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Amazon VP Resigns, Calling Out Company Firings and Working Conditions

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  • Tim Bray, Vice President and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, resigned after the company allegedly fired employees for acting as whistleblowers who had been critical of Amazon.
  • He said their firings represent a “vein of toxicity running through the company culture,” and said warehouse employees are treated as “fungible units of pick-and-pack potential.”
  • His resignation was met with applause online as Amazon workers have repeatedly launched strikes demanding protective gear, as well as cleaner and safer working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s Been Going on at Amazon?

An Amazon Vice President resigned from his position after the company fired whistleblowers who criticized its COVID-19 response efforts, saying the actions represented a “vein of toxicity” in company culture.

Tim Bray, former VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, announced his resignation in a Monday blog post. For several weeks, Amazon workers have been striking to demand cleaner and safer working conditions. They’ve also bee asking for personal protective equipment and other tools to protect their health, which they feel is in jeopardy while working. Amazon workers were among the many essential employees that led May Day strikes on Friday. 

The retail giant has faced criticism for how it has responded to these strikes. In March, they fired Chris Smalls, who led and attended a strike in New York, saying that by doing so he was in violation of a company-imposed quarantine. Leaked memos later showed a potential plan to smear Smalls by making remarks insulting his intelligence. Amazon also fired two tech workers, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, who had been critical of the company’s climate policies and had been trying to support warehouse workers amid their complaints.

Bray’s Resignation

While all of this was the tipping point for Bray, his frustrations with Amazon date back further. In his blog post, he said that he was among the many employees who signed a letter by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice demanding that the company pass a climate resolution. When the resolution did not pass, AECJ organized a walkout. But before they could stage it, Amazon announced a climate plan and threatened the leaders of the event with dismissal.

When jobs were not only threatened but also lost as a result of fighting against Amazon’s response to the coronavirus, he could no longer stand idly by. 

“It was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing,” Bray wrote, speaking about Costa and Cunningham. The two were also AECJ leaders.

Bray claimed that he made his concerns clear via the appropriate channels at the company, but knew this would not be enough for him. 

“That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned,” he wrote. “The victims weren’t abstract entities but real people.

“I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?” he continued. 

Issues With Company Culture

He later called Amazon’s choice to fire these workers “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.” 

“I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison,” he added.

Amazon workers are not the only ones concerned about warehouse conditions and company firings. Attorneys-General in several states have lodged complaints of their own. In France, several Amazon warehouses have had to shut down because of the pandemic. Courts have also ruled that the company has to limit its deliveries to essential products only. 

Bray thinks that legal action also needs to be taken in the United States to prevent the company from overreaching. He also believes that when you look at the big picture, the issues at Amazon all boil down to power imbalance.  

“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response,” Bray wrote. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”

Responses

His choice to resign from Amazon made waves online. Cunnigham thanked him for taking a stand in a tweet. 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) also applauded Bray online. 

Author and activist Naomi Klein said this his kind of courage is needed “in every workplace and walk of life.”

Amazon has yet to issue a public comment about Bray’s resignation or blog post. 

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (Washington Post) (Business Insider)

Business

Instagram Testing New Tools To Verify Users Are Over 18

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The new tools include AI software that analyzes video footage of a person’s face to verify their age.


Instagram Cracks Down on Underage Users

Instagram is testing new features in the United States to verify the age of users who claim to be over 18 years old. 

According to a statement from Instagram’s parent company, Meta, the tools will only apply to users who seek to change their age from under 18 to over 18. The platform previously asked for users to upload their ID for verification in this process, but on Thursday, it announced there will be two new methods for confirming age. 

One of the strategies was referred to as “social vouching.” Using this option, people can request that three mutual Instagram followers over the age of 18 confirm their age on the platform.

The other method allows users to upload a video selfie of themselves to be analyzed by Yoti, third-party age verification software. Yoti then estimates a person’s age based on their facial features, sends that estimate to Meta, and both companies delete the recording. 

According to Meta, Yoti cannot recognize or identify a face based on the recording and only looks at the pixels to determine an age. Meta said that Yoti “is the leading age verification provider for several industries around the world,” as it has been used and promoted by social media companies and governmental organizations. 

Still, some question how effective it will be for this specific use. According to The Verge, while the software does have a high accuracy rate among certain age groups and demographics, data also shows it is less precise for female faces and faces with darker skin tones. 

Issues With Kids on Instagram

Meta argues that it is important for Instagram to be able to discern who is and is not 18, as it impacts what version of the app users have access to.

“We’re testing this so we can make sure teens and adults are in the right experience for their age group,” the company’s statement said. 

“When we know if someone is a teen (13-17), we provide them with age-appropriate experiences like defaulting them into private accounts, preventing unwanted contact from adults they don’t know and limiting the options advertisers have to reach them with ads,” it continued. 

These changes come as Instagram has been facing increased pressure to address the way its app impacts younger users. 

Only children 13 and older are allowed to have Instagram accounts, but the service has faced criticism for not doing enough to enforce this. A 2021 survey of high school students found that nearly half of the respondents had created a social media account of some kind before they were 13.

The company also recently came under fire after The Wall Street Journal published internal Meta documents revealing that the company knew that it harmed teens, including by worsening body image issues for young girls and women.

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (The Wall Street Journal) (Axios)

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Elon Musk Threatens to Fire Employees Unless They Work in Person Full-Time

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The world’s richest man in the world previously suggested that the popularity of remote work has “tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard.”


“If You Don’t Show up, We Will Assume You Have Resigned”

On Wednesday, Electrek published two leaked emails apparently sent from Elon Musk to Tesla’s executive staff threatening to fire them if they don’t return to work in person.

“Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla,” he wrote. “This is less than we ask of factory workers.”

“If there are particularly exceptional contributors for whom this is impossible, I will review and approve those exceptions directly,” he continued.

Musk then clarified that the “office” must be a main office, not a “remote branch office unrelated to the job duties.”

“There are of course companies that don’t require this, but when was the last time they shipped a great new product? It’s been a while,” he wrote in the second email.

Later on Wednesday, a Twitter user asked Musk to comment on the idea that coming into work is an antiquated concept.

He replied, “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”

The Billionaire Pushes People to Work Harder

Musk has a history of pressuring his employees and criticizing them for not working hard enough.

“All the Covid stay-at-home stuff has tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard. Rude awakening inbound,” he tweeted last month.

Three economists told Insider that remote work during the pandemic did not damage productivity.

“Most of the evidence shows that productivity has increased while people stayed at home,” Natacha Postel-Vinay, an economic and financial historian at the London School of Economics, told the outlet.

Musk is notorious for criticizing lockdown mandates and went so far as to call them “fascist” during a Tesla earnings call in April 2020.

Not long before that, Tesla announced that it would keep its Fremont, California plant open in defiance of shelter-in-place orders across the state.

In an interview with The Financial Times last month, Musk blasted American workers for trying to stay home, comparing them to their Chinese counterparts whom he said work harder.

“They won’t just be burning the midnight oil. They will be burning the 3 a.m. oil,” he said. “They won’t even leave the factory type of thing, whereas in America people are trying to avoid going to work at all.”

That same day, Fortune published an article detailing how Tesla workers in Shanghai work 12-hour shifts, six days out of the week, sometimes sleeping on the factory floor.

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (Electrek) (Business Insider)

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Apple Raises Worker Pay as Unions Gain Ground

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The company’s vice president of people and retail was caught trying to dissuade employees from unionizing in a leaked video.


Labor Squeezes Apple into Submission

Apple announced Wednesday that its U.S. corporate and retail employees will see a pay increase later this year, with starting wages bumped from $20 per hour to $22, though stores in certain regions may get more depending on market conditions.

Starting salaries are also expected to increase.

“Supporting and retaining the best team members in the world enables us to deliver the best, most innovative, products and services for our customers,” an Apple spokesman said in a statement. “This year as part of our annual performance review process, we’re increasing our overall compensation budget.”

Some workers were told their annual reviews would be moved up three months and that their pay increases would take effect in early July, according to a memo reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, they were told the increased compensation budget would be in addition to pay increases and special awards already received within the past year.

Feeling squeezed by low unemployment and high inflation, tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have changed their compensation structures in recent weeks to pay workers more, and Apple is the latest to bend to market pressure.

Unions Gaining Traction

On Wednesday, The Verge received a leaked video of Apple’s vice president of people and retail, Deirdre O’Brien, explicitly dissuading employees from unionizing.

“I worry about what it would mean to put another organization in the middle of our relationship,” she said. “An organization that does not have a deep understanding of Apple or our business. And most importantly one that I do not believe shares our commitment to you.”

She vocalized more anti-union talking points, like the idea that the company will not be able to make important decisions as quickly with a collective bargaining agreement.

O’Brien has been personally visiting retail stores over the past few weeks in an apparent bid to combat budding union activity.

Apple stores in three locations — New York, Georgia, and Maryland — are currently pushing to unionize, with the latter two set to vote in elections on June 2 and 15, respectively. In response to these efforts, Apple has hired anti-union lawyers, given managers anti-union scripts, and held anti-union captive audience meetings.

In the United States, unionized workers make about 13.2% more than non-unionized workers in the same sector, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

As of Wednesday, Apple’s shares had fallen 21% since the start of the year, but sales grew 34% last year to almost $300 billion.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (CNBC) (The Verge)

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