Amazon workers demand safety measures amid increased holiday shopping

Courtesy of The Awood Center East Africans protest working conditions at Amazon’s Shakopee Fulfillment

As the holiday shopping season ramps up, workers at a local Amazon fulfillment center in Minnesota express the need for safety measures at their warehouse. Workers have engaged in multiple demonstrations made up of immigrants and Muslims against the company over the past year demanding job security and safer working conditions.

As the holiday shopping season ramps up, workers at a local Amazon fulfillment center in Minnesota have expressed the need for safety measures at their warehouse. Over the past year, workers made up of immigrants and Muslims have engaged in multiple demonstrations against the company demanding job security and safer working conditions.

Since 2016, Amazon has operated a fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota. The 850,000 square foot facility is about the size of 15 football fields and ships small items such as books, toys and electronics. Nearly a third of the fulfillment center’s 1,500 employees are East African immigrants, a majority of whom are Somali.

The first major demonstration held outside the center was on December 14, 2018, in which hundreds of Amazon associates, labor organizers, and community members, protested outside in freezing temperatures.

Protesters called for more inclusive promotions, and less stressful conditions at the job. Protesters were joined by then Congresswoman-elect Ilhan Omar, who spoke in solidarity at the event. She shared her experience working in similar jobs that she said took a toll on her and expressed empathy for her fellow East African community members and others present.

Subsequently, many of the same individuals participated in a protest on Prime Day, on July 15 of this year. This was Amazon’s busiest shopping day, in which Prime members are exclusively offered deals at lower rates. Workers left their shifts and participated in a demonstration outside of the center.

The Twin Cities are home to tens of thousands of Somalis, many of whom immigrated to the United States to escape civil war in the early 1990s. Because of language barriers and little to no prior experience, Somalis, like other immigrants, are found more often in labor-intensive jobs, often in factories or warehouses.

Guled Mohamed has worked at Amazon for over two years and has seen the consequences employees face when they report an injury. He describes the work at the center as “tough.” “When you put someone under pressure and they’re forced to speed up, they can get injured,” he said.

Williams Stolz is a fellow employee at the center and shared the same sentiment. “When I say that the peak season has gotten better year to year that doesn’t mean everything’s great,” Stolz said. “We still got way too many injuries in the warehouse. I don’t think most people see it as a job they can rely on.” Stolz has been a vocal member of the center’s workforce and has taken part in the two large demonstrations in the past year. He said that the company could be doing more to make safety a priority.

“Rhetorically, they say safety is important but if safety was important, we wouldn’t see so many injuries,” Stolz said. He shared that former coworkers have suffered permanent back or spinal injuries due to the job. Some workers have been awarded workers compensation or given time off to return to their work, but according to Stolz, many are not as fortunate. “I’ve known people where Amazon has denied their case, so those people are on the hook for pretty hefty medical bills,” he said.

In a recent investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Amazon facilities were found to have a higher injury rate than other warehouse facilities around the country. Reveal collected injury records from 23 of the company’s 110 centers in the United States.

Courtesy of The Awood Center Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (DFL-MN Rep. 5th District) addresses protesting Amazon workers last December

Amazon facilities had an injury rate of more than double the rate for the warehouse industry in the country with 9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers in 2018, compared to the industry average of four that year. Amazon says this snapshot is misleading and stated that there is a “dramatic level of under-recording of safety incidents in the industry” and they have been “aggressive” in recording the injuries at their locations.

The increased demands of the Black Friday weekend, the Christmas shopping season, and Prime Day, have been the cause of many injuries, according to workers.

Amazon said it employs 14 safety professionals in the Shakopee center, whose sole job is to ensure the welfare of their employees. However, the company did not provide details as to the rates of injuries at this center.

They also pointed out that there are a significant number of Somali managers at their center, which the company pointed to as evidence of an inclusive promotion policy.

An Amazon spokesperson proudly pointed out that it has been involved in the larger community, having contributed $200,000 in donations to local organizations focused on hunger, education, and youth. The spokesperson said that between 2011 and 2017, Amazon added $600 million to the state’s economy.

“When they are bragging about investing $200,000 in the community, it is the amount of wealth and profit the East African and Minnesota workers created for the company,” countered Abdirahman Muse, executive director of the Awood Center.

The Awood Center is a workers’ rights group focused on supporting the East African community. The center is based in Minneapolis and has helped organize demonstrations on behalf of the primarily Somali workers against unjust working conditions at Amazon. They have also held meetings for workers to gain information about their rights.

In a conversation facilitated by Amazon, employee Hoodo Ibrahim shared her perspective on the company.

Ibrahim is a packer and has remained in that role because of family obligations and school. She shared that many of her managers have pushed her to move up but has refused. Ibrahim added that she had finished her medical assistant certificate because of Amazon, which paid 95% of her tuition. Amazon touts 25,000 participants of their Career Choice program.

The company has also acknowledged the religious needs of its Somali workers—most of whom practice Islam—by making accommodations for prayer and fasting during the Ramadan celebration. “We’re allowed to pray anytime we want to,” said Ibrahim.

According to Minnesota state law, “employee representatives on safety and health committees shall be selected by the employee’s collective bargaining agent.” Stolz shared his desire to see this committee promoted at the center for more employees to share input.

“Workers don’t get to pick the people on the safety committee,” Stolz said. He shared that many workers are unaware of the idea of a safety committee and the influence they have over its leadership and direction.

While Amazon has a plan in place to ensure each order is fulfilled over the holiday season, workers at the center and community advocates are also working hard to ensure that the safety and job security of workers are upheld through this time as well.