Amazon told its employees they could be fired after they tried to publicly pressure the online retail giant to more urgently address climate change.
The group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice said its leaders had been threatened and questioned by the company’s human resources department about comments they made in the press last year. The company’s response is a form of “targeting” meant to keep employees from speaking out further, the group said.
The Post, which is owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, was first to report the threats against the employees on Thursday.
Amazon employees Maren Costa and Jamie Kowalski had given a statement to The Washington Post for an October 2019 article in which they said Amazon was trying to distract from the fact that it “wants to profit in businesses that are directly contributing to climate catastrophe.”
In an email in November, Eric Sjoding, a lawyer in Amazon’s human resources department, told Costa she could be fired for violating a company policy forbidding workers from publicly discussing Amazon’s business practices. Sjoding said the company had done an investigation and would not be punishing Costa this time because she did not “knowingly violate” the policy. But he went on to warn that “future violations” would come with “corrective action,” possibly including her termination.
Kowalski told the Post she had received a warning similar to Costa’s.
Amazon Employees for Climate Justice said the company had updated its policy on public comments the day after employees announced plans for a mass walkout over climate change in September. The policy requires workers to get approval from management before speaking as employees of Amazon.
“This is in contrast to Amazon’s leadership principles which encourages employees to have a backbone and challenge decisions when they disagree,” the group said in a statement.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company updated its policy “to make it easier for employees to participate in external activities such as speeches, media interviews, and use of the company’s logo,” adding that the company began developing the updates in the spring, before the climate walkout.
“As with any company policy, employees may receive a notification from our HR team if we learn of an instance where a policy is not being followed,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Workers at big tech giants like Google and Amazon are showing a new willingness to publicly criticize their employers. Google workers staged their own large-scale walkout in 2018 over the company’s handling of sexual harassment. At Amazon, the most vocal internal critics have been urging the employer to help stave off climate disaster.
Last spring, Amazon employees started urging the company to adopt ambitious commitments to curb climate pollution amid new scrutiny of the company’s effort to sell its computing services to the oil and gas industry. Amazon has historically been a corporate pariah on emissions issues, lagging behind big tech rivals such as Apple, Facebook and Google owner Alphabet on powering operations with renewable energy, according to Greenpeace.
In 2017, when Amazon lured city governments into a nationwide competition to be the site of its first full-blown headquarters outside of Seattle, the firm made no mention of climate change in its requests for proposals. Amazon has a majority share of the e-commerce industry’s packaging waste and its new plastic shipping bags are clogging up recycling centers.
In 2018, Amazon employees filed a shareholder resolution meant to pressure the company to detail its plan to cut back on fossil fuels. According to Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, more than 8,700 Amazon employees have put their names on a letter to Bezos backing that resolution.
Amazon employees do not have union representation, giving them little protection if the company wants to fire them. It is common for U.S. employers to forbid workers from speaking publicly about their workplaces without a manager first signing off on a request.
Danilo Quilaton, a senior product designer at Amazon, said in a statement that change only happens when “brave people [speak] out, even when at risk to themselves.”
“Amazon’s new policy is trying to silence people at a time when leadership and courage is needed more than ever,” Quilaton said.
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