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Behind Amazon’s Never-Ending Customer Discounts Lies The Exploitation Of Its Workers

Amazon’s workers across the world have highlighted gruesome working conditions

Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
Workers at Amazon warehouse Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
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“There’s always some offer or other on Amazon. You [the customers] get deals round the year. But have you ever thought about what makes this possible? Where do these never-ending offers come from? They come from our exploitation,” says Gaurav Singh.*

For the past three years, Singh, 22 years old, has been working at the Amazon warehouse DEL 4, in Manesar, Gurgaon. “We are made to work for 10 hours, but we do not get even eight hours’ pay. And the targets are formidable. For example, I'm required to stick labels on 600 packages in an hour.” In the last two years, he has also taken part in a number of protests and demonstrations against the ecommerce behemoth, demanding freedom from workplace exploitation for himself and thousands of others like him.

In conversation with Outlook, Singh details the work conditions inside the warehouse, comparing them to prison. The work is done standing, with no breaks, “We are tracked continuously. If we take a break during work to use the toilet, the managers come after us and tell us that we can go to the bathroom only during the bathroom break… that if we want to go to the bathroom so badly, we can quit and go home." 

After working the long hours, Singh is paid Rs 10,088 a month. The state of Haryana mandates a minimum wage of Rs 10,924.24 for unskilled workers. The wages for other categories of work are as follows: semi-skilled (class A): Rs 11,470.41, semi-skilled (class B): Rs 12,043.91, skilled (class A): Rs 12,646.12, and skilled (class B): Rs 13,278.44. While Singh says he falls in the skilled or semi-skilled category. However, his salary is lower than that prescribed for unskilled labour.

The warehouse workers are agitating for more than better wages. They want a re-haul of the company’s work culture as well. Among those raising their voices for these changes is 23-year-old Arun Kumar*, an employee of the Amazon warehouse DEL 5 in Manesar for two years.

Kumar says that the company makes them “work like machines.”

He describes a typical day at his job: “I pick up items. There is a permissible window of 10 seconds between picking up one item and another. We cannot pause even to drink water… if it becomes 11 seconds, somebody will be on me.” Arun says that on the job he walks 20 kilometres every day. Even bathroom breaks are timed such that even taking a second more than designated results in negative feedback. According to Arun, if a worker receives more than three negative reviews, their Aadhaar number is blacklisted, which means that they cannot work with Amazon anywhere in India.

Amazon’s workers across the world have highlighted such working conditions. In the US, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) had also taken issue with productivity tracking and other measures put in place by the retail giant. But these issues were settled only in 2023, after the US Labor department director upheld Amazon employees’ right to form a Union. The decision was staunchly fought and thereafter appealed by the online retail company.

According to the Amazon India Workers’ Association (AIWA), things get more difficult for the workers during summers, especially during heat waves, because the normal working temperature is not maintained inside the warehouses. A company is required to maintain an indoor temperature in the working area not exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, according to The Factories Act 1948. However, warehouse workers report that the actual temperature inside the buildings goes as high as 36 degrees Celsius. The AIWA itself holds that this temperature should not be above 26 degrees Celsius. 

Workers at Amazon warehouse Photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook
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We reached out to Amazon for a response to these allegations. The firm did not respond to our individual queries, but it mailed us a general statement.

Amazon spokesperson Jajoo Suruchi told Outlook that the workers are well cared for and there is regular monitoring of workplace temperature. "If we do find increasing heat or humidity inside our buildings, then our teams take action to provide comfortable working conditions, including temporarily suspending work. We have cooling measures in all our buildings, including ventilation systems, fans, and spot coolers.” 

The warehouse workers allege that these are untruths as far as they know. "I've worked in this warehouse for three years and in that time there have been several heat waves but never has the warehouse work been suspended for this," said Singh. 

Suruchi also said that in case of excessive heat, the workers are allowed to additional breaks to use the restroom or to talk to HR or a manager.

But Sharmita*, a 25-year-old worker at DEL 4, has something different to say. "Recently, one of our friends started feeling dizzy due to the heat. She told her manager, but he ignored her. Very soon, she fainted. Then we took her to medical care. Her condition worsened, so a friend took her to the doctor.” She adds that the company docked a day's pay for both of them.

Women workers find they are treated worse than the men. Sharmita says that it is next to impossible for a woman to get sick leave. If she puts in a request for leave, the company either tells her to resign or piles so much pressure at the workplace that she resigns on her own. Amar*, 22, who also works at DEL 4, has also observed that female workers are treated more strictly, often made to work to the point where they faint from the heat.

Amar also says that work injuries at work are often ignored or downplayed. He recalls a time when his fingers got caught in the conveyor belt. “There was a lot of bleeding. When I went to medical care, they told me not to tell anyone about it, but just to say that I have a headache.” The on-site medical team gave Amar a paracetamol and an ORS solution before sending him back to work. Even after he insisted, he was only allowed to leave the facility to get proper medical care after being warned not to tell anyone how it happened. “They put gloves on both my hands and said that since the injury was in my right hand, I could work with the left.” When Amar asked for leave due to intense swelling on his fingers: “They told me to resign and go home.”

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When asked why they continue to work in these conditions, Amar replied, “Find me a job and I will leave.” He points out that workers find themselves in a trapped position whereby the long work hours leave them no time to search for better jobs, and the low pay makes any sort of emergency fund saving impossible. “If I want something else then I will have to leave this job to find it, and then I will not have money to pay the month’s rent,” says Amar.

The four workers that Outlook spoke with are all from Uttar Pradesh. They live in rented accommodations in Gurgaon. There are a total of eight Amazon warehouses in Gurgaon. Over 90 per cent of their workers are migrants, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A large part of these workers’ 10,088-rupees salary goes towards rent and food expenses. If there is any money left, they send it home to their families.

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According to the AIWA, there are more than 100 Amazon warehouses across the country and each employs between 1000 and 1200 associate workers, estimating a lakh or more Amazon workers in India.

Speaking about the demands of these workers who are forced to live hand to mouth, AIWA convener Dhamendra Kumar says he has “raised the workers' problems before the labour ministry several times. The government has not done anything for them yet. It seems that the government's priority is not the country’s labour but foreign investment.”

Kumar points out that while the warehouse in Gurgaon mainly services orders from Delhi, it has been placed in Manesar to further exploit the minimum wage differences between Haryana and the national capital. Delhi’s minimum wage for unskilled workers is Rs 17, 234, which is nearly 7,000 more than Haryana’s.

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Another strategy according to him is to keep the workers on short-term contracts of one month, or even 11 months. As per the Factory Act, workers who have been with a company for 240 days are entitled to be made permanent and thus entitled to statutory protection and benefits such as paid leave.

Supreme Court advocate Suneita Ojha notes that even contractual employees are entitled to the same facilities as a permanent employee – the only difference is that in the case of the contractual employee the contractor has to ensure these facilities are made available. If the contractor does not, then the responsibility falls on the principal employer. “So, if Amazon takes a stand that they are contract labour, then it has to ensure that they are getting each and every facility that an employee should get,” she said, adding that the conditions as described to Outlook would attract action from the State Labor Ministry.

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In India, the AIWA is demanding a minimum wage of 25,000 rupees per month and an eight-hour workday. Additionally, it demands extra pay for work during heat waves, the availability of drinking water and adequate seating arrangements for rest everywhere, and the provision of proper medical facilities.

*The names have been changed to protect the privacy of certain individuals.

(Translated by Kaushika Draavid)

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