Amazon faces backlash over Covid-19 safety measures

Amazonian workers

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Amazon has not disclosed how many of its workers tested positive for Covid-19

Amazon is introducing new technology to keep employees safe in the workplace, including a wearable device that alerts staff if they get too close.

The retail giant has faced legal action in Europe and the United States claiming that it is not doing enough to prevent Covid-19 from spreading to its warehouses.

An American union accused the company of profiting from the pandemic by leaving its workers unprotected.

Amazon said it had invested billions in Covid-19 initiatives.

The company is now testing a wearable device that alerts workers when they violate social distance rules, according to CNBC, which got a technology reminder.

The clear plastic case beeps and lights up if workers get too close.

According to the report, it will initially be tested in a warehouse in Washington.

Comments on a private online forum for Amazon warehouse employees indicated that staff were not affected.

One suggested that the battery would be killed “so quickly” because it is “impossible to maintain 6 feet [1.8m] apart from”.

Another commented: “Probably they would have left many people if they made it mandatory.”

A third employee compared him to an episode of Black Mirror, a Netflix drama that examines how technology could create a dystopian society.

Automatic learning

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The green and red circles indicate whether the employees are 6 feet apart or less

Amazon has also just announced Distance Assistant, another new tool to contain the spread of coronavirus in its warehouses.

The device provides visual overlays on a screen to show how close people are to each other. Those who are at the required distance will be shown with green circles around them, while those too close are highlighted with red circles.

It uses machine learning to differentiate people from their surroundings and, combined with depth sensors, creates an accurate distance measurement.

The device is being tested in a handful of warehouses.

In a blog, Amazon vice president of robotics Brad Porter wrote “nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our employees.”

Some workers believe that the retail giant needs a more radical change in politics.

Three Amazon employees working at the JFK8 logistics center in Staten Island, New York, have filed a lawsuit claiming that the company’s farewell policies and the failure to carry out full contact traceability of sick worker interactions “have put us all risk”.

Urgent changes requested in the complaint include:

  • leave policy should encourage workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs
  • immediate payment of the quarantine leave
  • an increase in the leisure allowance, so that workers can wash their hands and clean their workstations
  • More accurate disinfection of a facility after a worker has tested positive

The lawsuit is supported by the New York union Make The Road. Deborah Axt, general manager, said: “The largest company in the world has taken advantage of the Covid-19 crisis leaving its workers unprotected and at risk of falling ill and even dying.”

In response to the claims in the lawsuit, Amazon told the BBC, “We are saddened by the tragic impact Covid-19 has had on communities around the world, including some Amazon team members, their family and friends.

“From the beginning of March to May 1, we offered our employees unlimited time from work and from May 1 we offered leave for the most vulnerable or those who need to take care of children or family members.

“We also invested $ 4 billion [£] April to June on Covid-19 related initiatives, including over $ 800 million in the first half of this year on safety measures such as temperature controls, masks, gloves, improved cleaning and sanitization, payment options and extended benefits , tests and more.

“This includes two weeks of paid vacation for any Covid diagnosis or quarantine and the launch of a $ 2 million fund to support our partners and contractors.”

In April, a French union successfully sued Amazon for the delivery of non-essential items such as DVDs and beauty products. The company temporarily closed warehouses across the country after a court ruled that it had not properly consulted the employees’ works council on coronavirus security protocols.

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