Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate on September 5th which if passed into law would tax giant corporations such as Amazon and Walmart 100% of federal benefits received by their employees in an effort to force companies to pay their employees a living wage instead of using government assistance programs as subsidies.
The “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies” Act (Stop BEZOS Act), named for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man with a net worth of nearly $170 billion whose company has crossed the $1 trillion in market cap behind only Apple.
“In other words, the taxpayers of this country would no longer be subsidizing the wealthiest people in this country who are paying their workers inadequate wages,” Sanders said at a news conference announcing the bill. “Despite low unemployment, we end up having tens of millions of Americans working at wages that are just so low that they can’t adequately take care of their families.”
Amazon and Walmart employes are infamously poorly paid, with full time workers being paid salaries which require them to receive federal assistance benefits to make ends meet. Sanders said his office had heard from “many hundreds” of current and former Amazon workers who have had to rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and other government programs to cover their families’ basic needs. There is no official measure of a “living wage,” but the federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,600.
Across the globe, Amazon employees have complained of poor working conditions and low wages. According to author and investigator Jared Bloodworth, Amazon warehouse staff urinate in bottles because the restrooms are too far from where they happen to be and workers are penalized for being idle.
Amazon denied the claims and others levied against them but the stories of overworked staff being handed impossible daily goals in the UK is consistent with similar stories told in the United States. The problems faced by workers were highlighted by Senator Sanders who held a Town Hall meeting in June where he invited Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Doug McMillon of Walmart, Steve Easterbrook of McDonald’s, and Bob Iger of Disney to attend the town hall and face off against a panel of their own workers to take questions and explain their business practices to them.
The letters of invitation to the CEOs were signed by nearly two dozen members of congress and predictably the workers faced off with nothing but the empty seats reserved for the CEO’s who failed to appear. Since then, Sen. Sanders has not given up his struggle for the rights of poorly paid workers employed by multi-billion and trillion dollar companies to get better working conditions and be paid a living wage.
Amazon has a history of poor working conditions
A report by China Labor Watch, a U.S. based humanitarian group who conducted a nine-month investigation into the Hengyang Foxconn factory found that workers are forced to work long hours for little pay and no proper safety training. The Foxconn factory produces the Amazon Echo speakers and Kindle e-readers.
Among the labor violations at Foxconn is mandatory overtime in excess of 100 hours per month in spite of Chinese law capping overtime at 36 hours per month. Workers also do not receive adequate safety training and live in dorms which which do not adhere to fire safety guidelines. Foxconn also relies on untrained temporary workers instead of full-time employees and pays each of them $2.26 per hour for normal hours and overtime hours. The report also says that workers who take more than two days off or are late more than twice a month would receive lower wages. The full-timers they do employ are forced to work significant overtime hours in order to make a living wage.
In a statement to Bloomberg, Amazon wrote that it had completed an audit of the factory in March and asked Foxconn to rectify those issues. However this isn’t Foxconn’s first accusation of maltreatment of workers. In 2010, Shanghaiist reported that security guards at an Apple iPhone factory run by Foxconn beat the workers regularly. Also in 2010, 20 Chinese Universities released statements in which they describe Foxconn factories as “labor camps”. In 2012, nearly 200 Foxconn employees threatened to commit mass suicide in protest of the poor conditions in which they were kept.
Amazon and others opposed a tax to help homeless people
In June 2018 Amazon joined a group of other businesses in Seattle to oppose a planned tax on large businesses. The tax would have provided funding to combat Seattle’s epidemic of homelessness but the city council was strong armed into repealing the tax by Amazon and other companies.
Seattle is currently struggling to cope with a homeless crisis, one of the worst in the United States. Almost half of homeless people in King County have no shelter at any given time. Fortune magazine reported that in 2017, there was a record mortality rate of 169 people who died on the streets of King County.
Photo: Jeff Bezos speaking at the Amazon Spheres Grand Opening. (© Seattle City Council)