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Antitrust Constitutional Law Rights Adjudication

An Introduction to Amazon’s Exploitative Behaviour

By Gautami Govindarajan

Jeff Bezos may be the richest man in modern history, but at whose cost? Amazon has risen to a position of market dominance, but behind the glittering deals and soaring profits is a history of abuse and exploitation of labour.

Violations of Labour and Human Rights

Amazon has been repeatedly found to be paying wages below the legally prescribed limits to its workers. [1] The working conditions have also been inhumane. [2] With the crippling and constant pressure to meet deadlines and punishing goals, workers resort to urinating into trash cans and water bottles to save time. [3] Lunch breaks are limited severely, thanks to onerous security checks and long distances to be covered between workspaces and canteens. [4] Workers are also often penalised for taking sick leave. [5] A report by the Chartered Quality Institute [“CQI”] records instances of child abuse, abysmal working conditions, and high-risk work environments, [6] making Amazon the lowest ranked company in the survey. [7] The company has also been accused of having an “obsession” with the rate of productivity of workers, making them work like robots round the clock, with extended shifts for no additional pay. [8] This has extended to providing impossible times for delivery agents to complete deliveries keeping in mind road conditions, to the extent that some agents had to resort to defecating in bags to save time. [9]

Concerns have also been raised regarding surveillance of workers that has reached levels of an Orwellian dystopia. The company has patented designs for a wristband that will track workers’ movements, and nudge them towards directions that would maximise their productivity through vibrations. [10]

In India, labour working for Amazon face the same fate. They are paid mere pittance for strenuous hours of work. Further, the company uses contract labour as a way to avoid paying workers benefits such as provident fund, Employee State Insurance, etc. [11] Further, workers get no medical leave or casual leave. Additionally, the labourers get exploited both by the contractors and the principal employer, Amazon. This leaves them in an even worse off condition. Moreover, the company has been reported to be using children in its delivery services and the matter is currently pending before the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights [“NCPCR”]. [12]

Efforts against Unionisation

Amazon’s internal website for its management, has instructions for the management to crack down on unionisation and discourage its workers from unionising. [13] An attempt was made a few years ago, to form Amazon’s first union, when maintenance and repair technicians of the company filed a petition with the National Labour Relations Board in the US. However, the backlash they faced from the management was so intense that the workers ended up voting against the formation of the union in 2014. [14] In 2016, a manager in Delaware concocted a story to prevent workers from unionising. [15] The exposé also uncovered that several workers had been fined for raising the demand of a union. [16] The company insulates itself from any dangers from worker unions by stifling the creation of these unions in the first place.

Examining the Indian Legal Framework

Indian law has a web of protective legislations which ensure the protection of labour in the country, keeping in mind the exploitation of labour through the country’s colonial history. The extent of protection can even be found in the Constitution.

The Industrial Disputes Act [“IDA”], 1947 confers a positive obligation upon employers to not commit unfair labour practices, as per S. 25T. The list of what constitutes unfair labour practices are enshrined in the Fifth Schedule to the Act, as per S. 2(ra). This includes preventing workmen from forming or joining a union, or exercising their right to collective bargaining, through threats or other means, such as discrimination against persons joining unions. Arbitrary and unjustified dismissals, and mala fide transfers of workers, as well as discrimination between workers, also fall under the ambit of unfair labour practices. Another instance of unfair labour practice is to employ workers as casual workers for long periods of time in order to deprive them of the benefits and status of permanent workmen. All of these become extremely relevant when we examine Amazon’s conduct towards its employees thus far. Apart from these provisions, the IDA provides for various rights and benefits to be conferred on workmen upon termination and for retrenchment.

Further, the Factories Act, 1948 provides a framework of provisions to be complied with in order to safeguard the best interests of workers employed in factories. These include health and safety protections, proper lighting and ventilation, toilet facilities, drinking water, etc. [17] Working hours are also clearly prescribed: forty eight hours has been prescribed to be the limit on working hours in a week. [18] Daily hours [19] with intervals of rest, [20] as well as payment for work done overtime [21] are also provided for in the legislation.

Article 19(1)(c) of the Constitution confers the right on persons to form associations and unions, which includes trade unions. The constitutional right to form trade unions has been upheld by the apex court. [22] Further, the right enshrined in Art. 19(1)(c) also includes the right to join such a union. [23] The Trade Unions Act, 1926 lays down the law regarding the formation and registration of trade unions. The right of collective bargaining is strengthened by the IDA, which provides for collective bargaining by negotiation and mediation. If those fail, voluntary arbitration can be adopted, or a compulsory adjudication with the active participation of trade unions. Settlements effected through means of collective bargaining are binding. [24] Workers also have a limited right to strike in Indian law, as per the restrictions contained in the Industrial Disputes Act.

Article 43 of the Constitution provides that workers should have the right to a living wage and “conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life”. This is bolstered by several other beneficial legislations such as the Employee’s Compensation Act, 1923. Rights of contract labour are regulated by the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970.

Amazon’s Wrongs and How to Make them Right

This is not the first instance of a multinational corporation exploiting its labour, and neither is it likely to be the last. Workers at factories of companies such as Walmart, GAP, H&M, etc., have been found to be working in inhuman conditions for minimal wages. [25]

An examination of the legal framework of the rights of labour in India highlights the various violations by Amazon as an employer. Failure to pay overtime wages, provide reasonable conditions of work, and to provide medical leave, etc. are just a few of the transgressions of a laundry list of violations by the company. The company has been blockading any attempts of the workers to unionise in order to have their concerns heard, which falls squarely in the ambit of unfair labour practices under the Industrial Disputes Act. It also goes against the constitutionally guaranteed right to form associations. Further, the conditions in Amazon factories are nowhere compliant with the mandate of statutes or the right to work with dignity.

The question that arises then, is why has an uprising not occurred as per Marxist theory? [26] An important reason for this is the socio-economic reality faced by several of the labour. Keeping in mind the scarcity of jobs and abundance of alternate labour; coupled with the pressing need for  food and shelter, workmen have no option but to continue working in such exploitative conditions. Attempts to protest or form a union would lead to termination of employment, which is something most of the workmen simply cannot afford. Amazon has effectively cut off the labour from their most effective recourse available to enforce their rights, by crippling their access to collective bargaining mechanisms. This spells disaster to labour rights, as the cycle of exploitation continues. Further, implementation by regulatory authorities has been abysmal as well.

However, all is not gloom and doom, as there appears to be a shift in the tide the world over. Workers staged a protest on Prime Day mere months ago in Shakopee, forcing Amazon to the bargaining table. [27] Several protests have also been held across Europe in order to effectuate a change in the working conditions. [28] These instances show a greater willingness amongst workers to fight for better working conditions. In the UK, reports of exploitation and abuse of labour in Amazon warehouses has led to a government-led enquiry into the matter. [29]

Turning our focus to India, the primary solution available to the workers, is to exercise their legal right to form a union so as to have a consolidated body wherein they can discuss their grievances, and communicate these effectively to  the management. The recourse of collective bargaining is the most effective weapon the workers can wield in order to effectuate better working conditions. In this regard, awareness is a necessary prerequisite that needs to be attended to. Several of the workers are not even aware of their rights, and the law that protects them. It is only once that they know these can they effectively bargain to strengthen their position. Effective implementation of labour laws is also crucial. Employers get away with routine exploitation and abuse with impunity as a result of weak labour and ineffective implementation of the law. Lack of access to legal services is also a problem that hampers the enforcement of labour rights.

A powerful tool lies in the hands of consumers, who control the profits of companies. A boycott of Amazon by consumers could force the company’s hand in terms of better working conditions of its labour; as it did in case of Nike. [30] When Nike’s exploitative conditions in its sweatshops were exposed, it faced enormous consumer backlash, to the extent that several people boycotted the company and its products. This forced the company to improve its labour practices drastically, to ensure the rights of its workers were well protected.

This could be compounded by what has been termed as the rise of ‘millennial socialism’. [31] The implications of this shift are that there is a growing clamour for reducing inequality and improving the position of labour by the younger, ‘woke’, generations. Pressure from consumers could force Amazon to pay more attention to the exploitative conditions in which their labour works.  

A greater willingness of workers to voice their concerns and hold their employers accountable can be seen in recent times. [32] It remains to be seen if this will permeate to Amazon’s case as well.

The author is a 4th year law student at National Law University, Jodhpur.


[1] Gethin Chamberlain, Underpaid and exhausted: the human cost of your Kindle, The Guardian (June 9, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jun/09/human-cost-kindle-amazon-china-foxconn-jeff-bezos; Dave Jamieson, The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp, The Huffington Post, https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/life-and-death-amazon-temp/; Mark Engler, The Amazon effect: sweat, surveillance and exploitation, New International (Oct. 25, 2018), https://newint.org/features/2018/11/01/view-Amazon%27s-dirty-work.

[2] Amazon Profits from Secretly Oppressing its Supplier’s Workers: An Investigative Report on Hengyang Foxconn, China Labor Watch (June 10, 2018), http://www.chinalaborwatch.org/report/132.

[3] Shona Ghosh, Peeing in trash cans, constant surveillance, and asthma attacks on the job: Amazon workers tell us their warehouse horror stories, Business Insider (May 3, 2018), https://www.businessinsider.in/tech/peeing-in-trash-cans-constant-surveillance-and-asthma-attacks-on-the-job-amazon-workers-tell-us-their-warehouse-horror-stories/articleshow/64015295.cms.

[4] Shona Ghosh, The undercover author who discovered Amazon warehouse workers were peeing in bottles tells us the culture was like a prison, Business Insider (Apr. 18, 2018), https://www.businessinsider.in/tech/the-undercover-author-who-discovered-amazon-warehouse-workers-were-peeing-in-bottles-tells-us-the-culture-was-like-a-prison/articleshow/63813761.cms.

[5] Dierdre Hipwell, Amazon staff ‘face sack for sick leave and missing targets’, The Times (Dec. 12, 2016), https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/amazon-workers-face-sack-for-sick-leave-and-missing-targets-mdvlw9qfh.

[6] Amazon and Tesla listed among the most dangerous US workplaces, EndGadget (Apr. 25, 2018), https://www.engadget.com/2018/04/25/amazon-and-tesla-in-most-dangerous-workplace-report/; Hal Bernton & Susan Kelleher, Amazon warehouse jobs push workers to physical limit, The Seattle Times (Aug. 17, 2015), https://www.seattletimes.com/business/amazon-warehouse-jobs-push-workers-to-physical-limit/; Jeff Bezos Can Thank Exploited Workers for His $100 Billion, Radical Urbanist (Jan. 3, 2018), https://medium.com/radical-urbanist/jeff-bezos-can-thank-exploited-workers-for-his-100-billion-d3d5245a6e1b.

[7] Report reveals alleged cases of child labour, forced labour, and human rights violations, CQI, IRCA (Sept. 14, 2018), https://www.quality.org/Tech-on-Trial.

[8] Michael Sainato, ‘We are not robots’: Amazon warehouse employees push to unionize, The Guardian (Jan. 1, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/01/amazon-fulfillment-center-warehouse-employees-union-new-york-minnesota; Sarah Butler, Amazon accused of treating UK warehouse staff like robots, The Guardian (May 31, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/may/31/amazon-accused-of-treating-uk-warehouse-staff-like-robots.

[9] Amazon delivery drivers are being exploited, claims a BBC Inside Out investigation, BBC News (Nov. 11, 2016), https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2016/amazon-inside-out.

[10] Olivia Solon, Amazon patents wristband that tracks warehouse workers’ movements, The Guardian (Feb. 1, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jan/31/amazon-warehouse-wristband-tracking.

[11] Sasi Kumar & Moses Rajkumar, Amazon pays warehouse workers $233 per month in India, WSWS (June 28, 2017), https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/28/amaz-j28.html.

[12] Amazon receives NCPCR notice for employing children for delivery service, Business Standard (Jan. 5, 2017), https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/amazon-receives-ncpcr-notice-for-employing-children-for-delivery-service-117010501244_1.html.

[13] Steven Greenhouse, Amazon.com Is Using the Web to Block Unions’ Effort to Organize, The New York Times (Nov. 29, 2000), https://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/29/business/amazoncom-is-using-the-web-to-block-unions-effort-to-organize.html.

[14] Michael Sainato, Exploited Amazon workers need a union. When will they get one?, The Guardian (July 8, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/08/amazon-jeff-bezos-unionize-working-conditions.

[15] Amazon Proves Infertile Soil for Unions, So Far, The New York Times (May 16, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/17/technology/amazon-proves-infertile-soil-for-unions-so-far.html.

[16] Id.

[17] Chapter III, IV and V of the Factories Act, 1948.

[18] S. 51, Factories Act, 1948.

[19] S. 54, Factories Act, 1948.

[20] S. 55, Factories Act, 1948.

[21] S. 59, Factories Act, 1948.

[22] All India Bank Employees’ Association v. N.I. Tribunal, AIR 1962 SC 171.

[23] Damyanti v. Union of India, AIR 1971 S.C. 966.

[24] S. 18, Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.

[25] Indian workers at Walmart, Gap factories face intensive exploitation, abuse: Report, The Economic Times (June 1, 2016), https://retail.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/industry/indian-workers-at-walmart-gap-factories-face-intensive-exploitation-abuse-report/52535439. The reports referred to can be found at https://asia.floorwage.org/workersvoices/reports.

[26] Marxist theory propounds that after a certain level of oppression, labour will revolt against the exploitative proletariat to cause a revolution. 

[27] Joe Allen, Why Today’s Amazon Strike Is So Important, Jacobin (July 15, 2019), https://jacobinmag.com/2019/07/amazon-shakopee-strike-prime-day; Josh Eidelson & Spencer Soper, Amazon Workers Plan Prime Day Strike at Minnesota Warehouse, Bloomberg (July 8, 2019), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-08/amazon-workers-plan-prime-day-strike-despite-15-an-hour-pledge.

[28] Mariella Moon, Amazon warehouse workers in Europe stage protest on Prime Day, Endgadget (July 16, 2018), https://www.engadget.com/2018/07/16/amazon-spain-germany-poland-prime-day-protest/; Amelia Harnish, As Prime Day Gets Underway, Amazon Workers Are Striking Worldwide, Refinery29 (July 16, 2019), https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/07/237927/amazon-strike-prime-day.

[29] Amazon Working Condition Claims Of ‘Exploitation’ Prompt Calls For Inquiry, Huffington Post (Dec. 12, 2016), https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/amazon-working-conditions-inquiry_uk_584e7530e4b0b7ff851d3fff?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAMenMPuz5WBpGEVBMKBN_BEUtOsbjMH6tyrVxnhgonp824nwRtr0XptYscmQNxtVy2YOUQGaLi_xKKYkeVOl9zj674XCQhEylbGt6M0Jje_TNb-uqpgHFtrTHho4ALVzT5-L6xycRDtYq9Jn67OegNc6feQ2ti3su8b72RdIdGSn.

[30] Matt Wilsey & Scott Lichtig, The Nike Controversy, Stanford Working Papers Series, https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/trade_environment/wheeling/hnike.html; Max Nisen, How Nike Solved Its Sweatshop Problem, Business Insider (May 10, 2013), https://www.businessinsider.in/How-Nike-Solved-Its-Sweatshop-Problem/articleshow/21122639.cms.

[31] Millenial Socialism, The Economist (Feb. 14, 2019), https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/02/14/millennial-socialism.

[32] Mithun MK, Techies drag IT companies to court over long work hours, bad leave policies, The News Minute (Sep. 9, 2019), https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/techies-drag-it-companies-court-over-long-work-hours-bad-leave-policies-108615.

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