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HOME  > Past issues  > 2018 September 5 - 11  > Workers exploited under Amazon’s glory (Part 5)
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2018 September 5 - 11 [LABOR]

Workers exploited under Amazon’s glory (Part 5)

August 2, 2018
Even full-time employees, who are at the top layer of Amazon’s workforce structure, are experiencing exploitative labor practices.

Several full-time workers in November 2015 formed a union named “Amazon Japan workers’ union” which is affiliated with the Tokyo Managers’ Union (MU) that organizes individual workers in all industries.

“I was nearly driven to commit suicide,” said one of the union founders who used to work at a warehouse fulfillment center in a position of controlling the flow of goods in and out of the center. Excessively long working hours and “power harassment” by superiors caused the worker to suffer from depression.

Education is ‘waste of time’

What irks Amazon regular employees the most is the personal evaluation system using “performance improvement plans (PIPs)” under which workers whose job performance is evaluated as insufficient will be put on a PIP.

MU Chair Suzuki Tsuyoshi said, “A job performance review program using PIPs was first introduced by foreign companies as a downsizing tool after the 2008 financial crisis triggered by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Companies use the PIP program to camouflage their intent to force targeted workers to accept early retirement offers. Currently, more and more foreign-affiliated companies in Japan are using this downsizing tactic. Among them, Amazon Japan’s PIP is the worst.”

For example, a worker in an interview with his/her boss was unilaterally regarded as underperforming and pressed to accept either voluntary retirement or a PIP. The worker rejected the early retirement offer and was ordered to complete a PIP whose goal was unachievable, in addition to his/her daily job. The PIP procedure is stipulated as part of disciplinary measures under the company’s work rules. In other words, Amazon uses PIPs to punish workers.

Suzuki points out, “It was an unprecedented and surprising system.” As job performance evaluations are often a matter of dispute between labor and management, many companies avoid including their PIP evaluation system in their work rules. It is abnormal to designate the system as part of disciplinary actions.

Suzuki said that such a way of using the PIP system “reflects Amazon’s philosophy. The company does not hire new graduates and instead recruits mid-career workers who can be immediately effective due to work experience. Amazon believes that giving training to new graduates employed is essentially a waste of time. Accordingly, the company thinks that employees who need additional training are defective and subject to punishment.”

Workers forced to make ultimate decision

Even more surprisingly, Amazon employees who were put under the PIP scheme were urged to sign a pledge stating that if failing to achieve goals set by their PIPs within the set time limit, they will accept a salary cut, a demotion, a dismissal, or other penalties.

Suzuki noted, “If workers refuse to sign the pledge, they will be punished for not following the management’s policy. If choosing to sign it, they will go through hell. It is effectively a system to force targeted workers to quit their jobs.”

The criteria for job performance evaluations are not clear at Amazon and the bosses have the final say. The company gave employees a small handbook which states that it is not appropriate for Amazon employees to talk back to their bosses and that Amazon employees should take note of their failings when criticized by their supervisors.

Suzuki explained, “Our union is constantly asked for advice by Amazon employees. Maybe this is because the company assesses employees’ performance regularly and as a result, a certain percentage of the employees will inevitably be categorized as low performers. I have heard that the work atmosphere there is tense because of the anxiety over the performance assessment and that some workers criticize the work performance of their colleagues.”

The founders of the Amazon Japan workers’ union filed a complaint against Amazon with the Tokyo Labor Relations Commission, claiming that the company’s insincere response toward negotiations with the union is an unfair labor practice, and later reached a settlement. Amazon retracted the imposition of the PIP review system to these workers and promised to sincerely engage in collective bargaining with the union. In the course of the negotiations, the company changed the work rules and excluded the PIP system from the penalty list. However, Amazon still has another system similar to the PIP system. Suzuki thinks that the problem has yet to be properly addressed.

Suzuki said, “About once a month, we receive a visit from an Amazon worker asking for advice. Some say that their bosses hate them. Others say the evaluation is unfair or they are being bullied. Something like that. Some workers gave in to the pressure to quit job.”
(To be continued)

Past related articles:
> Workers exploited under Amazon’s glory (Part 4) [August 1, 2018]
> Workers exploited under Amazon’s glory (Part 3) [July 31, 2018]
> Workers exploited under Amazon’s glory (Part 2) [July 30, 2018]
> Workers exploited under Amazon’s glory (Part 1) [July 29, 2018]

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