At Amazon’s (AMZN) annual meeting this week, warehouse worker Daniel Olayiwola plans to fight for change at the e-commerce giant in a way that’s both novel and as old as public companies themselves: He’s raising concerns as a shareholder.
Olayiwola — who has worked at SAT4, a San Antonio, Texas fulfillment center, since 2017 — has put forth a shareholder proposal that asks Amazon to end its quota systems and monitoring of workers that critics say amounts to surveillance. Shareholders will vote on this proposal at the company’s annual meeting on Wednesday.
“I’ve told multiple people I’ve met at Amazon that this job is harder than the U.S. Army,” Olayiwola, who served as a medic in the U.S. Army, told Yahoo Finance. “Some of those people have actually gone on to the U.S. Army and later said, ‘Wow, thank you so much. You changed the trajectory of my life just by telling me how much [Amazon] was doing wrong.’”
It’s a new approach in a moment where Amazon’s been hit by a wave of unionization efforts, both in New York and Alabama. Amazon’s quota systems measuring productivity have been a subject of much criticism from both labor unions and some government officials, who allege that workers are consistently hurt by the “company’s obsession with speed,” according to The Center for Investigative Reporting. Amazon’s monitoring of its workers — which measures the time they take to go to lunch or even go to the bathroom — is also well-documented and, like quotas, has been part of union activists’ efforts to enact change at the company.
Though they’ve historically faced an uphill battle, proposals like Olayiwola’s are growing increasingly common. These types of proposals are considered ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), and are of unprecedented importance at a company’s highest levels, according to both Shearman & Sterling and Glass Lewis.
‘You’re so tired you’re not forming complete sentences’
Olayiwola, who’s 28 and a father of one, finds the idea of unionizing attractive, but lacks a key resource for organizing — time. He’s a dad, working 10-hour shifts, leaving him minimal time to coordinate a unionization effort. When he has time and energy, he’ll take to YouTube, making videos communicating what it’s like working at an Amazon warehouse.
“By the end of the day, you’re so tired you’re not forming complete sentences,” he said.
That’s why Olayiwola, who owns Amazon stock, turned to this shareholder proposal, which he says is the first of its kind at Amazon. Shareholder proposals by activist hedge funds and stock-holding employees can make an impact, creating a fiduciary duty for companies to take into account the issues they raise. In 2021, an activist pushing for climate-friendly changes at oil giant ExxonMobil replaced board members at the company through a shareholder vote.
Olayiwola works as a picker — someone who gathers products to be shipped. Olayiwola says that pickers are required to gather between 3,000 and 5,000 items daily, everything from books to heavier items. If they’re using heavy machinery like Powered Industrial Trucks, they’re required to pick 30 to 40 of the heaviest items an hour, Olayiwola told Yahoo Finance. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of the quota numbers provided by Olayiwola.
To meet quotas, workers go to extreme measures, said Olayiwola. Many workers will simply forgo or minimize drinking water altogether, he said.
“They don’t give you the proper time to take care of yourself,” he said. “So even when COVID was at its height, it was a big problem, because people have to walk a half-mile or quarter-mile to the bathroom. Then, they need to wash their hands and get back in time.”
For its part, Amazon says that its quotas are reasonable. In his 2020 letter to shareholders, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote: “We don’t set unreasonable performance goals. We set achievable performance goals that take into account tenure and actual employee performance data.”
Olayiwola argues that Amazon’s quotas have led to an unusually high injury rate at its warehouses. Injury rates at Amazon’s warehouses are twice that of those in competing warehouses, according to a Strategic Organizing Center study. Labor activists have previously accused Amazon of scrimping on COVID safety measures, and evidence has emerged that the company’s delivery drivers are forced to urinate in plastic bottles.
Amazon originally denied the latter claim, then was forced to acknowledge it.
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel has previously said in a statement that the company’s pandemic hiring spree is what lies behind the higher injury rates.
“While we still have more work to do and won’t be satisfied until we are excellent when it comes to safety, we continue to make measurable improvements in reducing injuries and keeping employees safe,” Nantel said in a 2021 statement.
In April, the House Oversight Committee began probing Amazon’s labor practices, particularly in response to the deadly collapse of an Illinois warehouse.
“We are concerned by recent reports that Amazon may be putting the health and safety of its workers at risk, including by requiring them to work in dangerous conditions during tornadoes, hurricanes, and other extreme weather,” the House Oversight Committee wrote to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy. “… As one of our country’s largest and most profitable corporations, it is imperative that Amazon protect workers’ safety and refrain from practices that could put them in danger.”
For their part, labor organizers will also continue to push to make Amazon warehouses safer. Still, those organizers will have to contend with Amazon’s anti-union campaigns. The Amazon Labor Union, which won a historic victory in a Staten Island warehouse in April, recently took a loss at another warehouse in that area. Meanwhile, workers in Bessemer, Ala. are still awaiting the results of a union election that could go either way.
Allie Garfinkle is a senior tech reporter at Yahoo Finance. Find her on twitter @agarfinks.