Particularly in the run up to Christmas, Amazon’s business is booming. Criticism of the tech giant appears not to have impact on consumers’ shopping behaviour - the power of the company, based on dubious and anti-trade union strategies, is growing.
On 2nd December, the global trade union federation UNI Global Union together with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) invited to an Amazon symposium to scrutinize the dubious business model of the globally active US company. The criticism on Amazon is wide-ranging and refers in particular to attacks on labour rights, Amazon’s data collections, the company’s monopoly position, which among other has been ensured by tax avoidance, and its environmental footprint.
How Amazon treats workers
Time and again (former) employees speak publicly about the poor working conditions in Amazon warehouses. Staff report of extreme time pressure and surveillance at the workplace, which makes even toilet breaks impossible. Sometimes, employees in warehouses have only eleven seconds to get an ordered article off the shelf. In addition, employees have neither time nor space for interactions with each other. Unsurprisingly, staff turnover is high. Tariff agreements that focus on good and healthy work could but a spot to mistreating workers. However, Amazon makes no secret of his anti-trade union stance: to this day, not a single, comprehensive tariff agreement has seen the day. The German trade union ver.di has been engaged in a labour dispute with the company for seven years. So far, Amazon has not even been willing to start talks. These days, Amazon staff is striking at German locations yet again. The company shows itself unfazed, while paying strikebreaking premiums or delivering goods from Central European countries.
Amazon as a monopoly
Amazon reaches into all areas of life: from retail to healthcare up to the entertainment sector. However, there is an inherent conflict of interest: Amazon is retailer and - through the platform - market place at the same time. Hence, the company has easy access to valuable data, for example on products, which are offered or sold by other retailers. If a product from the competition sells well, Amazon copies it and even excludes unwelcome competition from the Amazon market place. This year, the German Federal Cartel Office obtained improved trade terms for retailers that use the Amazon market place, for example a 30-day time limit and obligation to give reasons justifying the exclusion of marketplace sellers. So far, the ex post orientated competition law is an insufficient instrument to rein in large internet companies such as Amazon. Apart from a reform of the competition law, an ex-ante solution for Amazon’s doubtless monopoly could be sector-specific “public-utility“ regulations, which, for example apply to utility companies, which provide - and use infrastructure at the same.
Amazon and data protection
Amazon has, also through its function as retailer and market place, access to data of its customers, which it sells on. In particular, supposed innovative language assistants such as Alexa provide Amazon with access to their consumers’ private homes. Amazon’s Cloud infrastructure, where consumers allegedly securely store their data, also raises questions. Data is not stored in the EU and is accessible to other states and companies. In order to strengthen the EU’s digital sovereignty and to counteract dependencies, the Commission proposes the creation of an own GDPR-conform Cloud structure.
Amazon hardly pays any taxes
In spite of large profits, Amazon hardly pays any taxes. The tax avoidance strategies of the company, whose headquarters are in Washington, are based on profit shifting to tax havens such as Luxembourg. This too strengthens Amazon’s market power, as the company is using public infrastructures, despite not making any contribution. The “saved” taxes generate additional profits, which in turn the company invests in new products and offers. This enables them to further expand their market superiority: innovations by smaller providers don’t stand a chance. From the AK’s point of view, a global minimum tax rate as well as the principle of unitary taxation could put an end to tax avoidance.
Outlook: trade union and civil society resistance necessary
Panelists of the symposiums pointed out that civil society had to build up pressure in order to be able to offer opposition to Amazon. At first glance, unusual alliances may come about, for example between trade unions, SMEs and NGOs. From a trade union perspective, a reinforced transnational organisation of Amazon employees would make sense, as would the continuation of the politics of pinpricks based on recurring strikes. Even if Amazon officially appears unfazed by the criticism, the company cannot afford a negative image – not even before Christmas.