‘You feel like you’re in prison’: workers claim Amazon’s surveillance violates labor law

<span>Signs promoting a vote for the union near an Amazon facility in New York in 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters</span>
Signs promoting a vote for the union near an Amazon facility in New York in 2022.Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Amazon has been accused of using “intrusive algorithms” as part of a sweeping surveillance program to monitor and deter union organizing activities.

Workers at a warehouse run by the technology giant on the outskirts of St Louis, Missouri, are today filing an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

Related: Amazon CEO broke US law with anti-union comments, judge rules

A copy of the charge, seen by the Guardian, alleges that Amazon has “maintained intrusive algorithms and other workplace controls and surveillance which interfere with Section 7 rights of employees to engage in protected concerted activity”.

There have been several reports of Amazon surveilling workers over union organizing and activism, including human resources monitoring employee message boards, software to track union threats and job listings for intelligence analysts to monitor “labor organizing threats”.

“Us coming together to file this charge will hold Amazon accountable. We don’t want this becoming the norm,” Wendy Taylor, a packer at Amazon’s STL8 fulfillment center in Saint Peters, Missouri, since August 2020 and an organizing committee member, said in an interview. “It’s out of control.

“We have an injury crisis and we’re being watched and you feel like you’re in prison. We just want people to know we have a right to organize, the right to form a union and the right to have a safer work environment.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

Artificial intelligence can be used by warehouse employers like Amazon “to essentially have 24/7 unregulated and algorithmically processed and recorded video, and often audio data of what their workers are doing all the time,” said Seema N Patel, a fellow and lecturer at Stanford Law School. “It enables employers to control, record, monitor and use that data to discipline hundreds of thousands of workers in a way that no human manager or group of managers could even do.”

Taylor said: “Amazon tracks our every move. They know every move you make, when you’re working, when you’re not working. They surveil you with their cameras. Managers surveil you with their laptops because they can pull up your profile and a bar changes a certain color when you’re not active …

“Every move you make is being tracked, so you feel uncomfortable, and you’re not able to really communicate with your co-workers about the unsafe work environment you’re in, or the inhumane working conditions because of the dangerous rates that are so high that we must meet quotas.”

Taylor said she got involved with organizing at the warehouse after she was injured on the job at Amazon after tripping on an empty pallet and being told to return to work. Her own doctor diagnosed her with a torn meniscus.

In 2023, she and several of her co-workers filed a complaint with Osha over safety concerns at the STL8 warehouse. Workers have also organized and submitted petitions to Amazon demanding clean drinking water and clean, breathable bathrooms at the warehouse.

Amazon is appealing a recent Osha citation issued at the warehouse for failing to report workplace injuries.

Taylor also recently appeared in Washington DC as part of the introduction of a bill in the US Senate, the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, aimed at reining in productivity quotas at Amazon and other warehouse employers. Amazon has denied using fixed productivity quotas, rather than relying on various performance indicators.

Labor leaders and government officials have been calling for action to address the use of AI tools to monitor labor organizing activities, and the potential impacts of the technology on workers’ rights.

The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued a memo in 2022 announcing its intent to protect workers from artificial intelligence-enabled monitoring of labor organizing activities.

Earlier this month in Europe, more than 20 leaders of labor unions representing more than 8 million workers called for a crackdown on Amazon’s surveillance of workers in the workplace by European data authorities.

“Workers have the right to talk to each other about their working conditions and share information with the intention of taking collective action,” Patel, of Stanford Law School, added. “That’s what the National Labor Relations Act does and even those minimal but important rights are being majorly threatened, if not blatantly violated.”