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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos vowed to do better by his employees in his last letter as chief executive to shareholders — even as he insisted that they’re really not that bad off.
On the heels of a bruising labor battle in Bessemer, Ala., that included claims of punishing working conditions, the richest man in the world on Thursday said he now aims to make the online e-commerce company “earth’s best employer” and “safest place to work.”
It’s a goal Bezos, 57, said he plans to be personally involved in when he steps down as CEO in the third quarter, remaining the tech giant’s chairman.
“In my upcoming role as Executive Chair, I’m going to focus on new initiatives. I’m an inventor. It’s what I enjoy the most and what I do best. It’s where I create the most value. I’m excited to work alongside the large team of passionate people we have in Ops and help invent in this arena of Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”
The ambitious new goal follows a failed but still reputationally damaging effort by employees to unionize the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Employees overwhelming voted to remain out of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, with just 738 out of 6,000 employees voting in favor of a labor contract.
But Amazon still suffered blows in the process, including the union’s claims that Amazon played dirty to win, resulting in political figures like President Biden weighing in to warn Amazon not to interfere with the voting process.
Amazon also suffered from employees’ complaints about working conditions so harsh they often don’t have enough time to go to the bathroom or take meal breaks. The fight also raised anew concerns about unsafe pandemic work conditions, including cramped quarters with colleagues who contracted the deadly Covid-19.
In his 3,891 word essay , which waxed philosophical about wealth and responsibility as the world’s largest company, Bezos sometimes set a defensive tone about the complaints.
“While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success,” Bezos said.
“If you read some of the news reports, you might think we have no care for employees,” Bezos said. “In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots. That’s not accurate. They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work.”
He insisted that conditions are not as bad as some reports depicted.
“Employees are able to take informal breaks throughout their shifts to stretch, get water, use the rest room, or talk to a manager, all without impacting their performance. These informal work breaks are in addition to the 30-minute lunch and 30-minute break built into their normal schedule,” he said.
Still he acknowledged that there are problems, including repetitive work that results in injuries. About 40 percent of the injuries at Amazon warehouses — where Amazon employs 6,200 “safety professionals”– are related to this kind of repetitive work, Bezos said.
It’s why Amazon last year launched the “WorkingWell” program at 350 facilities where 859,000 people work, coaching people on “body mechanics.”
The company is also developing “algorithms to rotate employees among jobs that use different muscle-tendon groups to decrease repetitive motion,” according to the letter.
This year, according to the letter, Amazon will also invest more than $300 million into safety projects, including $66 million to create technology that will help prevent collisions of forklifts and other types of industrial vehicles.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the letter validates what the union has been saying all along. “Bezos’s admission today demonstrates that what we have been saying about workplace conditions is correct.”
Bezos is stepping down from the company’s day-to-day operations at a time when Amazon’s share have skyrocketed — up 83 percent over the last two years as demand has soared due to the pandemic.
The stock’s dizzying rise has helped catapult Bezos to status as world’s wealthiest person with a net worth of $196.4 billion.
Bezos acknowledged his eyepopping wealth in the letter while also attempting to draw attention to the other shareholders who have benefitted from Amazon’s soaring $1.6 trillion valuation.
“My Amazon shares have made me wealthy. But more than 7/8ths of the shares, representing $1.4 trillion of wealth creation, are owned by others,” he said.
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