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Published: 22 May 2017
Author: Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Employment condition questions face Amazon's Australian operation

Amazon is due to open distribution centres in Sydney and Melbourne and according to recent reports is scouting for locations.

The global conglomerate, which offers vast online shopping services, has recently expanded its business to provide same day and two-hour delivery of a variety of goods (not just books). These services can only be provided in Australia if the distribution centres are located here.

The international retail behemoth has a widespread reputation for poor working conditions and harsh treatment of workers. In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, National Union of Worker’s (NUW) National Secretary, Tim Kennedy, was quoted as saying “Its reputation is ruthless, running classic 19th century-style satanic mills”. However Mr Kennedy also said that the NUW saw Amazon’s impending arrival in Australia as a “big opportunity” to organise its warehouse workers.

What are media and union concerns?

Amazon has been criticised in the media and by unions for its treatment of workers. Amazon’s distribution centres in Australia are expected to employ hundreds of workers, mostly on an agency, seasonal or casual basis. While creating new jobs, Amazon’s warehouse workers are likely to have contingent and insecure employment. For example, Amazon is known to dramatically increase their workforce during the Christmas period and then let those workers go. In Scotland, it was reported that Amazon hired 20,000 additional staff over a Christmas season, which was double its normal workforce, and the company engages many workers through labour hire agencies.

The same company has also been accused of poor working conditions including penalising workers for taking sick leave and requiring them to meet unreasonable targets. In the distribution centres, it has been reported that workers are required to walk in excess of 20 kilometres on a single shift. The conditions have been reported to have a negative effect on the physical and emotional health of workers.

Amazon’s poor workplace practices and treatment of it’s employees have been set out in detail in a report in The New York Times, which focused on the conditions of Amazon’s management and operational staff.

Australian unions are ready to protect workers

Amazon is also known for its aggressive attitude to trade unions and has resisted attempts of unions to organise its workers in the United States. However, in Australia, Amazon will find a more unionised workforce than in the US.

The ability of employees to engage with their employer as an organised collective is a crucial check to the power of a large employer like Amazon and will ensure employees are given an opportunity to obtain favourable working terms and conditions.

Relevantly, the Victorian government’s Inquiry into the Labour Hire Industry and Insecure Work found that employees who are subjected to insecure work – whether the insecurity arises from casual, seasons or fixed term contracts – often experience negative outcomes including ‘financial insecurity, difficulty planning and saving for the future, and stress (including the management of
working time and family commitments)’ . Similarly, one of the report’s other key findings is that there is evidence that labour hire workers in Victoria are treated like “second class” workers by being treated less favorably when it comes to matters such as rostering, discipline, and health and safety.

Whilst Amazon will provide employment opportunities for many people, security of employment and fair and equal treatment of labour hire workers is important. Businesses often have legitimate reasons for engaging labour hire companies and using flexible work forces, however these must be balanced with employee rights and protections.

This scenario highlights the key findings from the Inquiry, which included better industrial instrument coverage for labour hire workers, and should be implemented. The importance of the Inquiry’s recommendations is highlighted by Amazon’s imminent entry into the Australian market, which is a clear indicator of the changing dynamics of employment.

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