Monday, May 20, 2024

As Amazon Faces More Union Pressures, New Research Shows Worker Rights Least Protected

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Amazon is facing increased scrutiny over its efforts to block unions as new research points to worker rights as one of the least protected human rights globally.

An international coalition of investors has called on Amazon to evaluate its adherence to its commitments regarding workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. This request was made through a shareholder proposal spearheaded by the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), emphasizing the need for Amazon’s board of directors to verify the company’s compliance with international human rights standards, including the Core Conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

The investor group, which includes Storebrand Asset Management and the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office, has raised this issue as Amazon approaches its annual general meeting on May 22. This period coincides with heightened unionization efforts across the company’s operations in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. Reports of alleged intimidation, retaliation, and surveillance of union supporters at Amazon have added urgency to these concerns.

Sarah Couturier-Tanoh, director of shareholder advocacy at SHARE, expressed the need for Amazon to undertake effective and transparent due diligence. “Beyond the ethical imperative to respect human rights, any failure to align workforce practices with internationally recognized human rights norms represents a threat to shareholder long-term value. That’s why in the past couple of years we have seen global investors taking stances in favor of better labor relations in an effort to mitigate those risks in their investment portfolio. In the past six months, several companies answered the call, including Starbucks and Apple. We are still waiting for Amazon to follow suit and, frankly, to do even better,” she said.

Amazon delivery truck.
Amazon truck | Photo courtesy David Emrich

Adding to the pressure, Tulia Machado-Helland, head of human rights at Storebrand, highlighted the financial risks Amazon could face under the emerging E.U. regulations that require mandatory human rights due diligence. She advocates for a third-party assessment of Amazon’s policies and implementation processes regarding unionization efforts to address the multiple allegations of misconduct.

This coalition’s move reflects a broader trend of investors prioritizing ethical labor practices and human rights as critical components of corporate governance and financial performance. As regulatory frameworks tighten, particularly with the impending Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive in the EU, companies like Amazon are increasingly held accountable not just by regulatory bodies but also by the investment community, which demands higher standards for corporate behavior and transparency.

Worker rights among the most vulnerable

The pressure comes as new research from Binghamton University in New York reveals that worker rights are among the most vulnerable human rights globally. This concerning trend is highlighted in a recent publication by the CIRIGHTS Data Project, the world’s most comprehensive human rights dataset, which has been monitoring global human rights conditions since 1981.

The latest findings, detailed in the journal Human Rights Quarterly, present an annual “report card” on the respect for 25 internationally recognized human rights, with countries like Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, and Portugal achieving the highest scores. In contrast, nations such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, China, and Iraq received the lowest overall scores. Key issues include the rights to unionize, collectively bargain, and other labor protections, which are routinely compromised, particularly in less economically developed countries.

A garment factory for H&M.
A garment factory for H&M. Photo courtesy International Labour Organization | Flickr

Professor David Cingranelli of Binghamton University, a co-leader of the project, emphasized the central role of union rights in protecting workers. “Previous research shows that it is unlikely that governments protect the rights to an adequate minimum wage, occupational health and safety, or reasonable limitations on work hours (including voluntary overtime work) unless they allow workers to form independent trade unions and to bargain collectively,” Cingranelli said. He labeled these as “gateway rights,” essential for safeguarding other labor rights. Unfortunately, these foundational rights are in decline globally.

Cingranelli also noted the adverse effects of economic globalization, which has increased competition among nations, often resulting in government policies that favor corporate interests over workers’ rights. “Economic globalization has increased competition among nations, which has led governments to favor corporations over workers in conflicts between the two,” he explained.

The study points out that while democratic and wealthy nations generally offer better protection for labor rights, economic inequality is rising almost universally. In poorer regions, large corporations in sectors like agriculture, mining, and oil extraction often exploit workers, a situation reminiscent of the early industrialization stages in the United States.

Cingranelli stressed the importance of government intervention in labor disputes. “It is important to remember that companies and workers typically take adversarial positions about how much attention corporate leaders should pay to what workers want concerning the terms and conditions of their work,” he remarked. He further cautioned that without protective government policies, companies are often unchecked in their efforts to suppress unions. “Without government policies protecting workers, companies can do whatever they want to keep unions out.”

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