Amazon made headlines Tuesday when it became the second American company, after Apple, to reach $1 trillion in value. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world, with a net worth of more than $167 billion. But what’s behind that wealth? What about its workers? The working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses have been the focus of protests, union drives and several investigations—including by student reporters. As students throughout the country head back to class, we feature an investigative report by students at the Rutgers University Department of Journalism and Media Studies.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Amazon made headlines Tuesday when it became the second American company, after Apple, to reach $1 trillion in value. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world, with a net worth of more than $167 billion. But what’s behind that wealth? What about its workers?
AMY GOODMAN: The working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses have been the focus of protests, union drives, several investigations—including by student reporters. Well, as students go back to school around the country, Juan, we’re going to go to a report by a group of your students at Rutgers University. Juan González, Democracy Now! co-host, is also a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Can you introduce this?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. Well, this is a group of my students in my investigative reporting class who did both a written and a video report on Amazon, because there are now about 10 warehouses just in the state of New Jersey, that 15,000 workers that are—that are employed by Amazon. This is Kristen Charlery of the Rutgers Student I-Team.
KRISTEN CHARLERY: Millions of Americans every day ship and receive packages from Amazon. In fact, the company just announced that it has exceeded more than 100 million Prime members—more than the population of Germany.
Amazon is one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. In the Garden State alone, they employ 15,000 workers with 10 warehouses.
Amazon prides itself on being fast, reliable and convenient. But when shopping online, we oftentimes only see the end result of what we purchase. But what about the process to get the delivery to you? What goes on inside the fulfillment centers? What is the plight of the average Amazon worker? According to past and current employees, it’s not an easy job.
An investigation of Amazon operations by Rutgers Student Team found numerous cases in recent years of workers being injured and even killed at the company’s fulfillment centers because of poor safety conditions, and fines levied against the company or its subcontractors by federal inspectors for safety violations. Beginning in 2013 and ending in 2017, seven workers died in Amazon warehouses. The deaths prompted the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health to place Amazon on their “Dirty Dozen” list for 2018. This list is comprised of employers that put workers at risk due to unsafe practices.
PHILLIP PELLEGRINO: My name is Phillip J. Pellegrino. I am 68 years old.
AJA BRADLEY: Hi. I’m Aja Bradley. I’m 20.
PHILLIP PELLEGRINO: I work in Amazon’s Cranbury fulfillment center. On January 31st of 2018, I was working in the 300 aisles counting, and I lifted up a very heavy, awkward package, which turned out to be a trailer tow package for a passenger vehicle. And as I lifted it out of the bin, I heard something snap in my left arm. OK, felt a lot of pain. I realized that I sustained an injury. January 31st was a Wednesday. It was the last day of my workweek.
When I came back the following week, I filed a workers’ comp claim. And the claim was, after about 10 days, denied by a company called Sedgwick, which is Amazon’s insurance company for workers’ compensation. I was never given an explanation as to why it was denied. I requested it. They told me, “For various reasons.” I said, “Specifically, what reasons?” OK? And they said, “We can’t tell you that.” And they never gave me a medical examination to determine the extent of my injury, but denied my claim.
AJA BRADLEY: It was weird, because it was my first day like on the job. And we were walking around, and this one boy, he was like, “Don’t work here. This is basically slavery.” And I think it’s just because it was really like hard work to do, so people—I mean, we were getting paid, so they were just like, “Oh, yeah, this is like basically slavery.”
PHILLIP PELLEGRINO: If they were to enforce, rigidly, their safety regulations in those aisles, it would have a detrimental impact on operational efficiency.
KRISTEN CHARLERY: We asked Lou Kimmel of the New Labor worker advocacy group why federal health and agencies don’t do more to protect workers.
LOU KIMMEL: My name is Lou Kimmel. I’m the executive director of New Labor, also co-founder of the organization. OSHA is chronically underfunded. Companies don’t want to have unionized workforces, because it means paying more money and more benefits, in their minds. So, their justification is always to keep things the way they are. And they have the economic wherewithal to do that pretty effectively. At the same time, compared to other warehouses, they do pay more and offer a little bit better benefit package, so there’s that disincentive people might feel more comfortable with what they’re making because of that situation.
KRISTEN CHARLERY: Amazon declined to respond to our questions, but the company has said previously of deaths at the facility, “Safety is our number one priority … as we do with any incident, we are reviewing our practices and protocols to ensure the well-being of our employees.”
PHILLIP PELLEGRINO: They say that safety’s first. Not the case. What’s first is “Get that product to the customer! And if you don’t, there’s the parking lot. Get in your car and leave.”
KRISTEN CHARLERY: So, the next time you click and order something online on Amazon, think of the hidden workers that make that all possible. Reporting for the Rutgers I-Team, I’m Kristen Charlery.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, that was a report by my students at the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. There were five of them on this particular team. They had an actually much bigger, longer written report, which we’ll link to online. But it’s Kristen Charlery, Dan Israel, Kira Herzog, Manya Goldstein and Rosa Haleva.