State Lawmakers Want Public and Workers to Know What Amazon’s Up To

A California law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday aims to regulate and make more transparent warehouses run by Amazon and other employers. Here is Suhauna Hussain’s summary in the Los Angeles Times:

The first-of-its-kind legislation, AB 701, gives Amazon and other warehouse workers new power to fight quotas, which critics say have fostered dangerous conditions by pressuring workers to skip bathroom breaks and skirt safety measures… The measure requires warehouses to disclose quotas and work-speed metrics to employees and government agencies and prohibits penalties for stopping work to use the bathroom and other activities that affect health and safety. It also prohibits retaliation against workers who complain.

What strikes me about this new law is that while the bill regulates and prohibits some workroom practices (e.g., being fired for bathroom breaks or as retaliation for complaints), in other cases, the law simply asks that certain work quotas be disclosed to workers and the public, rather than kept hidden. In too many cases, advocates say, employees only learn about the work rule’s hidden quota (whether it’s for “time off task” or for a productivity metric) after they’ve been terminated for failing to meet it.

The law would also require companies that run warehouses to report to the government—and their own employees—the quotas and speed metrics they mandate for workers. “Right now, it’s very secretive,” said Christian Castro, communications director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which sponsored the bill. “E-commerce has been growing exponentially, it’s gotten even more popular during the pandemic…. Workers are telling us about an increase in quotas, not even knowing their quotas.”

It’s an odd wrinkle, but it’s not without precedent in labor and legislative history: we knew very little about early 20th century factory work, whether in industry or agriculture, before government regulations disclosed how products were assembled and/or processed to consumers. And government includes a fact-finding component as well as a regulatory mechanism. (The press, too, for reasons that might be obvious, frequently relishes a mandate for public disclosure.)

More directly: it is nearly impossible for government to regulate, for workers to organize against, or for consumers to make informed decisions about supporting products when Amazon’s own employees don’t fully know the conditions under which they’re being made, processed, and delivered to the public.

Put another way: this is another case in which the size, reach, and inscrutability of Amazon and the companies in its wake defeats ordinary attempts to make sense of what it is up to. And this is not deep in the forbidden infrastructure of the internet, but in the ordinary days and nights of fulfillment workers. At the same time, they, too, can truthfully say “the algorithm fired me.”