thumb-2020-04-015 This article is more than 4 years old

Canada Put Amazon in Charge of Handling COVID-19 Medical Supplies. Workers Say They’re Scared of Getting Sick.

Decision to put Amazon in charge of distributing emergency medical supplies is a 'national disgrace', warehouse workers group say

Workers say Amazon is not providing healthy working conditions despite Canadian health authorities awarding the multinational corporation a contract to store and distribute COVID-19 medical supplies using its private warehouses.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which is leading Canada’s pandemic response, recently gave Amazon a contract to manage the distribution of emergency medical supplies, including masks and ventilators, to Canadian hospitals.

The federal government refused to share the full details of its Amazon contract and the full scope of the arrangement remains unknown.

Yet workers suggest Amazon is still struggling follow basic guidelines set out by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) at its Canadian warehouses.

Amazon’s Ottawa Fulfillment Centre (Broccolini Construction)

“The fact that this company has been chosen to carry out the very sensitive work of delivering PPEs in Canada is a national disgrace,” said Ryan Lum of the Warehouse Workers Centre.

Amazon workers around the world have been speaking out about the company’s working conditions, with workers at a New York warehouse walking off the job and protests at a warehouse in  France.

Amazon’s warehouses in Ottawa and Calgary have already seen workers test positive for COVID-19.

The WWC recently launched a petition demanding healthier working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, charging that the company does not offer paid sick leave and makes it difficult to follow social distancing rules.

Work floor of a typical Amazon warehouse (J. Stead, Amazon)

Amazon workers who spoke directly to PressProgress said warehouse conditions are “worrying,” adding they “don’t know how transparent the company is being.”

“We saw a positive case in Ottawa,” said Caroline, a worker at Amazon’s warehouse in Bolton, Ontario, which can employ between 2,000 and 3,500 workers.  “There’s just so many people in the facility, if an outbreak does happen and a bunch of people catch it, it will be pretty tragic.”

“The population at Amazon skews older,” she said. “The majority of people I’d say are over 50, there’s a lot of people over 60,” some of whom have “diabetes” or are “immunocompromised.”

Amazon told PressProgress they’ve “increased cleaning at all facilities” and “taken extensive measures to ensure the safety of its workforce, in order to comply with all public health requirements.”

Amazon also said the company has “worked closely with health authorities,” though Canada’s public health authorities won’t confirm whether or not that’s true.

In response to a list of questions asking whether PHAC is providing any oversight or inspecting Amazon warehouses that store emergency medical supplies, the agency issued a statement to PressProgress consisting only of “general advice” it gives to all employers on how to clean their workplaces.

The public health agency would not say if it was aware of health and safety issues at any of Amazon’s warehouses where its emergency medical supplies are stored.

Prime Minister Trudeau tours Amazon’s Brampton warehouse in 2016 (Prime Minister’s Office)

Amazon told PressProgress it brought in measures to ensure warehouse workers are “maintaining social distance” at all times, but workers says that’s not entirely true.

“The nature of the work and the way the facilities are designed, they’re designed to pack in as many people as possible,” Caroline told PressProgress.

Although she agrees the company belatedly took steps to promote social distancing, she said that workers are still “inevitably going to be around a lot of people.”

“There could be potentially 10 people in a small aisle,” she noted.

Amazon also told PressProgress the company is “spreading out” workers in its lunchrooms, but Caroline said lunchrooms are “more crowded than comfortable,” with “four or five” workers sharing tables that “typically seat seven or eight.”

“The tables are still kind of kept apart, but then you’ll see more than one person at a table,” she said. “There’s just not enough space for everyone.”

“It’s better than when they were just doing nothing at all at the beginning of the pandemic, before the pressure started to set in, but it’s still a lot of people.”

Typical work station at Amazon warehouse in 2016 (Amazon)

Lum said some workers are quitting their jobs rather than risk their health.

“We’ve been in touch with several Amazon workers considered ‘high risk’ who have stopped going into work because they can’t ensure their own safety,” he said

In guidelines for Canadian employers, PHAC lists “relaxing sick leave policies” to “support employees in self-isolating when ill, exposed to cases or returning from international travel” as a “high” priority.

Yet Amazon, which is a PHAC contractor, admits they only offer “up to two weeks” paid sick leave for workers who tested positive for COVID-19, while other workers are allowed to take “unlimited unpaid time off” until the end of April.

“We meet or exceed sick leave policies in every province,” Amazon told PressProgress.

Caroline said workers who test positive need to provide the company with proof that they had COVID-19 or were “asked to quarantine by the government or your doctor, but either way thats only two-week paid leave.”

“If you need to take more than two weeks, it’s got to be a leave of absence that’s unpaid.”

But getting a doctor’s note to prove to your employer that you have COVID-19 could be easier said than done.

In the case of workers who have been able to get tested, they are not paid if they take time off while they wait for test results, which can take up to a week in most cases,” Lum pointed out. 

Workers unpacking boxes at Amazon warehouse (Amazon)

In a blog post published Friday, Amazon announced it had distributed personal protective gear, including masks, and began implementing “temperature checks” at all facilities worldwide.

Amazon told PressProgress it hadn’t fully distributed medical supplies to its own workers prior to last week.



Editor’s Note: This article quotes an Amazon worker who works at the company’s Bolton, Ontario warehouse. At the worker’s request, PressProgress has used an alias in place of their name in order to protect them from retribution for speaking about conditions at their workplace. 


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