Amazon ‘threatens to fire’ climate activist employees

3 Jan 2020399 Views

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A group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice is calling on the company to make a more meaningful attempt to limit its impact on the environment.

On Thursday (2 January), The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, reported that Amazon has issued warnings to at least two employees who have publicly criticised the company’s environmental policies.

The news comes just months after thousands of employees in more than 25 cities walked out of Amazon offices in protest of the company’s climate policies and practices.

According to new reports, a lawyer in Amazon’s employee relations group sent a letter to individuals who had spoken publicly about the company’s role in the climate crisis, warning that they could be fired for future violations of its communications policy.

Amazon’s impact on the climate crisis

An email seen by the Washington Post, which was sent to Maren Costa, a UX designer at the company, said that violating the communications policy could “result in formal corrective action, up to and including termination of your employment with Amazon”.

Costa, along with Amazon software development engineer Jamie Kowalski, had spoken to the Washington Post in October, saying that the company is contributing to the climate crisis as its cloud computing business AWS “aids oil- and gas-company exploration”.

Costa has now said that four employees were questioned and two were threatened with termination if they continue to speak out about Amazon’s role in the climate crisis without seeking approval.

“It was scary to be called into a meeting like that and then to be given a follow-up email saying that if I continued to speak up, I could be fired,” Costa said. “But I spoke up because I’m terrified by the harm the climate crisis is already causing and I fear for my children’s future.”

Kowalski told the Washington Post that he had also received a letter but declined to comment on it. Meanwhile, a third employee, Emily Cunningham, said that she was informed in a meeting that she had violated the company’s policies after using social media to talk about Amazon’s impact on the climate.

A spokesperson for Amazon said its communications policy “is not new and we believe is similar to other large companies”.

“We recently updated the policy and related approval process to make it easier for employees to participate in external activities such as speeches, media interviews, and use of the company’s logo,” they added.

‘This is not the time to shoot the messengers’

Following the report published by the Washington Post, a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) wrote: “Jeff Bezos and Amazon executives are threatening to fire a few members of our group after we spoke up about wanting our company to be a leader in the worldwide effort to avert climate catastrophe.

“How will the world remember Jeff Bezos in the era of climate emergency? Will he use his immense economic power to help, or not? Please tell Amazon and Jeff Bezos: our world is on fire and desperately needs climate leadership. Stop silencing employees who are sounding the alarm.”

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AECJ went on to publish a statement: “Amazon’s targeting of employees came just one month after Amazon announced its climate pledge and committed to company-wide carbon emission goals for the first time, a major victory for AECJ.

“Before the climate pledge was announced, workers had been calling on the company to be a leader in tackling the climate crisis for 10 months and organised thousands of Amazon workers all over the world to walk out on 20 September for the youth-led global climate strike.”

Costa, who is named in the statement, said: “Now is a time when we need to have communications policies that let us speak honestly about our company’s role in the climate crisis. This is not the time to shoot the messengers. This is not the time to silence those who are speaking out.”

A new communications policy

Amazon updated its communications policy in September, but it is reported that the new policy still requires employees to seek prior approval from the company before discussing it in any public forum while identified as an employee.

In the AECJ press release, Victoria Liang, a software engineer at the company, said: “Amazon’s newly updated communications policy is having a chilling effect on workers who have the backbone to speak out and challenge Amazon to do better.

“This policy is aimed at silencing discussion around publicly available information. It has nothing to do with protecting confidential data, which is covered by a completely different set of policies.”

Amazon data engineer Justin Campbell added: “Amazon’s policy is not going to stop the momentum tech workers have built over the past year at Amazon. The climate crisis is the greatest challenge we face and the only way we can find solutions is by protecting people’s right to speak freely and disrupting the status quo.”

Climate action

The AECJ said that it will continue to push the company to do more to take action on the climate crisis, despite the change to the communications policy.

The group wrote: “Since announcing the climate pledge, Amazon continues to develop AWS products and services to accelerate oil and gas extraction and has not made a commitment to end funding of climate-denying politicians, lobbyists and think tanks.

“AECJ is also pushing Amazon to commit to zero emissions by 2030, not net zero by 2040 as Amazon announced in September 2019, two weeks after thousands of employees pledged to walk out over the company’s lack of climate leadership.”

In the AECJ release, Amazon senior product designer Danilo Quilaton added: “Throughout history, change has happened only after brave people spoke out, even when at risk to themselves. Amazon’s new policy is trying to silence people at a time when leadership and courage is needed more than ever.”

Kelly Earley is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com