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FOSTER: Companies are ramping up efforts to exploit


Column: Techsploitation

Cameron Foster is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. Their column, "Techsploitation," runs on alternate Tuesdays.
Cameron Foster is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. Their column, "Techsploitation," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

While companies like Amazon and Instacart see a boom in sales during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, workers are losing their jobs and risking their safety due to inadequate pay and care.

Shoppers at Instacart, an online grocery delivery company, and warehouse workers at Amazon are striking following receiving inadequate protection to prevent catching or transmitting COVID-19.

While Instacart has begun providing safety kits with hand sanitizer and a face mask to its shoppers, it only began to do so following an emergency strike organized by the workers in late March. A letter from the shoppers and the organization Gig Workers Collective said “Instacart has turned this pandemic into a (public relations) PR campaign ... (but) has still not provided essential protections to Shoppers on the front lines.”

Even with safety kits, these workers are still at risk. Strikers said they are still going without hazard pay, accessible sick leave or paid leave for people at high risk of COVID-19 complications.  

Meanwhile, Amazon workers across the country claim that their employers do not care about their safety. Many workers are not receiving personal protective equipment (PPE) nor paid sick leave and are being required to work mandatory extra shifts to keep up with a significant increase in business for the company while people are sheltering in place. 

Workers are working in close quarters, with a required minimum of only 3 feet between them, at facilities that either do not provide protective gloves or quickly run out of them. Furthermore, without paid time off, workers are less likely to stay home even if there is a chance they could be sick, because they still need to pay the bills. 

Some Amazon employees are beginning to speak out and voice their concerns about workplace health and safety, but not without risk of repercussions. 

Chris Smalls, who organized a walk-out strike at one Staten Island Amazon warehouse, was fired shortly after the protest, which took place in late March. Amazon claimed he was fired for not complying with social distancing orders, and that he went into work after coming in contact with an infected co-worker without staying home for a required 14 days. 

But, Smalls said the company did not put him on quarantine until three weeks after he last came in contact with the said co-worker, and no other worker that came into contact with this co-worker were dealt with similar orders to self-isolate. 

Only Smalls, the main organizer of the walk-out, was ordered to stay home. Only Smalls was fired. 

Workers at Whole Foods Market, which is owned by Amazon, also held a "sick-out" protest after only being granted a $2 increase in hazard pay. One Whole Foods Market worker said to The Guardian that they barely have time to wash their hands. Another worker said, “if we are not able to work 70 (percent) of the peak hours we would lose our full-time status, therefore losing all health benefits.” 

An internal email sent out to Whole Foods Market employees stated, that in the absence of paid sick leave provided by the company, workers would be able to donate paid time off to each other in the instance of “a medical emergency or death in their immediate family.” 

Meanwhile, companies across the board, Whole Foods Market included, are ramping up efforts to suppress union organizing efforts. A new investigation from Business Insider has found that Whole Foods Market is assigning scores to its different locations, ranking their likelihood of unionizing based on metrics such as racial diversity of employees and number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations. 

It then tracks each location on an interactive heat map in order to “identify stores at risk of unionization” and “address challenges early before they become problematic." 

Given Amazon’s treatment of Smalls, it leaves cause to wonder whether Whole Foods Market’s method of addressing challenges will be in its employees’ best interests.  

These efforts at suppressing workers’ voices and denying them care is especially worrying when one takes into account the fact that 75 percent of front-line workers in New York City are people of color

This is not a coronavirus-exclusive phenomenon. Technology companies have a long history of mistreating their employees and independent contractors, and it is not just happening at Amazon and Instacart. 

YouTube’s content moderators are mostly contract workers doing work that has been outsourced to India and the Philippines. They are paid approximately $500 per month, work up to 9 hours a day and spend the entirety of that time screening violent, graphic content posted to the platform to determine whether it needs to be flagged and taken down. Despite the deeply traumatic nature of their work, YouTube grants them access to counseling only once a month, every six months or never. 

Google employees protested in 2018 against grievously mismanaged cases of sexual assault and harassment committed against employees by higher ups. One of the perpetrators, Andy Rubin, received a $90 million severance package. Another received a promotion to chief legal officer of Alphabet.  

Technology industries should not be free from consequences for the mistreatment of their employees, whether they work in a grocery store, warehouse or office. Especially during a time of international crisis, it is important that workers are treated like human beings, not machines. 

Cameron Foster is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. Their column, "Techsploitation," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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