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Amazon’s algorithms taken to task in landmark bill


The methods Amazon and other employers use to monitor, reward and discipline warehouse workers are being shaken up in California.

State Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation prohibiting employees from being fired for failing to meet a quota that does not allow for rest breaks.

Amazon employees have complained about working long hours with harsh penalties for being “off task.”

The online retailer has not yet responded to the new legislation.

Bathroom facilities

The bill, which is the first of its kind, will go into effect in January 2022.

Companies must detail the number of tasks they expect warehouse workers to complete in a given time frame, as well as any penalties for failing to do so.

The bill states that “an employee shall not be required to meet a quota that prevents compliance with meal or rest periods, use of restroom facilities, or occupational health and safety laws.”

In California, Amazon employs approximately 150,000 people.

‘Arduous workloads’

Its pay and benefits are considered to be among the best in the industry.

However, some complain that working conditions are not ideal, and that heavy workloads cause mental and physical problems.

One of its most contentious policies is time off from work (TOT).

Based on the number of items scanned, Amazon’s algorithms determine which hours of a shift are off task, with penalties for those who underperform.

Previously, the system would send an alert if workers were not on task for 30 minutes.

However, Amazon changed its policy in June to average scanned items over a longer period of time.

At the time of the change, global operations vice president Dave Clark blogged that the tool “could be easily misunderstood,” but that its primary purpose was to “understand whether there are issues with the tools that people use to be productive” and only secondarily to identify underperforming employees.

One of the most serious criticisms levelled at Amazon is that its use of technology, including a large number of robots, dehumanises employees.

It employs a variety of technology to keep an eye on employees, including cameras in delivery vans and a driving app.

‘Union-busting tactics’

Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted for the first time in April on whether to be represented by the National Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

The vote was against the union, but there were allegations that Amazon used union-busting tactics, including:

  • altering a traffic-light system outside the warehouse to give union officials less time to leaflet workers
  • bombarding workers with texts, posters and signs encouraging them to vote no

The National Labor Relations Board found enough evidence that Amazon tampered with the process to warrant a second vote, which has yet to take place.

RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum applauded the new California legislation, but added that a union contract is “better.”

Transparency about what warehouses expected of their employees was required, he said, but “many other issues” needed to be addressed.

The US Teamsters Union announced in June that it, too, intended to hire Amazon employees.

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