Amazon needs to “do a better job” for its employees, Jeff Bezos told shareholders in his final letter as chief executive of the online giant, but he also pushed back against criticism of the company’s work practices.
Bezos, who reclaimed his title as the world’s richest person this year, said that Amazon’s recent defeat of an attempt by some workers to form the company’s first union in Alabama did not bring him “comfort”.
Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer voted against forming a union by a more than a 2-to-1 margin – a big win for the retailer that has fiercely resisted unionisation for decades.
“Does your chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t,” Bezos wrote in the letter.
“I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”
Amazon, which employs 1.3 million people globally and is the second-biggest private employer in the US, has been criticised by some warehouse workers over working conditions. However, Bezos rejected the criticism, saying reports that workers were “treated as robots” were inaccurate.
He said workers were able to “take informal breaks throughout their shifts to stretch, get water, use the rest room, or talk to a manager” – in addition to their 30-minute lunch break and another 30-minute break.
“We don’t set unreasonable performance goals,” he said. He added that the company had led the way on wages by setting a $15-an-hour minimum wage two and a half years ago.
Bezos, who is stepping down later this year as chief executive of the company he founded in 1994, said he planned – in his new role as executive chair – to work on how to make Amazon’s workplaces safer, for example by rotating employees among jobs to reduce repetitive motion and help to protect them from musculoskeletal disorders.
He said he would strive to make Amazon “Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work”.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the unionisation drive in Alabama, said: “We have initiated a global debate about the way Amazon treats its employees.
“Bezos’s admission today demonstrates that what we have been saying about workplace conditions is correct.
“But his admission won’t change anything, workers need a union – not just another Amazon public relations effort in damage control.”