Saturday, December 1, 2018

Unsolicited Advice for Amazon: Keep Talking with Your Workers

Last month, the New York Times and the Star Tribune reported on conflicts between Somalian workers and management at Amazon’s Shakopee (Minnesota) warehouse. The workers’ concerns include increases in their workload, lack of advancement opportunities, and prayer breaks.

There are many interesting angles to this story, including the community built among Somalian workers (at least partly facilitated by the Amazon-provided bus that brings them from and back to downtown Minneapolis each day) and the role of the Awood Center  (a worker center for East African workers in the Twin Cities). But then there’s this from the New York Times article by Karen Weise:
“Now, tied together by a close cultural connection and empowered by a tight labor market, they appear to be the first known group in the United States to get Amazon management to negotiate. After modest protests over the summer, the workers have had two private meetings with management in recent months.”
Kudos to the workers for this achievement. I’m a fan of worker voice in many forms (and here, too). And these issues are probably particularly ripe for constructive conversations. It’s important to put a human face on workload demands, frustration with advancement could be a win-win issue to work through, and requests for prayer breaks involve obvious cultural differences that are hard to overcome without an understanding that comes from personal interaction. And this dialogue has resulted in what seems like some constructive changes, again quoting from the New York Times article:
“Last week, Amazon offered some compromises at its facilities in the Minneapolis area. The company said it would require a general manager and a Somali-speaking manager to agree on any firings related to productivity rates, designate a manager to respond to individual complaints within five days and meet with workers quarterly.”
But focusing solely on the process of employee voice, there is room for tremendous improvement. According to these reports, there have only been TWO meetings, and Amazon has only committed to a quarterly meeting with workers. As in four times a year? Employee voice should be ongoing rather than letting problems fester. And committing to respond to individual complaints within five days hardly seems responsive—that can be a long time for a worker to suffer. Employee voice should be embraced as something worthy of immediate attention whenever feasible.

In fact, the workers have scheduled a protest because they do not believe their concerns have been fully addressed. Employee voice is not a magical solution that will make these issues disappear, but dialogue is certainly worth trying more than once a quarter. For Amazon, further discussions could hopefully resolve these issues and avoid work disruptions. For the workers, voice allows them to participate in shaping their work life in ways consistent with human needs and dignity. So keep talking with your workers. No to your workers. With your workers.

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