Interview. ‘It won't be the last building that you hear about walking out. It’s a revolution.’

Amazon worker fired after leading warehouse strike for safety equipment

Christian Smalls is a former Amazon employee at the Staten Island warehouse in New York. A few days ago he was fired because, according to the company, he didn’t respect the quarantine.

Smalls, however, says he was fired for organizing a strike over the lack of personal protective equipment against Covid-19 inside the building where he worked. This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

What was your job?

I’m a former Amazon process assistant, which for those who don’t know is similar to assistant manager. My job was outbound tech supervisor, which is a department where employees pick the items directly going to the customers to be packed out. They pick items off the robots. I don’t know if anybody has seen that before, but these robots bring the customers’ orders to the pickers and the pickers pick the items into the yellow totes that go to the pack department. So I was responsible for overseeing that operation.

Why did they fire you?

They fired me because I held a walkout because I was raising concerns about the coronavirus spreading inside our building in Staten Island.

They said that you “violated the social distancing guidelines, putting the safety of the others at risk.” Is it true?

Absolutely not. It’s not true. I tried to save people’s lives. I still am. They want to cut off the head of the snake. They want to silence the revolution and that’s how you do it: you terminate me.

According to you, what is the Amazon strategy in this moment?

They want to smear me obviously because I’m speaking truth to power and they’re intimidated because I’m telling the truth. They want to spend so much time focusing on me, about how I was lying or not telling the truth. So I don’t know what this strategy is now because the leak came out, but it’s never going to be Amazon vs. Chris Smalls anyways. It is Amazon vs. the people, so they have to answer to all of us.

How had your job changed in the light of the health emergency?

It was scary how many coworkers got sick. It changed my whole perception of my job. I was very afraid to go to work and bring this virus back home to my family. So you can imagine how employees feel now that’s going to work knowing the risk that you’re taking. So it’s very scary to work there right now. And a lot of people are not going to work right now. A lot of people are at home unpaid. So what we’re dealing with is not really right. This is life or death. So I made a decision to stand up for life.

Did Amazon provide you any personal protective equipment to avoid contagion?

No, we didn’t have none of that. We had some in the beginning of the month, but after it ran out the first time they never replenished it. The masks definitely not. They just started shipping them out again, from what I heard, but it’s already too late. Everything they’re doing right now is band-aid work. From what I’m understanding the mask cannot even protect you from the virus. They are real cheap and flimsy, and the gloves, no, they are work gloves. You can’t wear the type of gloves that you need to protect your skin when you need to lift up boxes and you need to cut open cardboard. So they won’t protect them, they won’t protect people at all.

Have you taken any action with your coworkers to claim your rights?

Yes, absolutely. I called the health department. I called the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). I called the government. I did everything I could have in my power before I had to leave and take action. I went to the general manager’s office every morning. I sat in the cafeteria, off-the-clock unpaid for eight hours a day, the entire week until Saturday when they quarantined me. I did everything I could in my power to prevent this but unfortunately it didn’t happen. And actually I don’t have any regrets on how it turned out.

What was the main risk for your health when you were at work?

Well, the fact that you go to work around people that you don’t know what their status is. You don’t know whether they are diagnosed or undiagnosed. Some people can come to work sick. And you have to say “I got a common cold,” but you don’t know. You never know. That’s the scariest risk and working in these types of facilities requires you to interact with people whether you like it or not. There’s no way you can practice social distancing. So yes, you can pick your choice, which is not really a choice: either you go to work and get paid and get sick, or stay home and become homeless.

Are you alone in this fight now?

No, I got people all over the world coming in, supporting and joining the fight. This other building that has started walking out. I don’t know if you heard over the past week a couple of buildings started walking out in America. People all over the world have been reaching out to me: Germany, London, Sweden, Brazil, Canada, Tokyo, you name it. I heard people from all over the world sending me emails, calling me, trying to help me or I help them, empowering themselves to do the same thing I did and they have my full support. So it won’t be the last building that you hear about walking out. It’s a revolution.

How do you evaluate the management of the emergency?

It is horrible. People are dying every 15 minutes. So, can you imagine what these nurses and doctors are going through right now? And the simple fact is that Amazon buildings are a breeding ground for the coronavirus. We got 5,000 employees that come in and out of that building in New York. Think about if this virus spreads to two and a half people. So this is a very scary situation. I don’t know how it’s going to end. All I know is that one solution could be shutting down the Amazon buildings. We don’t need them right now. These billions of dollars that these people have they could put it towards the medical field.

Do you believe that this emergency has revealed any contradictions in our capitalistic system?

Absolutely. Capitalism is greed right now. These billionaires are getting richer and richer at the expense of human life. That’s what people need to understand. They don’t care whether we live or die. If I die today, guess what? They’re going to hire somebody to replace me tomorrow. That’s how they do, they don’t care about us. They don’t care about their employees. They don’t care about human life. They care about their money.

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