Amazon workers taking part in the company’s first ever UK strike were marked as a ‘no show’ by the firm - effectively an unauthorised absence – union bosses have claimed.
Around 350 workers at the company's Coventry warehouse walked out last week in anger over the company’s offer of a 50p per hour pay rise to £10.50 (staff are campaigning for a rise to £15 an hour). This followed a ballot which ended with 98% of respondents voting in favour of industrial action.
Now, following the walkout, reports have emerged that employees involved in the action were marked as ‘no shows’ by bosses, with many now worried they will be fined, or even face a gross misconduct charge.
As stated by the GBM union, which represents the Amazon strikers, properly mandated industrial action gives workers the legal right to withdraw their labour - and should not be classed as unauthorised absence. The union said it ‘hoped and believed’ that the matter was an error, rather than a deliberate attempt at intimidation.
One Amazon Coventry workers, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “'It makes me fear for my job as it is considered gross misconduct. I feel targeted for taking legal industrial action.”
The union is now demanding clarity from the company.
Stuart Richards, GMB Senior Organiser, said: “We hope and believe this is just an error on Amazon’s part, rather than an attempt to intimidate workers taking legal industrial action.
“But Amazon need to sort it out and quick. Coventry workers did an incredibly brave thing taking on one of the world’s biggest companies.
“Now it feels like they’re being bullied.”
Amazon ‘acting unlawfully’ if reports are true
Rosa Curling, Director of Legal Group Foxglove, said: “It is shocking to hear that Amazon workers exercising their legal right to strike in Coventry yesterday may be punished.
“If these reports are true, Amazon is acting unlawfully. Amazon needs to make this right and quick.
“They need to state loud and clear they respect the rights of Amazon workers in the UK to take legal strike action and give cast-iron assurances that no worker who took part in Wednesday’s lawful industrial action will face any kind of disciplinary action as a result.”
A spokesperson for Amazon told the BBC that the company respected workers' right to lawfully strike, which had been "clearly communicated" and that non-attendance was "not being considered as part of any absence review".
The national broadcaster said it had reached out to Amazon for further clarification as to whether they explicitly denied marking staff as absent without authorisation.
Hostile attitudes towards strikes on the rise
If the allegations against Amazon are true, it would be a deeply concerning attempt at dissuading employees from exercising their legal right to withdraw labour.
And even if, as the union hopes, Amazon made an error in marking the strikers as ‘no shows’, the situation has clearly created enough confusion and concern to potentially put employees off from considering similar actions soon.
The company stated its stance on walkouts had been “clearly communicated” to the workforce, but the comments from striking staff above clearly depict a sense of anxiety about their job security.
These fears of facing repercussions for staging a walkout aren’t exclusive to Amazon, however.
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The growing number of strikes across several industries has led to some pretty drastic (and draconian) solutions. In fact, the Government recently proposed new laws that will allow bosses of key public services to sue unions and sack employees who refuse to work.
Downing Street announced new legislation which, if passed in Parliament, would enforce “minimum service levels” in key public sectors, such as the emergency services and education, effectively limiting the number of workers who can be on strike.
This follows a change in the law in July 2022 which enabled businesses to provide skilled agency workers to fill staffing gaps caused by industrial action.
The plan comes in response to widespread industrial action across a range of sectors in recent months, including rail workers, teachers, barristers, ambulance workers and nurses, in response to poor pay and working conditions.
The law would ultimately give bosses the ability to sue unions and sack employees if these minimum levels are not met.
On the Gov.uk website, a statement read: “As has been demonstrated over the last year, wide scale and repetitive industrial action can act as a major blockage to economic growth by preventing people from getting to work. Introducing the safety net of minimum service levels to ensure that the public are not put at risk during strike action is the best way of balancing the ability to strike, while protecting the wider public.”
It went on: “The government will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods. That’s why the government will introduce new laws to ensure a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place.
“Minimum safety levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and the government will consult on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors, recognising that disruption to blue light services puts lives at immediate risk."
The move has been met with uproar from union figureheads and workers alike, with Sharon Graham, the General Secretary of the Unite union, saying: “Yet again, Rishi Sunak abdicates his responsibility as a leader. Whatever the latest scheme the government comes up with to attack us, unions will continue to defend workers.”
‘Draconian’ anti-strike laws will erode workers’ rights
The government’s decision to bring forward legislation to stop strikes has been criticised by employment expert Julia Kermode of Iwork, who described the move as “draconian”, predicting it to “exacerbate an already ugly situation.”
Kermode commented: “The government seems hellbent on eroding workers’ rights. This draconian law is a worrying step in the wrong direction and will only exacerbate an already ugly situation. People don’t take the decision to strike lightly.
“They are facing severe financial problems and industrial action is a last-ditch attempt to get their voices heard and be paid what they deserve. The government needs to focus on solutions rather than pandering to those of us who may be inconvenienced by disruption.
“Temporary workers should also tread carefully in all of this. The recent law change allowing agency workers to plug skills gaps created by strikes could result in temps unwittingly walking into hostile environments. Real care needs to be taken in informing temps of the situation before they start these roles. Fail to do this and temps will walk out too, and these vital public services grind to a halt.”