of New York investigations found significant evidence of underreporting, resulting in a raft of subpoenas for documents relating to potential fraud (Amazon continues to fight the subpoenas in court). And even if the 6.6 figure holds up, it is still more than double than the rest of the industry.
Meanwhile, the content of Jassy’s second shareholder letter, published on April 14, suggests that the CEO has moved on to other concerns. Nowhere does the matter of workplace safety appear, nor does any mention of employee relations in general, save for an announcement that corporate employees must return to the office for a minimum of three days a week. First come the excuses: souring macroeconomic conditions, heightened competition, headwinds over at Amazon Web Services, etc. Then come the typical reassurances that company leadership is on top of things, that every effort is underway to return the firm to profitability.
As always, the emphasis is on “invention,” on the new sectors the company will soon come to dominate. Amazon is getting in on the chip boom. Advertising revenues are about to explode, as the firm’s ingenious algorithms outpace those of its competitors. Our own satellites will soon illuminate the not-yet-wired world.
Rather more concerning, at least to the multitude of warehouse workers, is the other side of the profitability equation, i.e. the reduction of costs. A year ago all the talk was of the herculean efforts — backed by $1 billion of new investment — to address safety issues. Here’s Jassy, summarizing his obsessive commitment to task:
When I first started in my new role, I spent significant time in our fulfillment centers and with our safety team. . . . At our scale . . . it takes rigorous analysis, thoughtful problem-solving, and a willingness to invent to get to where you want. We’ve been dissecting every process path to discern how we can further improve. . . . we’ll keep learning, inventing, and iterating until we have more transformational results. We won’t be satisfied until we do.
One year later, priorities have clearly changed. All that energy is now to be devoted to a very different enterprise, that of restoring profitability:
Over the last several months, we took a deep look across the company, business by business, invention by invention, and asked ourselves whether we had conviction about each initiative’s long-term potential to drive enough revenue, operating income, free cash flow, and return on invested capital.
The deep look certainly did not spare the warehouses, which are singled out as particularly egregious offenders:
A critical challenge we’ve continued to tackle is the rising cost to serve in our Stores fulfillment network (i.e. the cost to get a product from Amazon to a customer) — and we’ve made several changes that we believe will meaningfully improve our fulfillment costs and speed of delivery. . . . Over the last several months, we’ve scrutinized every process path in our fulfillment centers and transportation network and redesigned scores of processes and mechanisms, resulting in steady productivity gains and cost reductions over the last few quarters. There’s more work to do, but we’re pleased with our trajectory and the meaningful upside in front of us.
That these efforts to boost productivity might conflict with the firm’s purported number-one priority in its warehouses — the safety of its workers — is a question no longer of concern to Jassy. If at the upcoming shareholder meeting, scheduled for May 26, he is once again asked about the matter, he’ll surely say something like this: “The safety team is all over that. See their recent report.”
Herein lies the heart of the problem: even operating a fulfillment network twice as dangerous as its competitors, Amazon simply cannot turn a profit on rapidly delivering packages for free or with minimal fees. For the consumer division to make money doing so, it will need to tighten the screws on its workers even more, extracting ever-more labor from their ailing bodies.
Perhaps the company can defy the laws of nature. Perhaps it can reengineer “scores of processes and mechanisms” in the interest of efficiency without simultaneously inflicting a greater toll on its pickers and packers. But it will be another year until we find out.
In the meantime, we have clearly reached an impasse. In a couple weeks, the shareholders will gather again, and the same activist groups will present their proposals for change. But it’s difficult to see how results could be better this year, given the firm’s financial struggles, which will surely take center stage. A better bet would be state intervention — new legislation, a serious clampdown from OSHA — but Amazon has thus far fended off these challenges with relative ease.
The ideal solution would be unionization across the entire fulfillment network, which would enable workers to negotiate a reasonable, safe, and humane work rate. But from the company perspective this simply cannot be allowed to happen, for even under the current regime of brutal labor extraction, Amazon appears to be incapable of turning a profit.
Amazon is operating injury mills — more than thirty-six thousand of its workers suffered serious injury last year. The company has clearly determined that such numbers are acceptable. Do the rest of us agree?
Since Jacobin started reporting on Amazon’s shareholder letters back in 2021, we have annually reached out for comment. After two years of ignoring our requests, the company came through this week. Here are our inquiries and Amazon’s responses:
1) In his 2020 shareholder letter, former CEO Jeff Bezos indicated that he was introducing a new leadership principle, that of making Amazon “Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” But when the leadership principles were updated on July 1, 2021, this was changed to “Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility.” Why was this change made? Is Amazon no longer committed to being Earth’s Safest Place to Work?
- When Jeff introduced the ideas of “Earth’s Best Employer” and “Earth’s Safest Place to Work” in the letter, he did not say anything about these being leadership principles. He talked about them as a “vision for our employee’s success.” Here’s what he said, lifted directly from the letter: Despite what we’ve accomplished, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success. We have always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here. But I am committing us to an addition. We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.
- Separately, three months following the shareholder letter, Amazon announced our two new leadership principles. If you read the description of the leadership principle “Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer,” you’ll find that safety is included in the definition, which states “Leaders work every day to create a safer, more productive, higher performing, more diverse, and more just work environment.”
- Our commitment to continuous safety improvement is reiterated in Amazon’s 2022 safety report, which was released in March. The report states “Our goal is to be the safest workplace within the industries that we are typically designated.”
- Andy Jassy has also underlined the importance of safety numerous times, including at the Bloomberg Tech Summit, in a CNBC interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin, and with CNBC’s Jon Fortt.
2) Also in his 2020 letter, Mr. Bezos noted that in his new role as Executive Chair, he was eager “to work alongside the large team of passionate people we have in Ops and help invent in this arena of Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” But we have been unable to find any media reports that Mr. Bezos has indeed devoted any of his time over the past two years to the matter of worker safety. Could you provide details on his activities in this critical area?
- Amazon has done significant work to improve safety performance. We began releasing Delivered With Care, our safety, well-being, and health report, in 2022 and released it again this year (which you can download here). The report includes some of the following highlights:
- From 2019 to 2022, we saw our recordable incident rate improve by almost 24%. This includes an 11% year-over-year decline in our recordable injuries from 2021 to 2022.
- Since 2019, we reduced the number of injuries resulting in employees needing to take time away from work by 53%.
- In 2022, we engaged with over 1.4 million employees to understand safety sentiment and areas of improvement.
- From 2019 to 2022, we invested $1 billion in safety initiatives unrelated to COVID-19, and in 2023, we are investing another $550 million in safety initiatives. This is in addition to the $15 billion in COVID-related costs we incurred to make more than 150 significant process and procedural changes to help protect our employees and partners during the pandemic.
- We have reduced collision rates in our U.S. Delivery Service Partner network by 35%
- In 2023, Amazon became one of the first to sign on to the Department of Transportation’s nationwide call to action to reduce deaths on the roadways. Amazon committed another $200 million to continue upgrading safety technologies across our fleet of trucks and vans, including additional investments in collision avoidance technologies, strobing brake lights, and in-vehicle camera safety technology — just to name a few.
3) Since we began reporting on Amazon’s workplace injury record, the company has regularly referred to the fact that it employs more than 6000 safety professionals; Mr. Bezos cited the figure of 6200 in his April 2021 letter. Given the recent mass layoffs at the company — 27,000 roles eliminated with a new round currently underway — is this figure still accurate? How many positions have been eliminated in the safety division? What is the current figure?
- Amazon’s current number of workplace health and safety professionals is more than 8,000 globally.