‘No breaks, AC problems, blisters’: Heatwave puts focus on ‘labour law violations’ at Amazon

In a statement to Newslaundry, Amazon India said the claims raised by the workers were being investigated.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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Smita*, 25, scurries around the Amazon India warehouse in Haryana’s Manesar for most of her 10-hour work shift – storing products in different parts of the warehouse. She walks around 15-20 kilometres continuously, with two half-hour breaks and no place to rest.    

The job was hard enough. And then came the record-breaking heatwave. 

“Walking in this heat has made the whole process much worse. I sometimes get chhaalas (blisters), on my feet as we’re mandated to wear socks, and sweating in them is very uncomfortable,” Smita told Newslaundry, adding that some of her colleagues have faced worse consequences – dizziness, fainting and even high blood pressure.

The national capital region witnessed a record-breaking temperature of 49 degrees in May, triggering a warning from the IMD. However, Amazon India is yet to pay heed and the working conditions of its workers have remained unchanged.   

To add to that, Smita said that they were asked by a manager to take an oath to not use the washroom or drink water until the targets had been completed. She claimed this took place at around 4.30 pm on May 16, after a manager reprimanded the stow workers for a poor performance. After that, Smita alleged that a manager directed all workers to raise their hands and take the following oath: 

“I take an oath that the targets set for us for the remaining two hours of the day will be achieved without taking any breaks for water and washroom.”

She said that they followed the instructions – they had to, since he went on a round with a mic, ensuring no one goes for such breaks. “How will we achieve targets when our health is getting affected,” she asked. 

On June 7, Amazon India Workers Association wrote to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, and the National Disaster Management Authority, demanding immediate measures to safeguard the health and well-being of warehouse workers facing extreme heat and poor work conditions.

The workers’ body has demanded that the multinational company provide a “heat surcharge” to those working amid extreme heat. The other demands include moratorium on card blocks during heat waves to ensure access to shade, drinking water, and toilets for workers at all times; special training on heat stroke prevention; maintain adequate temperatures across all warehouse locations; provide protective gears such as UV-protected shirts, sunglasses, sunscreen; and ORS. They also demanded that the company establish an emergency helpline and compensate workers affected by heat stroke, and the NDMA declare heat waves as disasters. 

In a statement to Newslaundry, Amazon India said the claims raised by the workers were being “investigated” but that they’d “never make these kinds of requests on our employees as part of standard business practice”.

Newslaundry spoke to the company’s warehouse workers and union leaders about their work conditions and issues. 

Heat woes: Vomiting, sweating, fainting 

Amazon has close to 50 fulfilment centres (warehouses) in India spread across 16 states, out of which at least four are in the Delhi-NCR region. The warehouse in Manesar, where the complaints have originated from, has around 2,000 workers working shifts.

Prashant, a 24-year-old, works in the unloading box department in a fulfilment centre in Manesar. He works part-time, which means he can apply for the shifts a day in advance. He receives Rs 616 for each day-shift and Rs 730 for every night-shift. 

On a particularly hot day in the last week of May, when he was unloading boxes, the heat caused him to have a vomiting attack. 

“When I told my supervisor what happened, he told me to wear more appropriate clothing. My t-shirt was already wet with sweat, what more appropriate clothes can I wear?” he asked. His manager allegedly gave him an ORS after this and ordered him to get back to work. “It is so hot that even the ACs don’t have any effect. We work in the tin shed where the temperature sometimes reaches 42 degrees or more. We stand for at least 10 hours everyday, and if we sit down we get scolded.”

Tasked to process 70 items for delivery every hour, Prashant said it was only manageable to do around 40 in the sweltering heat. He said that to save up time and meet targets, workers even withhold their urge to urinate.

“It has come to the point where sometimes even if I’m unable to go to the toilet, it’s okay. Sometimes if my stomach aches I have medicine. Other times, I can’t control the urge. I have become a slave to this company. We have rights, so many. But who listens to us,” said Prashant, who has started reading up on labour laws since last year, to be familiar with his rights.

“You place an order for a product on Amazon and then wait for it to arrive. But have you ever thought how many people toil around to ensure your delivery,” he asked. “Have you ever thought how many delivery people roam around in the heat for your product? How many abuses do they hear? The people who pack your product, do you ever wonder if they were able to go to the bathroom? Did they eat their food or not? What else did they sacrifice for just this one product?”

Prashant said that at times workers face constant fear of being “blacklisted” and not having a job. If they get three strikes, they are blacklisted, which means they will not be able to work at any Amazon facility in the country. 

The average pay for workers in the customer fulfilment and operations roles in the US is 820 dollars (Rs 68,513) for a 40-hour week. In India, Amazon fulfilment workers make about 30.18 dollars (Rs 2,522) a week, even though workers in India work 50 hours a week, an additional 10 hours as compared to US. 

The minimum wage in Haryana is Rs 10,661 per month.

Amazon points to ‘action to provide comfortable conditions’

An Amazon spokesperson told Newslaundry that all their buildings have heat index monitoring devices that are “constantly monitored, especially during the summer months”. If there is increased heat or humidity inside the building, the spokesperson said that the teams “take action to provide comfortable working conditions, including temporarily suspending work”.

“We have cooling measures in all our buildings, including ventilation systems, fans, and spot coolers. We provide adequate provision of water and hydration, as well as regularly scheduled rest breaks in a cooler environment, and we ensure additional breaks when temperatures are high. Employees are free to take informal breaks throughout their shifts to use the restroom, get water, or talk to a manager or HR.”

But several workers who spoke to Newslaundry alleged that there were no restrooms, they were asked to not use the toilet or drink water at times to complete targets, there is no scope of “informal breaks”, and that while there are ACs in the warehouse, they are often set to 30-35 degrees temperature. 

Rohit*, a part-time worker at Manesar, said that due to the heat, he was working fewer days. 

“On some days, I get so tired that I don’t go to work the next day. It is too hot, and the speed I’m required to work at is too much for the heat,” said Rohit. 

His work involves labelling 650 Amazon packages in an hour. 

“At least in these heat conditions the target should be reduced, so we can work with a little more ease,” he said. “I have seen on social media that we should not be working more than eight hours a day – but we work more than that, don’t we? The work we do does not match the wages we get. We have to keep standing for 10 hours, besides the two small breaks.”

Larger issue of ‘violation’ of labour laws

This is not the first time Amazon workers are protesting against the company. In November, a nationwide protest was held demanding abolition of targets, increasing the minimum wage, and including seating arrangements. In Delhi, over 200 participants had come, some wearing mask cutouts of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. 

The global company has faced harsh allegations from other parts of the world as well, raising questions about the conglomerate’s approach towards its workers. In the UK, workers in an Amazon warehouse had alleged in 2019 that they had to urinate in plastic bottles rather than go to the toilet.  

In the US, 15,000 Amazon contract drivers filed arbitration claims against the company, claiming that Amazon had classified them as independent contractors instead of employees with minimum wage and overtime rights. In France, Amazon was fined 32 million euros for undertaking “excessive surveillance for its workers”. 

The workers have a 10-hour work day, with the break of up to an hour in two shifts. Since they work five days a week, this accumulated to 50 hours a week. India’s labour laws, however, mandate that workers can work up to nine hours a day and up to 48 hours a week. 

The warehouses also do not have resting rooms and crèches required at such commercial setups as per laws.

KK Niyogi, legal adviser to the AIWA, told Newslaundry that the working conditions for the workers, even without the heatwave, were “inhuman”. “Pushing workers to work for 50 hours in a week is against the law of our country. Workers aren't even allowed to sit down. They are forced to sit in the luggage room and in the washroom.”

Niyogi also alleged that the company has failed to install a proper cooling system for the heat.

“Some of the workers have to walk around 20 kilometres a day. It is anyway a difficult task, and doing it when temperatures are high makes your body heat up,” said Nitesh Kumar Das, organiser of the association. “The blisters the workers have to endure are so severe that it is no longer manageable.” 

While the association, which is currently in the process of becoming a union, has written to the ministry about its earlier demands, this is the first time they wrote about the heatwave as an immediate concern. 

“This is the hottest year we have experienced. We had to address the effect this has on workers, keeping in mind the severity of the heatwave,” said Das. “For you, the story ends when you click on buy on Amazon. But for the workers, that’s when it begins.” 

Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identities.

Update at 3.36 pm on June 19: The National Human Rights Commission has taken suo motu cognisance of alleged anti-labour practices at one of the warehouses as reported by the media. It has sought a detailed report within one week from the secretary, Union Ministry of Labour and Employment.

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