While the coronavirus pandemic has plunged the global economy into a crisis, Amazon has been one of its biggest beneficiaries. That success has drawn condemnation by more than 400 politicians from around the world, including France, the UK, and the U.S.
World leaders have accused Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, of “acting with impunity” by pocketing profits while “dodging and dismissing [his] debts to workers, societies, and the planet” in a recent scathing open letter.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), who represents one of the poorest Congressional districts in the U.S., is among the signatories of the letter and one of Bezos’ chief critics.
“This pandemic has exposed just how broken and wrong it was to allow a man with this amount of wealth to get away with not paying his fair share,” Tlaib told Yahoo Finance.
Amazon (AMZN) paid no U.S. federal income taxes in 2017 and 2018 (largely because of various tax credits and deductions) despite posting income of $3.03 billion and $10.07 billion for each of those years respectively. In 2019, Amazon paid roughly 1.2% or $162 million on $11.59 billion in income.
Amazon’s third-quarter sales increased 37% to $96.1 billion from $70 billion during the same period in 2019 thanks to a pandemic-fueled boost in buying. The giant retailer expects the 2020 holiday season to be its biggest yet, projecting sales between $112 billion and $121 billion in the fourth quarter, an increase of 28% to 38% compared to the same quarter last year. Amazon’s stock is up more than 65% year to date.
Bezos may be proud of the company’s trillion-dollar valuation and growth amid the pandemic, but the 400 signatories of the letter, who include Keith Ellison, Minnesota's attorney general, and Rep. Ro Khanna (D., Calif.), see “enormous profits” built on the backs of workers who “enter dangerous working conditions, enjoy little or no increase in their pay, and face retaliation for their efforts to defend themselves and organize their colleagues.”
‘Jeff Bezos refuses to take care of his workers’
Amazon revealed in October that nearly 20,000 of its nearly 1.37 million front-line Amazon and Whole Foods employees in the U.S. between Mar. 1 and Sept. 19 got infected with the coronavirus.
Facing mounting criticism for its treatment of workers, Amazon announced on Nov. 26 it would be offering its U.S. front-line employees a $300 bonus and part-time workers a $150 bonus for the holiday season.
Unimpressed, an international coalition of workers, environmentalists, and organizers launched the “Make Amazon Pay” online campaign the following day.
“Jeff Bezos refuses to take care of his workers, the people, the very people that make him successful, the very people that help him with his profit margins,” said Tlaib. “We are giving a very clear message to [fellow lawmakers] that are looking the other way or closing their eyes to the fact that this is wrong. This is so...wrong, immoral.”
Tlaib said Amazon employees in Michigan have asked her to hold Bezos accountable. “I visited personally an Amazon facility in my district, with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell,” she said. “What we’re hearing is the retaliation...pushback against those that might ask for masks, for sanitizers, for those that are asking for longer bathroom breaks to be able to wash their hands longer, or at least be able to even be apart in the workplace.”
In Tlaib’s 13th Congressional district in Michigan, the median household income was $39,005 in 2019, well below the national average of $68,703, according to the Census Bureau.
Tlaib said workers have told her that Amazon’s low wages have forced them to “get in the food bank line.” “It is very unfair to have this person [Bezos] exempted from taxes, especially when much of their workers [are getting] poverty wages, where the federal government...is subsidizing for the fact that he will not pay his employees fair wages, have health coverage,” said Tlaib. “Guess who has to pay for it? The taxpayers. We have to pay for the health coverage that he doesn’t want to pay for.”
Amazon offers all its workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour and has stated that it does provide medical, prescription drug, dental, and vision coverage to all its employees.
Amazon slams critics for ‘misleading assertions’
In response to the Dec. 3 letter, an Amazon spokesperson told Yahoo Finance, “While as a large company we welcome scrutiny from policymakers, the matters raised in this letter stem from a series of misleading assertions by misinformed or self-interested groups who appear to be using Amazon’s profile to further their individual causes.”
Amazon also asserted that it has “a strong track record of supporting our people, our customers, and our communities, including providing safe working conditions, a $15 minimum wage and great benefits, leading on climate change with the Climate Pledge commitment to be net zero carbon by 2040, and paying more than $5 billion in taxes in 2019.” Amazon’s spokesperson added that the company looks forward to “continued dialogue with interested parties on these topics.”
In response, Tlaib said, “Instead of paying for the media consultants and folks that come up with these statements, I say pay attention to your workers. They are the reason that you are successful and they deserve better.”
Tlaib warned Bezos that the status quo would not hold. “Your plant, your factories, your distribution centers, they’re going to unionize,” she said. “And they’re going to demand what we as lawmakers are demanding of you that you have to pay your fair share. You have to take care of the workers that [are] making you successful, and you can afford it Mr. Bezos.”
The Congresswoman hopes to hold Bezos and other billionaire CEOs accountable for wage inequality within their companies by getting the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act signed into law under a President Biden administration.
The bill would penalize corporations for giving CEOs “excessive” compensation. For instance, companies with a CEO-to-median-worker pay ratio of 50 to 1 would face a corporate tax rate increase of 0.5%, while those with a ratio of 500 to 1 would see their rate grow by 5%.
More from Sibile: