More than 12,600 people pledged to boycott online retailer Amazon.com this holiday season to protest "sweatshop" working conditions at its Lehigh Valley warehouses, according to the union advocacy group American Rights at Work.
Working conditions at Amazon's Breinigsville shipping hub gained national attention and a public response from the company after a Sept. 18 article in The Morning Call revealed employee complaints about heat in the warehouse complex and rapid production requirements many could not sustain. Amazon hired ambulance crews to park outside the complex on hot summer days in case workers experienced heat-related problems. A local emergency room doctor who treated Amazon workers for heat stress reported an "unsafe environment" to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which inspected and recommended corrective steps.
American Rights at Work, based inWashington, D.C., launched its online boycott campaign after that story put Amazon working conditions in the spotlight. It sent an alert to its members asking them to take action, saying: "In September, an investigative report revealed that Amazon.com's Breinigsville, PA, warehouse has been operating like a sweatshop -- with employees working on their hands and knees at a frantic pace, enduring the pain because they're afraid of losing their jobs. We need to let Amazon know that we won't stand for shameful working conditions ... Amazon's workers deserve better. And as customers, we can demand better."
Zoe Bridges-Curry, a spokeswoman for American Rights at Work, said the number of people who pledged to boycott is impressive because, unlike signing a petition, a boycott requires them to change their lives.
"It's a really good number," she said. "When people have an opportunity to take a stand against some of the practices their fellow Americans are facing at work, they get excited. They want to let companies know we do care and we are paying attention."
The loss of 12,600 customers, whose combined holiday season spending likely would approach $9 million, would be devastating for many businesses. However, for the global online retailing powerhouse Amazon, which had 2010 sales exceeding $34 billion, it's merely a glancing blow.
On Thursday, the Seattle company announced construction of four new distribution centers in Virginia and Tennessee, the latest developments of its ongoing global expansion.
Amazon did not respond to The Morning Call for this story. It has previously said that it urgently installed air conditioning at its East Coast warehouses in response to summer heat waves and that employee safety is a priority.
Despite Amazon's continued growth, word that thousands of people joined a national boycott against the company pleased some former warehouse workers who shared their stories with The Morning Call.
"That's great," said Elmer Goris, 34, of Allentown, a former Amazon warehouse worker who spoke to The Morning Call about brutal heat. "I hope more people join the party, because the stuff that they did, they should not have gotten away with. Just to hear that people are boycotting makes my day."
Karen Salasky, who said she cried herself to sleep after warehouse shifts, said she was surprised so many people reacted to the worker accounts.
"I didn't think it would reach that many people," said Salasky, of Bethlehem. "Even though our stories are out there, I know other people will order because of the convenience and I understand that. But because of my experience, I will never order from them again."
Concerns about Amazon working conditions were not limited to summer heat. Workers also complained about being exposed to frigid temperatures for prolonged periods during warehouse evacuations last year.
Multiple warehouse workers were treated at hospitals for exposure after being outside, without coats, in temperatures below freezing, including one night for about two hours, according to OSHA records.
Workers interviewed said Amazon forced them to remain huddled in the parking lot on frigid nights while many workers were wearing only shorts and T-shirts. After attendance was taken to make sure all employees evacuated, warehouse workers said they were not allowed to go to their cars to keep warm. Instead, they were instructed by warehouse managers to use one another's body heat and told that anyone caught going to their cars would be disciplined and could be terminated, workers said.