As COVID-19 exposes how ill-prepared governments were for such a pandemic, it is also rapidly revealing the disconnect between what companies say they do for their workers and how they actually treat them. Amazon is one of those major enterprises under public criticism for its current approach toward employees' safety during the outbreak.
At the end of March, the company fired a Staten Island worker after he joined a planned walk-out protest, calling for the shutdown of Amazon's distribution warehouse for disinfection measures. Now, according to Vice News, a leaked memo reveals Amazon executives disparaging the ex-employee, Christian Smalls, as "not smart or articulate" and detailing steps to posit him as an example on two fronts: COVID-19 self-conduct and labor organizing.
Make an example out of Smalls — Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky reportedly stated in notes from the meeting, also attended by powerhouses like Jeff Bezos, Dave Clark, and Beth Galetti, that Smalls is "not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers."
At another point, Zapolsky urged company executives to essentially create an official narrative that makes an example out of Smalls both in terms of worker conduct around COVID-19 and union organizing. Zapolsky reportedly said that Amazon's PR response should elaborate that Smalls' "conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety." Then, Zapolsky adds:
Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.
What Zapolsky says now — In response to Vice News, Zapolsky said that his "comments were personal and emotional." But the damage is done. Over countless occasions, Amazon has attempted to create a saintly image of itself as a concerned and progressive enterprise that wants the best for its workers. Yet reports of inhumane conditions at its warehouses, workers reporting that they feel suicidal on site, profits taking precedence over basic safety measures even in the middle of a pandemic, and now this leaked memo paint a very different and damning picture.
What Smalls says — While Amazon claims that it fired Smalls for failing to comply with self-quarantining measures after coming into proximity with another employee who tested positive for COVID-19, Smalls calls his job termination a form of "retaliation."
"We all know this is retaliation. There’s no way around it. I took a huge stand, put my career on the line and I don’t regret it," Smalls told ABC News. "I don’t know how they even sleep at night for doing that."
Right now, there's no concrete evidence indicating whether the termination was a form of retribution. But Zapolsky's demeaning comments in the meeting and the "general agreement" he notes he received depict a corporate culture at Amazon that is very much at ease with publicly humiliating its labor force to elevate its own image.