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Irish trade unions voice concern over Amazon worker surveillance and alleged union-busting

“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

TRADE UNIONS IN Ireland have raised concerns about workplace surveillance and alleged anti-union practices at Amazon warehouses following an announcement this week that the company plans to open its first fulfilment centre in Ireland.

In a statement on Thursday, the global e-commerce giant said it will create 500 jobs at the 630,000 square foot warehouse at Baldonnell Business Park in Dublin, which is due to open in 2022.

But long-standing concerns about allegations of anti-union activity and Amazon’s treatment of workers in other countries have re-surfaced in the wake of the announcement.

In the United States last month, a federal board found that Amazon broke union voting rules when employees at the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama were balloted to form a union earlier this year.

Amazon workers voted down the unionisation proposal by a ratio of 2:1 in March.

But in August, the US National Labour Relations Board found the company had breached voting rules by installing a US Postal Service post box at the voting facility, which gave some employees reason to believe that Amazon had access to their ballots. 

“Globally, Amazon has shown itself to be utterly opposed to workers exercising their right to form a union,” Fionnuala Ní Bhrógáin, Communications Workers Union (CWU) National Officer, told The Journal.

The CWU is an affiliate of the UNI Global Union, an international alliance of national trade unions that has campaigned to challenge Amazon’s power in recent years.

“You would expect that Amazon would respect Irish workers’ constitutional rights to join a union and to be represented by that union meaningfully,” Ní Bhrógáin added.

A SIPTU spokesperson said the union welcomes the jobs announcement but “the devil will be in the detail.”

They added, “We have no knowledge of the type of contracts that will be offered to these workers in Amazon, however, we are aware in other countries, contracts offered have been those of an unsecured and precarious nature. 

“SIPTU represents tens of thousands of workers in the Wholesale Retail and Distribution Sector, and we work and partner with employers to ensure our members have secure employment with good terms and conditions. 

“This ensures that members and their families play an active part in society and not just survive from week to week on low wages. 

Asked for comment, an Amazon spokesperson told The Journal, “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. 

“As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes—quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle.”

Employee surveillance

Concerns have also been raised about the level of surveillance that workers at Amazon facilities are placed under by their employer and whether that could be imported into Ireland.

Reuters reported last year that research by a US-based advocacy group found Amazon relies on “extensive” surveillance — through tools such as “navigation software, item scanners, wristbands, thermal cameras, security cameras and recorded footage” — to track employees and their output.

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An Amazon spokesperson told Reuters at the time, “Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour.

“We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

Fiachra Ó Luain, founder of the English Language Students’ Union, which has helped to organise Deliveroo drivers in Ireland said that this level of surveillance is widespread in many tech multinationals.

“Data that is gathered from workers can be used to eventually replace them by automation, which should be a cause of concern for everyone living and working in a State that emerged from the struggle for fairness and dignity,” he said.

Ó Luain added that it is “vital” for the government to work with trade unions like “Siptu, Unite, Fórsa and others” and “be forthright with Amazon about the worker’s right to unionise, not just here in Ireland, but internationally.”

Amazon’s spokesperson said, “We’ve made great progress in recent years and months in important areas like pay and safety. We already offer competitive pay, comprehensive benefits and opportunities for career growth, all while working in a  modern, safe and engaging work environment. 

“There are plenty of things that we can keep doing better, both in our fulfilment centres and in our corporate spaces for employees, and that’s our focus—to keep getting better every day.”

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