Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in shareholder meeting rejects notion that workers were fired in retaliation

©The Seattle Times

Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos can be seen on the fringes of the company's novelties event on Sept. 25, 2019. - Andrej Sokolow/DPA/Abaca Press/TNS

SEATTLE — Jeff Bezos rejected the notion that Amazon has fired employees in recent weeks for speaking about working conditions.

“We support every employees’ right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that also doesn’t mean they’re allowed to not follow internal policies,” the Amazon founder, chairman and CEO said in response to a question during the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday. “But for sure, your rights to protest working conditions, we take that super seriously, and we have no problem with that at all.”

That has been the company’s official line in recent weeks in response to allegations of retaliation by as many as nine terminated employees who were involved in walkouts or publicly critical of Amazon’s treatment of workers and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The dismissals prompted one of the company’s top engineers to resign in protest and have sparked investigations by lawmakers and regulators.

Bezos answered seven questions received from anonymous shareholders and voiced by Amazon’s head of investor relations at the end of the company’s first online-only annual meeting.

During the meeting, all 10 Amazon directors were elected for another year; the company lowered the ownership threshold to call a special meeting from 30% to 25%; and none of a dozen shareholder proposals on environmental, social and governance issues were approved.

The staid webcast featured the disembodied voices of activist investors presenting their proposals and of Amazon executives, who mainly restated already public details about the company’s 2019 financial performance, COVID-19 response and efforts to confront climate change.

Bezos said Amazon has a “challenging but credible plan” to reach 100% renewable energy use by 2025, five years earlier than the target set when he committed the company last fall to a broader goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040. He also said his own $10 billion environmentally focused philanthropic initiative, the Bezos Earth Fund, would make its first grants this summer.

All in WA, an umbrella group coordinating COVID-19 relief efforts in Washington, on Wednesday announced that Bezos is matching up to $25 million in donations. Amazon is the main sponsor of a planned benefit concert to take place June 10 featuring Washington’s biggest names in music and sports — the brainchild of Washington First Lady Trudi Inslee.

Children’s voices were also heard on the Amazon webcast, an unusual sound at a corporate annual meeting, virtual or otherwise. But these weren’t kids barging in on working-from-home investors or executives.

The meeting began with a series of Amazon videos featuring fulfillment-center and delivery workers talking about how their jobs have changed during the pandemic. Each clip included images of the workers with their kids. In one, a 3-year-old boy opened an Amazon package and said, “Mommy’s work.”

Later, when fired Amazon Employees for Climate Justice leader Maren Costa presented the group’s shareholder resolution seeking a report on environmental racism, she played a recording of two girls from San Bernardino, California, the daughters of an Amazon fulfillment-center worker in the county, which is 54% Hispanic or Latino. The employee group wants Amazon to commit to zero emissions by 2030 and prioritize investments in clean technologies in areas such as California’s Inland Empire, a major retail-logistics hub that suffers from some of the nation’s worst air quality.

The girls said they have asthma. “It’s normal here,” one said. The other added, “My mom and other families are sacrificing so much; Amazon can give a good job and clean air.”

In its response to the proposal, Amazon’s board noted the company’s investments in electric delivery vans and heavy transportation equipment as part of its efforts “to significantly reduce the level of emissions” at facilities including those in the Inland Empire.

Union-affiliated investment funds and public pensions last week called for more detail on how Amazon’s board is managing the company’s pandemic response, including a request to hear from independent director Judith McGrath, who chairs the leadership development and compensation committee. No board members other than Bezos spoke at the annual meeting.

Bezos said the company’s senior leadership and directors have done a “remarkable job” addressing health and safety threats to employees and noted his own close involvement with the effort. He described the company’s efforts to distribute large volumes of personal protective equipment to its workers, install temperature-screening thermal cameras at its facilities, and develop contact-tracing and coronavirus-testing capabilities.

“We’ve reworked our fulfillment processes, even when reworking that process made it less efficient, so that we could keep people socially distant,” Bezos said.

Some employees still say social distancing either isn’t possible or isn’t enforced at their facilities.

Bezos emphasized the importance of continuing to adapt as the pandemic, and its impact on operations, unfolds.

“I think it’s also really important to stay humble during all of this,” Bezos said. “We are learning all of the time. … The more we learn, the better we’ll be able to do.”

Asked about whether the increasing scrutiny Amazon is under will hurt its reputation with customers, Bezos said, “No. I think scrutiny will enhance our reputation with customers.”

Consumer sentiment and brand trust surveys over the years have consistently borne that out, with Amazon routinely ranking at or near the top.

He added that such scrutiny is “completely normal” for a company of Amazon’s size and importance and that “it’s good for us.” Bezos said he is proud of Amazon’s record of job creation; the millions of businesses that sell on Amazon’s platform; the company’s work on climate change; and philanthropic initiatives such as the Mary’s Place shelter for families in the company’s Seattle headquarters.

Bezos thanked the company’s employees, including 175,000 new hires in the past few months, calling out in particular those in its operations and delivery network and physical stores, “who continue to do their part to bring necessary items to Amazon’s customers. For those most vulnerable to the virus, having products delivered to their front steps is more than a simple convenience. It is a lifeline.”

More than 150 million customers pay $119 a year for unlimited fast shipping and media through Amazon Prime. Amazon increased the price in 2018 and a shareholder asked whether Bezos thought it was getting too expensive. “Nowhere close,” he said. “We continue to dramatically undercharge for Prime relative to the value we create for customers. That is the strategy.”

Bezos extended his thanks to “everyone around the globe” dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

“There are challenges ahead, but I remain very optimistic that we as a society will meet them and take important lessons from this pandemic that will make us stronger,” he said.

———

©2020 The Seattle Times