Amazon exec quits after company fires employee activists

5 May 2020

An Amazon warehouse. Image: MikeMareen/Depositphotos

Former Amazon VP Tim Bray quit his role at AWS in response to the ‘toxic’ way the company has dealt with employee activists in recent months.

Tim Bray, a vice-president and engineer at Amazon Web Services (AWS), published a blogpost on Friday 1 May announcing that he has decided to quit his job after more than five years working at the company.

Bray said that by stepping down from the role and losing his salary and shares, this decision will likely cost him “a million (pre-tax) dollars, not to mention the best job I’ve ever had”.

He cited a number of recent firings as his reason for quitting, referring to action that the company took against workers who publicly criticised the company’s environmental policies, as well as those who spoke out about working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Internal meeting notes

Bray wrote that as the Covid-19 situation progressed, many Amazon warehouse workers began to raise alarms about being “uninformed, unprotected and frightened” as they carried out their work. In the last month, warehouse workers in the US have engaged in strikes and protests over working conditions, safety measures and sick pay.

While Amazon claimed safety precautions were being taken, Bray noted that an employee organising for better safety conditions had been fired and “brutally insensitive remarks appeared in leaked executive meeting notes”, which were published by Vice News.

The remarks referred to warehouse employee Christian Smalls, who was involved in a protest in New York. Amazon said that Smalls had been fired for coming onsite despite being told to stay home after coming into contact with an infected colleague.

According to the leaked documents, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky said in an internal leadership meeting that Smalls is “not smart, or articulate”, adding: “To the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”

Resigning from Amazon

Bray wrote that he “snapped”, citing this incident and the firing of two Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) leaders in April after publicly denouncing the treatment of warehouse workers.

“Management could have objected to the event, or demanded that outsiders be excluded or that leadership be represented, or any number of other things; there was plenty of time. Instead, they just fired the activists,” he added.

Bray said that he followed internal protocol to escalate his concerns “through the proper channels and by the book”, adding that “VPs shouldn’t go publicly rogue”. However, he then decided to step down from his position.

“Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned,” he wrote.

A path forward

The New York state attorney general said that Amazon may have violated federal safety standards for providing “inadequate” protections to warehouse workers. In its quarterly results last week, the company said that it will be investing in PPE for staff, enhanced cleaning of Amazon facilities and “less efficient process paths” that allow for better physical distancing.

Bray said that Amazon has put “intense work and huge investments” towards improving worker safety at warehouses. “But I believe the worker testimony too,” he added.

“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.

“We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward. Don’t say it can’t be done, because France is doing it.”

While Bray said that working conditions in AWS were very different to the company’s warehouses, he added that firing whistleblowers is “evidence of a vein of toxicity” in the company culture. “I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison,” he wrote.

An Amazon warehouse. Image: MikeMareen/Depositphotos

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic