Vancouver Amazon VP quits in ‘dismay’ over apparent COVID-19 dismissals

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What happened: Vancouver-based vice-president leaves tech giant over concerns about how workers are being treated

Why it matters: Varying workplace responses to COVID-19 raises concerns over worker safety

A high-level Vancouver executive at Amazon Web Services (AWS) has quit his job in “dismay” over how his former parent company has been treating workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tim Bray, previously an AWS vice-president and distinguished engineer, revealed that May 1 marked his last day on the job after more than five years with the tech giant.

“I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19,” he said in a blog post published Monday (May 4).

Bray was referencing dismissals that unfolded last month, when warehouse workers reached out to the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) organization for support raising awareness over what they considered to be unsafe working conditions during the pandemic.

One warehouse worker had already been dismissed in the wake of internal company protests.

Some AECJ members in turn promoted a petition and organized a video call to bring attention to the issue.

They were subsequently dismissed for what Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN) described as violating internal policies on commenting on the company publicly without authorization.

“VPs shouldn’t go publicly rogue, so I escalated through the proper channels and by the book,” Bray said in his post, adding he would not provide further details about those discussions other than that he believes he brought up his concerns to the appropriate people.

“That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.”

The former tech executive said the job provided $1 million between salary and share vestings, but he was left uneasy after warehouse workers repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of Amazon’s fulfillment centres.

Amazon has previously stated all necessary safety precautions are being met at its warehouses.

“And 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,” Bray said in his post.

“Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”

He said the firing of those workers is “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.” 

But Bray had kinder words for AWS, the cloud-computing division of Amazon.

“It treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance, struggles to move the diversity needle (and mostly fails, but so does everyone else), and is by and large an ethical organization. I genuinely admire its leadership,” he said in his post.

“Of course, its workers have power. The average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better.”

AWS, which has offices scattered across downtown Vancouver, is planning to take up 416,000 square feet in the redeveloped Canada Post building on West Georgia Street, with plans to add 3,000 more workers to the city in the coming years.

Amazon did not respond to a request from comment from Business in Vancouver prior to publication.

UPDATE (May 5, 6:50 a.m.): An Amazon spokeswoman said the company has no comment on the matter.