Amazon drivers have had a year. And it’s all our fault. And though they work at the whims of big tech, help has come in the form of an unexpected app.
Throughout the past year, Amazon delivery drivers have posted TikToks about everything from wage theft to being overworked, from peeing in bottles to delivering during natural disasters. The combination of a continued global pandemic that spiked online retail demand and a shrinking labor market has strained everyone. But Amazon drivers have received the brunt of the stress.
The company pushes them to extremes, but consumers blindly accepted that tradeoff, happy to consign their ills to out-of-sight, out of mind. Thankfully, social media is helping to highlight the actual cost.
Amazon is the biggest online delivery retailer in the world, with over 500,000 delivery drivers working independently for small businesses through its Delivery Service Program globally. Its fractured nature is designed to prevent calls for change from rising up, but these videos and the subsequent upswell of outrage have forced Amazon to finally confront the workplace it creates.
Amazon drivers have had enough of the working conditions, the abuse, and the company at large, and are using TikTok to make their voices heard. Amazon drivers have complained about the job before by sharing on Reddit, using Discord, or posting on Twitter, but now they have a wider-ranging and more captive audience than ever before. One Amazon driver video on anyone’s For You page can quickly snowball into five, ten, twenty videos of Amazon drivers showing their day-to-day lives and the abuse they deal with.
And TikTok can drive massive eyeballs to any, single viral moment.
In the first quarter of this year alone, Amazon workers made a slew of headlines. In January, a white woman was seen pointing a gun at a Black Amazon driver, which prompted outrage on Reddit. Not only that, but one commenter alleged that Amazon doesn’t refuse delivery to people threatening their drivers.
“I delivered to a house last week and the rabbit (Amazon device for delivering) told me in the notes to ‘please call/text customer upon arrival, customer has threatened other drivers with a gun,’” claimed u/skin_peeler.
In February, drivers were handed a win by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Amazon reportedly shortchanged its contract drivers $61.7 million in tips over the past two years and was ordered to pay the FTC the owed funds. The agency agreed to refund all of the money to the drivers who were owed, and said Amazon’s language regarding tips was a false promise.
“Rather than passing along 100 percent of customers’ tips to drivers, as it had promised to do, Amazon used the money itself,” Daniel Kaufman, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement.
The FTC said it will send over 100,000 checks and over 1,600 PayPal payments to Amazon drivers. While the FTC ruling is a win for Amazon drivers, it’s a small victory in the larger battle for fair wages and a safe working environment.
The FTC’s decision would not have happened without a shift in public attitude toward Amazon and big tech as a whole: anger over tech’s ruthless dominance and its toxic work environments. And to combat the workplace, workers are turning to a tried and true method of organizing: unions.
In April, attempts to unionize at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama were thwarted, but the elections led many drivers to believe they should attempt to unionize as well. Before the results of the union vote, two contract Amazon drivers created an informal survey to see if drivers were facing similar problems as them and published it to Amazon driver Reddit and Discord channels. Over 500 people responded, complaining about the apps used to track drivers, the pace at which they have to deliver (at times limiting water intake to avoid bathroom breaks), and the cameras watching them relentlessly. Included in the survey was a question about whether contract Amazon drivers (also called Amazon DSP drivers) should unionize. Eighty-seven percent of the respondents said yes.
Eight percent of respondents to the April survey said they make $15-18 an hour. Most respondents complained about cameras that had just been put into Amazon delivery trucks to monitor drivers’ facial expressions and a safety app that dinged drivers for hard braking, speeding up too fast, or making deliveries too slowly. Despite these complaints, there’s not a whole lot the individual drivers—or the DSP partners—can do.
Amazon DSP drivers are employed by small businesses that contract through Amazon. One DSP company can only have a maximum of 40 drivers, creating a cap to make sure one partner doesn’t get too powerful. Individual delivery partners can unionize, but if they do, Amazon has other options. In June, one delivery partner in Portland sent a letter to Amazon demanding changes to their program, citing mental health challenges, low pay, and drivers being overworked. This was a small business taking a stand for its drivers and trying to demand change from the tech giant. Amazon refused their changes and soon after the delivery partner’s contract with Amazon was terminated.
Unlike in the past, where calls like that might have died after being squashed, TikTok is helping keep their plight constantly in the news. Drivers have gone viral for ranting about working conditions or delivering in natural disasters. Across the country, drivers were seen delivering packages after tornadoes and in floodwaters multiple times. During a heatwave in the Northeast early this year, DSP drivers were told to “take more breaks” while working in the scorching heat.
Labor exploitation isn’t new, but with the skyrocketing popularity of TikTok and its ability to connect people all over the country and the world, 2021 has thrust Amazon drivers’ plight into the mainstream. Other labor movements have been born from or benefited off of similar virality, like the October General Strike movement and the r/antiwork subreddit. Amid the ongoing labor shortage, global pandemic, lingering Great Recession, and the dollar in its steepest decline since the 1980s, people are paying attention to labor. Whether that creates substantive change or makes the country more empathetic to the workers that help them every day remains to be seen.
But at least people are finally paying attention. And we have TikTok to thank for that.