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September 29, 2021

The California state governor Gavin Newsom has signed a bill that will come into force in January 2022, prohibiting the workers from being fired for failing to meet a quota that does not allow for rest breaks, this bill is expected to check Amazon and other employers on the method by which they monitor, reward, and discipline warehouse workers. Amazon workers have complained of having to work gruelling hours, with harsh penalties for being "off-task".

Task definition
Companies will have to detail the number of tasks they expect warehouse workers to complete within a certain timeframe and any penalties for failing to do so. "An employee shall not be required to meet a quota that prevents compliance with meal or rest periods, use of bathroom facilities, or occupational health and safety laws," the bill says. Amazon has about 150,000 employees in California.

'Arduous workloads'
Its pay and benefits are considered generous for the industry. But some complain conditions are not and arduous workloads create mental and physical problems. One of Amazon most controversial policies is time off task (TOT). Amazon's algorithms calculate which hours of a shift are off task, based on the number of items scanned, with penalties for those who underperform.

Previously, the system had sent an alert if workers were off task for half an hour. But in June, Amazon tweaked its policy to average scanned items over a longer period. At the time of the change, worldwide operations vice-president Dave Clark blogged the tool "could be easily misunderstood" but was primarily to "understand whether there are issues with the tools that people use to be productive" and only secondarily to identify underperforming employees.

One of the biggest criticisms of Amazon is its use of technology, including a large number of robots, dehumanises workers. It uses an array of technology to keep an eye on workers, including cameras in delivery vans and an app that monitors driving.

'Union-busting tactics'
In April, workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted for the first time on whether they wanted to be represented by the National Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The vote went against the union but amid allegations, Amazon had used union-busting tactics, including:

  • altering a traffic-light system outside the warehouse to give union officials less time to leaflet workers
  • bombarding workers with texts, posters, and signs encouraging them to vote no

The National Labour Relations Board found enough evidence Amazon had interfered with the process to warrant a second vote, yet to be held. RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum welcomed the new California legislation but said a union contract "is better". Transparency about what warehouses required of its workers was needed, he said, but "many other issues" had to be addressed.