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Lawmakers call Amazon warehouse unsafe after surprise visit

Two US lawmakers from Michigan questioned the safety protections for Amazon.com Inc employees after touring a company warehouse in their state, raising anew criticism about working conditions at the e-commerce giant during the coronavirus pandemic.

Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell, both Michigan Democrats, made a surprise visit earlier this month to an Amazon warehouse in Romulus, Michigan. The lawmakers said they were asked to wait outside for about 90 minutes before being invited in for a tour. While they waited, someone inside the building called the police on them.

Tlaib on Sept 21 tweeted video of part of the visit, showing Amazon workers cleaning the facility while she and Dingell waited. The video includes police responding to the site after being called by Amazon in response to the lawmakers’ surprise appearance. The pair were finally let in, although they were told they couldn’t take video inside the warehouse.

“Employee screening is poorly executed, cleaning is insufficient, social distancing is often difficult or impossible, and Amazon’s relentless quota system does not allow for breaks for adequate personal hygiene,” Tlaib said. “Moreover, if Amazon is willing to call the police on congresswomen it invited to tour its facility, we can only imagine the harassment and intimidation Amazon workers have faced for speaking out.”

An Amazon spokeswoman called the appearance by police “an unfortunate misunderstanding when one of our night shift security guards was not expecting external visitors to be filming on site and was not aware of the identity of those filming at the entryway of the facility – the situation was resolved and we toured the congresswomen through the site.” The warehouse has 270 sanitation stations, 19 restrooms where employees can wash hands, has doubled janitorial staff from before the pandemic and has used 70 gallons of hand sanitiser and 10,000 face masks each week, according to Amazon.

Earlier on Sept 21, an Amazon human resources executive took to the company’s corporate blog to praise conditions at the warehouse, which Amazon calls DTW1.

“I feel fortunate and proud to be a part of a company that’s prioritizing the health and safety of its million-strong workforce, and creating new jobs,” said Ofori Agboka, a human resources vice president.

The opposite views highlight an optics war regarding the public’s perception of Amazon facilities that few customers see. Conditions at the warehouses, which the company calls fulfillment centres, have been targeted for years by workers who have criticised strict productivity goals and voiced concerns about their safety. Amazon has held public tours of fulfillment centres since 2015, and in recent years has responded to critiques from politicians and workers in the press by offering invitations to visit.

The pandemic has made life on the front lines of Amazon’s e-commerce empire more challenging. As Covid-19 cases hit the workforce in dozens of warehouses, the company moved to secure masks, gloves and cleaning supplies for employees and adjusted its processes to accommodate social distancing. Small groups of workers staged wildcat strikes, including at the Romulus warehouse, to call for more protections.

After hearing from concerned workers earlier this year, Tlaib and Dingell twice wrote to Amazon seeking details on the company’s safety measures. In May, they asked the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration to investigate the Romulus warehouse. Amazon defended its policies, and offered to host the representatives for a tour.

The lawmakers said their surprise visit was intended to get an unvarnished look at the company’s facilities. They described workers bypassing temperature checks and said they saw only one cleaning crew for an 850,000 sq ft (78,968 sq m) warehouse. – Bloomberg

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