Labour realities at Amazon and COVID-19: obstacles and collective possibilities for its warehouse workers and MTurk workers

Author: Sarrah Kassem1
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  • 1 University of Tübingen, Germany
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The COVID-19 pandemic has only further magnified the already growing political-economic and societal power of platforms. This article delves into the different realities of platform workers by juxtaposing two cases: location-based Amazon warehouse workers and web-based Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers. Informed by a historical materialist approach that accounts both for the contextual conditions and the agency of workers, this article asks: how does the organisation of workers (location-based vs. web-based) relate differently to their labour organisation and mobilisation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? By investigating agency through analysing the structural power of workers (that is, marketplace and workplace), this article argues that both Amazon warehouse workers and MTurk workers experienced a further dwindling of their already weak marketplace power as a result of larger co-evolving political-economic conditions. The former workforce did experience, however, an increase in their workplace power given the growth of Amazon during the pandemic. The fact that they are location-based plays a crucial role in framing their struggle vis-à-vis the direct health risks and their ability to mobilise to disrupt the circulation line. MTurk workers, on the other hand, experienced a further weakening of their workplace power. Given the challenges in disrupting web-based gig labour, workers continue to express their agency through more alternative forms by instrumentalising digital spaces to foster solidarity and support each other for better working conditions. These contrasting case studies shed light therefore on the wider repercussions of the nature of the platform and its relation to the political-economic conditions for labour’s agency.

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has only further magnified the already growing political-economic and societal power of platforms. This article delves into the different realities of platform workers by juxtaposing two cases: location-based Amazon warehouse workers and web-based Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers. Informed by a historical materialist approach that accounts both for the contextual conditions and the agency of workers, this article asks: how does the organisation of workers (location-based vs. web-based) relate differently to their labour organisation and mobilisation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? By investigating agency through analysing the structural power of workers (that is, marketplace and workplace), this article argues that both Amazon warehouse workers and MTurk workers experienced a further dwindling of their already weak marketplace power as a result of larger co-evolving political-economic conditions. The former workforce did experience, however, an increase in their workplace power given the growth of Amazon during the pandemic. The fact that they are location-based plays a crucial role in framing their struggle vis-à-vis the direct health risks and their ability to mobilise to disrupt the circulation line. MTurk workers, on the other hand, experienced a further weakening of their workplace power. Given the challenges in disrupting web-based gig labour, workers continue to express their agency through more alternative forms by instrumentalising digital spaces to foster solidarity and support each other for better working conditions. These contrasting case studies shed light therefore on the wider repercussions of the nature of the platform and its relation to the political-economic conditions for labour’s agency.

Key messages

  • The agency of workers is dialectically related to the nature of platform and material conditions.

  • The pandemic further weakened the marketplace power of Amazon warehouse workers and MTurk workers.

  • The workplace power of the former shows additional potentialities (see Amazon’s growth) and ability to disrupt.

  • The latter cannot disrupt per se but continues to digitally organise for their interests.

Introduction

It has become increasingly clear that the platform economy has provided capital with new ways to (re)organise the economy and in the process also labour relations. The technological conditions and developments in recent decades allowed for the gradual formation of the platform economy in the 1990s with the commercialisation and dissemination of the Internet. Platforms directly depend on the latter’s digital and physical infrastructure to mediate products and/or services. Their functions comprise everything from advertising such as Google and Facebook and e-commerce like Amazon, to cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), transportation or delivery like Uber and Deliveroo and (digital) labour platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). As the number of Internet users has more than quadrupled since 2005 to 4.66 billion in 2021 (Statista, 2019; Statista, 2021), so too has the user-base of platforms. The context of the COVID-19 pandemic with social distancing, national lockdowns and curfews has resulted in a magnified role of the Internet and platforms in mediating labour and social relations.

The ways by which these capital-labour relations are mediated and how workers in turn organise is dialectically related to the nature of the platform itself. One way to distinguish between platforms is based on whether they are location-based, meaning their labour is geographically bound, or web-based in which their labour is mediated remotely via an Internet connected device (Woodcock and Graham, 2019). This is not to assume that all workers within a category are uniform, like Deliveroo and Google workers, or that web-based workers are detached from the material conditions in which they are located (Graham et al, 2017). While the (precarious) working conditions under which workers are employed play an important role, the respective nature of platforms poses repercussions and implications for how workers are managed, organised and surveilled and in turn their traditional and historical ways of organising and fostering solidarity. In other words, within the ‘hidden abode of platform work’, workers are essentially confronted with a set of managerial techniques, which they navigate and in turn find ways to resist (Moore and Joyce, 2020).

There has been a growing scholarship that tackles these questions across different platforms. Given the growing power of Amazon and the fact that it is becoming a trendsetter on the labour market, it has been investigated for its notorious working conditions and digital Taylorism (Cattero and D’Onoforio, 2018; Delfanti, 2021). As workers have increasingly been expressing their agency, research has also engaged with the ways in which different workers have found ways to organise in their various material and national contexts prior to the pandemic (Apicella and Hildebrandt, 2019; Boewe and Schulten, 2019; Apicella, 2021), as well as during the pandemic (Alimahomed-Wilson and Reese, 2021). Location-based gig workers, such as food couriers, have also been a prominent case for labour resistance in the platform economy for how they instrumentalise technology to coordinate and mobilise their disruptive power despite not labouring within the exact same physical location (Tassinari and Maccarrone, 2017; Vandaele, 2018; 2020). On the other hand, as far as web-based labour is concerned, MTurk has been a focal point for academic research given that academics were also using it to conduct surveys. This scholarship sheds light on how the digital interface allows for additional forms of surveillance and algorithmic management (Irani, 2013; Bergvall-Kåreborn and Howcroft, 2014; Gray and Suri, 2019; Moore, 2020). While the web-based nature alienates the workforce both from each other and the capital that employs them, scholars have shed light on how workers, who are located in their own material contexts, use digital spaces to build solidarity (Irani and Silberman, 2013). Given that the nature of the platform relates differently to how platforms mediate capital-labour relations and labour’s agency, it is thus interesting to contrast case studies to identify this more clearly. Considering that the developments of capital and labour do not take place in a vacuum, but must be understood in relation to their material context in time and space, it is also necessary to re-approach these within the capitalist temporality of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article builds then on these debates to ask more specifically: how do the co-evolving political-economic conditions of the pandemic dialectically relate to the agency of workers in location- and web-based platforms? To really understand the role and relation of the nature of the platform to labour organisation amid the pandemic, it is essential to juxtapose two case studies that differ in their nature – one location-based and the other web-based. In order to investigate this question, this article firstly sketches out its analytical framework that is grounded in a historical materialist understanding of the capitalist system to account for how the political-economic conditions relate to the agency of workers. It analyses the latter by engaging with their structural power (marketplace and workplace) and its relation to the ability to disrupt and organise. The second part of the article empirically investigates these vis-à-vis the location-based Amazon warehouse workers and the web-based MTurk workers within the context of the pandemic.

This article argues that while the Amazon warehouse workers experienced a further weakening of their marketplace power due to the pandemic’s co-evolving political-economic conditions, they experienced an increased potential for their workplace power as a result of Amazon’s growth. Workers directly framed their organisation vis-à-vis the associated health risks of contracting COVID-19 as a direct result of being location-based. In the latter case of MTurk, its web-based nature has meant that workers do not face direct health risks in the workplace. As these workers are, however, located in their material contexts, both their marketplace and workplace power experienced a further weakening resulting from the larger political-economic conditions and nature of the platform. Given the challenges in disrupting web-based gig labour, workers continue to express their agency through more alternative forms by instrumentalising digital spaces to support each other for better working conditions. These contrasting case studies shed light therefore on the wider repercussions of the nature of the platform and its relation to the political-economic conditions for labour’s agency. It appears that the pandemic has largely weakened the marketplace power of workers in light of rising unemployment, while the workplace power has varied depending on how capital-labour relations are mediated (web- vs. location-based), as these relate in turn to the motivation associated here with the health risks, and the ways by which to disrupt and/or organise.

Historical materialism and studying the platform economy

To grasp the dynamics by which the platform economy develops, a historical materialist approach emphasises the importance of investigating the dialectical and co-evolving relations and conditions of any moment. It understands history and its development as being guided by that of material production, bound by the social relations at any given time and space. As such the material conditions of capitalism, and the relations of production more specifically, bring about particular social relations that need to be understood within the context in which they arise. Under the capitalist system, these social relations are characterised by ones of exploitation, and more concretely, the exploitation of those who sell their labour power by those who acquire it, that is, capital. The totality of relations encompasses the relation to nature, production processes, reproduction of daily life, social relations, technology and mental conceptions of the world (Marx, 1977: 493; Harvey, 2010). These stand in a dynamic relation to one another and are dialectically related – meaning a change in one leads to a change in another, without grasping these as linear but contradictory (Ollman, 2003: 13). Studying this dynamism allows for the contextualisation and historicisation of any moment, thereby demonstrating that developments are not inevitable and moves the analysis away from a structuralist understanding.

To examine a moment from a historical materialist perspective, it is necessary to study the political-economic, technological and societal conditions to which it is temporally and contextually bound and through which it evolves. A crucial contemporary capitalist development has been the platform economy, which co-evolves alongside those wider conditions. Not only has it provided capital with an additional infrastructure, the Internet, to be instrumentalised for its further accumulation, but also for the mediation of capital-labour relations. Some go as far as to compare this general reorganisation of the economy to that brought about by the Industrial Revolution (Kenney and Zysman, 2016). While the development of the Internet was bound to the political conditions of the Cold War in which it developed as a military project, it was further disseminated and commercialised as a result of technological developments of ICT. It was then commodified in the dot-com era of the 1990s through capital formations of platforms based on their mediating role without owning the majority of the means of production. The growth of platforms has been and continues to be facilitated as a result of neoliberal conditions favouring capital, and especially finance capital which fetishises the value of platforms ahead of profit. Platforms thus grew in an unregulated manner through venture capital investments, Initial Public Offerings, tax cuts and even evasions. Different neoliberal policies across the globe, especially in light of the economic crisis of 2006–08, further normalised the precarisation and ‘gig-ification’ of labour in light of rising unemployment. In the process, the platform economy has benefitted from and contributes to the further transnationalisation of both capital and labour and thereby additionally the digital mediation of capital-labour and social relations. It also brings about ecological consequences bound to data centres (see cloud computing) or logistics networks (see e-commerce). Thus, it is important to grasp the platform economy holistically, as the digital is not separate from the non-digital (Huws, 2014). It constitutes part of the larger economy, in which value is produced, circulated and realised, co-evolving along with the wider conditions and in turn affecting these.

As the development of history is not solely based on the developments of capital but also directly in relation to those of labour, it is important to investigate labour’s agency within the context to which it is materially bound. This allows for a dialectical conceptualisation of capitalism, which underlines that workers too can reshape capital-labour relations (Bieler, 2018). Central to the agency of workers is their ability to disrupt the circuit of capital in which they are employed and to leverage capital for their own interests. To analyse their agency, this article focuses on their structural power. This specific expression of power can be understood as integral to class relations themselves and derived precisely from their class position. Beverly Silver, who builds on the work of Erik Olin Wright, differentiates more concretely between two forms of such structural power: one that is marketplace and one that is workplace (Wright, 2000: 962; Silver, 2003: 13). Marketplace bargaining power refers to the worker’s position vis-à-vis workers in the larger labour market given the level of their skills scarcity (that is, capital’s dependence on labour), the levels of unemployment (that is, the reserve army of labour) and the dependence on the wage-form for survival (that is, labour’s dependence on capital). In contrast, the workplace bargaining power refers more specifically to labour’s strategic position within different spheres of capital’s circuit to disrupt value realisation and accumulation (Silver, 2003: 13). Workplace and marketplace power are in and of themselves dialectically related, inform each other and are contextually bound. As such, this article analyses these within the COVID-19 context, to further underline how agency and structural power co-evolve along with the wider material conditions.

While I focus on the structural power of workers, it is important to note that workers can mobilise a variety of power resources such as their associational power through unions, institutional power through collective bargaining and concessions or societal power through cooperation and widening of the labour movement. This article focuses, however, on the structural power as I regard it as the foundation to agency itself. The two components of the marketplace and workplace power are crucial as they are bound to labour’s position within the capitalist system, where the ability to leverage and the potential to mobilise exist even in contexts where formal associations, collective bargaining or a wider societal support can be absent (Schmalz et al, 2018). By focusing then on the structural power more specifically, it is possible to shed light on labour’s agency across national contexts where their industrial relations and labour rights vary, and so too their labour markets and (in)formal economy. The interplay of the workplace and marketplace power relates more broadly then to possibilities for workers’ resistance, facilitating some while inhibiting others. Such expressions of agency can be more coordinated, collective and confrontational to directly disrupt capital’s valorisation, or more subtle forms of everyday resistance to slow down productivity or form collectives to improve working conditions vis-à-vis power and capital (Scott, 1985; Shehata, 2010; Bayat, 2013; Lilja and Vinthagen, 2018). Given this article’s specific focus on the question of organising in the sense of mobilising and disrupting, it examines structural power. In doing so it is important to underline that this neither dismisses other central power resources, nor does it assume that these develop in isolation to one another, recognising instead that these are interlinked and in and of themselves co-evolving.

To investigate how the different organisations of platform (that is, location- or web-based) dialectically relate both to the COVID-19 context, as well as the expressions of workers’ agency, I centralise Amazon. Amazon is considered to be a ‘winner’ of the pandemic; expanding its workforces, financial capital, digital infrastructure and physical logistics network in an unprecedented manner (Samuels, 2020). I investigate and contrast workers of two of its platforms: its location-based Amazon warehouses workers, and web-based remote MTurk workers. The latter, unlike those of AWS can be regarded as sharing a similar position within the larger division of labour. While Amazon warehouse workers are manual workers in physical assembly lines within capital’s sphere of circulation, MTurk workers conduct repetitive microtasks in virtual assembly lines within the sphere of production. Both workforces are considered to be low-skilled labour, which makes them more easily comparable on the basis of different natures of platforms than high-skilled AWS engineers. I focus on the Amazon warehouse workers as the example for location-based workers as it sheds further light both within the platform economy, as well as beyond it. When it comes to the former, it shares at least the nature of platform with location-based gig workers. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the gig economy is generally characterised by heightened precarity and absence of labour rights that in turn additionally relate to their agency. Given at least one of the overlapping dimensions in how they are organised (here location-based) and the focus of this article, the Amazon warehouse workers can still prove insightful in this dimension.

Engaging with Amazon is central to larger labour discussions today beyond the platform economy, given that the general economy and sectors by and large organise their workers along location-based lines. Amazon sets trends from the perspective of capital by monopolising entire sectors and assuming more points within the global value chain, while accumulating unprecedented amounts of wealth. At the same time, it is setting trends on the labour market both in terms of working conditions and digital Taylorism, but also union-busting and rupturing of collective action. Thus the analytical value of these case studies extends beyond Amazon per se, as the juxtaposition of these two platforms with fundamentally different natures present implications for contemporary and future capital-labour relations, labour organisation and struggle. The trend to the digital mediation of these has only been exacerbated within the context of COVID-19 and as a result of it – with long-term implications yet to be seen. It is thus interesting to examine through these contrasting Amazon case studies how the larger context of COVID-19 dialectically relates in different ways to the working realities of these workers, their structural power and agency.

This research is based on original fieldwork prior to the pandemic – both in the form of participant-observations at (trans)national union meetings and disruptive action by Amazon workers, as well as more than a dozen semi-structured (follow-up) interviews, and informal interviews, with warehouse workers in Germany during the period 2018–20. The digital fieldwork on MTurk is based on a small sample of 25 surveys conducted in 2019 prior to the pandemic and 25 during the pandemic in 2021. These samples are regarded rather as complementing the qualitative research than being quantitative representations of workforces. I regard my fieldwork, especially my participant-observations in (trans)national meetings prior to the pandemic and virtual ones during the pandemic, as informing my analysis. Direct data from these cannot be shared as a result of the sensitivity of information, developments and ongoing labour organisation. The research is thus also guided by qualitative analysis of digitally accessible material (newspaper articles, scholarly work, accessible statistics and reports).

Structural power and agency of two Amazon workforces during COVID-19

Amazon’s e-commerce platform – a location-based platform

As a location-based platform, Amazon and its workers are innately bound by the political-economic conditions and industrial relations in which the warehouses operate. Initially incorporated in 1994 as one of the very first platforms, Amazon instrumentalised the technological conditions to mediate the sale of books via the Internet. Financial capital, characteristic of the dot-com era, allowed Amazon to expand its warehouses (trans)nationally, diversify its products, make acquisitions and even establish new platforms without initially reporting any profit. While Amazon already appears to have monopolised many of the markets in which it operates prior to the pandemic, the pace of its growth and wealth have accelerated because of it – implying different realities for capital and labour. As Amazon warehouse workers saw their marketplace power further dwindle as a result of the political-economic conditions and regulations during the pandemic, their workplace power shows additional potentialities given Amazon’s growth. As location-based labourers, they have expressed their agency in direct relation to the health risks associated with COVID-19 by mobilising their disruptive power in more traditional terms.

The marketplace power of these Amazon workers can be understood as further dwindling given the nature of the platform. At a time in which the political regulations also meant economic implications such as rising unemployment at least in certain sectors such as hospitality and tourism at the beginning of the pandemic, Amazon had an increased reserve army of labour to depend on for its ‘warehouse associate’ positions. While the size of this reserve army can be understood as differing relative to the national context, their (in)formal economies and possibly different government schemes to support those who have lost their jobs, the general political-economic conditions were integral to Amazon’s further growth during COVID-19. The nature of the platform plays a crucial role here, as Amazon tends to strategically locate its warehouse in areas with a relatively higher unemployment rate, in which its hourly wage and benefits attract thousands of workers (Boewe and Schulten, 2019: 22). These workers have very little leverage on the labour market given their position in capital’s sphere of circulation as manual labourers stowing, picking and packing commodities in the warehouses. These Taylorist tasks, which do not require a university degree or additional qualifications, translate in their easy exchangeability. This magnified amid the pandemic when Amazon sought more workers for its circulation line, as it captured additional market share. While political-economic regulations and conditions led to a downturn in capital accumulation as a result of lockdowns, curfews and restrictions on movement to curb the spread of COVID-19, Amazon was able to profit from these conditions. Its already extensive logistical network presented an easy option for millions of users to make (non)essential purchases from a single destination to be delivered to their doorstep without having to expose themselves to any additional health risks (Kassem, 2020). The growth of Amazon’s capital is reflected in its need to expand its workforce, which further drives down the marketplace power as these workers can be easily replaced and face additional competition.

This explains how Amazon was able to fill positions for hundreds of thousands of workers in multiple hiring sprees in 2020, resulting in a doubling of its workforce in 2020 to around 1.3 million workers (Statista, 2022b). The number can be assumed even higher as it excludes the thousands of seasonal and contracted workers, who are central during Amazon’s peak season in Q4 which includes Black Friday and Christmas. Given that Amazon is able to continue to fill these positions reflects the dependency of workers on such positions especially given the location of the warehouses, regardless of a pandemic, but even more so during it. These present a possibility for subsistence given it provides economic security with an above-minimum hourly wage and benefits like health insurance. The dependency on these wages was further exacerbated when Amazon increased the hourly wage by a hazard pay of an additional 2 US Dollars/Euros/British Pounds between for instance April and June 2020 – which at a time of daunting unemployment, appeared even more appealing to workers (Kassem, 2020; UNI Global Union, 2020). The pandemic magnified therefore the dependence of (unemployed) workers on Amazon and decreased the marketplace power, while these same political-economic conditions further fuel and facilitate Amazon’s (trans)national expansion. This is reflected in the almost doubling of its financial capital in a span of six months, amounting to $3,500 per share by 1 September 2020 (NASDAQ, 2021).

While the growth of Amazon weakens the marketplace power of workers, it dialectically relates to their workplace power. Amazon relies on the continued functioning of its circulation line in the warehouses to maintain and grow its customer base. Amazon ensures a rapid turnaround of ordered commodities by dictating and evaluating workers according to the Units Per Hour rate (UPH). This refers to the speed by which they stow, pick or pack items – all while being socially surveilled by their managers and algorithmically managed through the technological interface to which they connect (Cattero and D’Onoforio, 2018; Boewe and Schulten, 2019; Delfanti, 2021). Such a continued functioning of the circulation line has been crucial to keep up with the surge of its online orders in the context of COVID-19, which has translated in a tripling of reported profits of a staggering $8.1 billion by spring 2021 from the previous year (BBC, 2021). In terms of their workplace power, the circulation line provides workers with different points at which they can disrupt it, as these manual workers occupy positions across it. Thus, the potentialities of this power resource and disruptive action magnify in relation to Amazon’s growth.

To grasp, however, the expressions of workplace power in general and during the pandemic more specifically, it is important to underline that the marketplace power, or lack thereof, relates in a contradictory manner to the workplace power and weakens it. The national political-economic conditions do not only affect the constant threat of being replaced by the reserve army of labour amid a pandemic, but also inform the (precarious) employment relations and (lack of) protection for their labour rights. The worker’s material conditions – ranging from the nature of their contract to their rights to strike, unionise and form works councils relates to what degree workers may instrumentalise their workplace power to disrupt the circulation, as these are more likely to be workers with a permanent contract (Apicella and Hildebrandt, 2019; Apicella, 2021). This explains in part why the first strike of Amazon workers took place in 2013 in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, where the right to organise is constitutionally enshrined and Amazon can only renew a fixed contract for two years before it must offer a permanent contract or end the employment relationship altogether. This strike in 2013 can be considered as a moment of dispersed resistance, setting the precedence for more organised strike action in what currently constitutes the largest market for Amazon outside of the US (Statista, 2022a). The workplace power takes on a temporal dimension, as disruptive action tends to be concentrated in peak times that include Black Friday, Christmas or Easter. Its spatial dimension is in turn tied to the coordination of action across warehouses (trans)nationally, which can further magnify their structural power (Boewe and Schulten, 2019).

Bound by time and place, disruptive action was thus affected by the pandemic, as the instrumentalisation of the workplace power dialectically relates to the intensified labour realities and daily exposure to hundreds of workers. Amazon claims to have prioritised workers’ health and safety by implementing over 150 measures, amounting to $11.5 billion in cost. These included encouraging social distancing, installing thermal cameras, providing personal protective equipment (PPE), increased cleaning and offering the possibility of unlimited unpaid time off (Amazon, 2022). In contrast, workers describe an inadequate application of these measures – from the lack of transparency of positive cases and initial lack of PPE to the difficulties in social distancing given the nature of the work in the warehouse and the pressures to keep up with the UPH (Harris, 2020; Ulrich, 2020). As a result, the conditions of the pandemic triggered labour mobilisation globally centred on health and safety concerns that took on different appearances. Thus, their location-based nature played a crucial role in labour resistance and expression of their agency within this specific moment in capitalist temporality.

When shedding light on the disruptive action in Europe, both France and Germany present noteworthy examples: the former demonstrates how disruptive action and labour organisation resulted in a temporary halt of the circulation line and even regulation of Amazon, while the latter is particularly interesting considering that it is Amazon’s largest market outside of the US and the origin of the first instrumentalisation of workplace power in Amazon’s history. Political regulations in France led to a shutdown of all non-essential shopping, but not when it came to online shopping as is the case with Amazon. Workers disrupted, therefore, the circulation line by going on strike, while SUD, a group of French unions, took Amazon to court for selling non-essential items. This resulted in a later ruling that banned their sale and a fine of 100,000 Euros for each non-essential item shipped. Amazon reacted by temporarily shutting down all its French warehouses until an agreement was reached with the union, and the warehouses reopened on 19 May 2020 (Alderman, 2020; Stangler, 2020). The French case demonstrates how the constraining weak marketplace power does not stop workers from pursuing their workplace power and further actions – motivated in this case directly by the political and economic conditions within the pandemic context. Their actions have (in)directly resulted not only in the disruption of the circulation line in France, but a (temporary) halt altogether. In contrast, the case of Germany reflects how an incidence of a COVID-19 outbreak in a warehouse in June 2020 led to dispersed resistance that took on more organised strike action at temporally crucial moments during the peak season. It is important to underline here the role of the service sector union, Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkshaft (ver.di), in supporting workers in mobilising such a workplace power to disrupt Amazon’s circulation. As political regulations in Germany led to a renewed national lockdown in light of exponentially rising cases, workers, again with the support of the union, attempted consequently to protest in response to these conditions and health risks. This overlapped with the time in which Amazon makes its highest profit and is known to hire tens of thousands of additional workers – the Christmas season (Guichard and Pailliez, 2020; Tagesschau, 2020). Yet, despite this instrumentalisation of the workplace power of workers – Amazon’s net sales in Q4 2020 reached a record-breaking $125.6 billion (Hayasaki, 2021). It is thus important to recontextualise these labour efforts in disrupting the circulation line in relation to Amazon’s extensive logistical network, the working conditions and contracts and the larger political-economic conditions and industrial relations that allow Amazon to undercut labour organisation.

Workplace disruption has not been limited to Europe, as the larger context of COVID-19 also exposed workers in the US to health risks that further motivated expressions of agency despite the weak marketplace power and a national terrain characterised by weaker labour rights and union-busting. While workers only first assumed their workplace power in 2019 in Minnesota, appearing as an example of dispersed resistance, labour organisation further erupted as a result of the conditions surrounding the pandemic across the US from California to New York. Unlike the other side of the Atlantic, the initial mobilisations of workplace power in the US did not necessarily unfold under the direct guidance of a union from the warehouse itself as seen in Germany. While unions in the US have supported these, warehouses had remained thus far union-free in the US. The industrial relations in the US, different to Germany, allow Amazon to take direct disciplinary action to curb the agency of workers in disruptive power and organisation, as demonstrated with the example of Christian Smalls in Staten Island warehouse. Framed as ‘not smart, or articulate’ – Smalls was dismissed for organising a walkout on the grounds of violating social distancing and quarantine after a co-worker tested positive (Blest, 2020; Alimahomed-Wilson and Reese, 2021). Given, however, the growing power of Amazon, there were attempts to strengthen the workplace power and support better working conditions from the larger society – ranging from the ‘Make Amazon Pay’ campaign launched by workers, unions, activists and politicians to an open letter to Jeff Bezos signed by 400 politicians from across the world.

In addition to workers claiming their workplace power, workers in the US have attempted to further organise according to their shared class position vis-à-vis Amazon. This is exemplified by workers in Bessemer, Alabama, as well as Staten Island, New York where Amazon warehouse workers have voted to unionise. The Bessemer union drive did not initially achieve the required majority vote, as workers were confronted with what appears to be anti-union propaganda, including ‘vote no’ stickers, obligatory anti-union meetings and spread of misinformation. Such a drive is regarded as inspiring workers across the country, only further supported after the National Labour Board recommended a rerun in early 2022 given it deemed Amazon’s actions in violation to US labour law (Brandom and Schiffer, 2021; Streitfeld, 2021; UNI Global Union, 2021). As workers in Staten Island secured a majority vote for the newly established Amazon Labor Union, they have set precedence in a historic moment as the first warehouse to unionise in the US – Amazon’s largest market after close to three decades since it was established (O’Brien, 2022). This can in turn not only cause a ripple effect across Amazon US warehouses and the larger labour market but is bound to affect their structural power, where given the growing workplace potentials, workers now hold more leverage in relation to Amazon. More generally, Bessemer and Staten Island demonstrate how the all-encompassing context of the pandemic additionally provides opportunities for cross-sectoral and cross-societal solidarity, from dispersed to more organised resistance to assume the workplace power despite a weak marketplace power.

Examining the Amazon warehouses demonstrates then how the context of the pandemic affected capital characterised by exponential growth and accumulation of wealth, but also dialectically triggered more intensification of labour disputes and unrest motivated by the fact that as a location-based platform, workers were exposed to direct health risks. Amazon’s growth as a result of the technological, political-economic conditions that have led to a surge in online shopping magnifies potentialities for workplace power. Its instrumentalisation took on different appearances from direct disruption of the circulation line to regulation of Amazon and pursuing further traditional organisation of workers. In evaluating these disruptive actions by workers, it is essential to bear in mind the minefield workers must navigate in their national contexts and material conditions. These may constrain rather than facilitate labour organisation (see the US), as well as an already weak marketplace power that is further weakened as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, workers at Amazon need to navigate capital’s systematic effort to undermine workplace power. These have ranged from dismissals and rerouting of orders to other warehouses (from Germany to possibly Poland) and recent efforts of Amazon openly advertising for a position to surveil and investigate workers’ organisation to the later leak that it had turned to the historically notorious detective agency known for crushing labour movements – Pinkerton operatives (Jones, 2018; Gurley, 2020; Kollewe, 2020). Thus, while an analysis of COVID-19 is essential in highlighting the growing expressions of workplace power of Amazon warehouse workers, it is important to regard this power vis-à-vis the larger context.

Amazon Mechanical Turk – A web-based platform

In stark contrast to a location-based platform, MTurk constitutes a digital labour platform. It was initially established in 2005 for Amazon’s internal use, providing what Bezos calls ‘human-as-a service’ (Irani, 2013: 720). While the gig nature of these microtasks and web-based nature of the platform confronts workers with a weak marketplace and workplace power, these appear to be further weakened as a result of the pandemic and the political-economic conditions initially characterised by a growing reserve army of labour. Although MTurk workers, compared to the previous case study, do not confront one another as a result of the web-based nature and were not exposed to direct health risks, they are still affected by the evolving political-economic conditions as they too are bound to their material contexts. As their weak marketplace and workplace power severely constrain, if not inhibit, their disruptive power, MTurk workers express their agency via digital spaces to foster solidarity and support each other vis-à-vis their interests and working conditions.

Located then in their own national contexts while labouring remotely and digitally, MTurk workers can be assumed to have a generally weak marketplace power that further dwindled as a result of the pandemic. Workers, situated in the production process of digital data that can be further realised via machine learning algorithms for AI, are not considered to have scarce skills. Rather the contrary, as MTurk hires workers on the sole basis of being human, given that its outsourced microtasks are termed Human Intelligence Task (HIT). These vary from distinguishing between emotions or objects, completing surveys, digitising receipts, or translating tasks (Irani, 2013; Bergvall-Kåreborn and Howcroft, 2014). By instrumentalising the infrastructure of the Internet to mediate capital-labour relations, Amazon extracts itself from the relationship while collecting a 20 per cent commission for each task requiring up to ten workers, and an additional 20 per cent for those requiring more. As capital-labour relations are mediated digitally, the production process can take place in an unregulated manner with no set industrial relations determining minimum wages or labour rights. Thus, capital from universities, big firms and start-ups turn to this Amazon platform to access cheap labour power as low as $0.01 per task. Although higher piece-wages are offered on MTurk, the average price gets pushed down as cheaper tasks flood the market (Amazon Mechanical Turk, 2020; nd a; nd b; Amazon Web Services, nd). Workers have shown dependence on these piece-wages as prior to the pandemic 38 per cent of US MTurk workers and around 50 per cent of Indian MTurk workers have relied on these as their primary source of income (Berg, 2016). As neither the skills of MTurk workers are regarded as scarce in the labour market, nor is their exchange value (piece-wages), it appears that their general ability to leverage capital is relatively weak.

While many workers embrace the flexibility associated with online labouring in terms of determining their own working hours and space, MTurk further reduces the structural of workers by reproducing precarity on these labour markets. By essentially giving workers the ‘independent contractors’ status, MTurk, as other gig platforms, further normalises piece-work, thereby stripping workers of all job security and benefits that come with a traditional employment relation (Berg and De Stefano, 2017). What appears as outsourcing labour online at a minimal cost to capital translates into a spatially and geographically dispersed competing workforce confronted not only with a national, but a global reserve army of labour. Digital labour platforms contribute to the race to the bottom, as capital on digital labour platforms is often located in the global North, and the majority of labour in the global South (Graham et al, 2017). In the case of MTurk, however, workers are primarily located in the US and India – which are currently the two countries where workers are paid in their local currencies and not via Amazon gift certificates. Thus, even within the same platform, workers from both the global North and the global South compete against one another on the labour market, though the exchange rate converts to higher piece-wages for the latter.

Although MTurk is characterised by the digital mediation of capital-labour relations and thus labour was not directly altered by workers’ direct exposure to COVID-19 during the pandemic, it has posed implications for the further weakening of the marketplace power as workers are bound to the larger evolving political-economic conditions. As economies and capital accumulation experienced a global downturn, capital initially sought less outsourced workers, which translated into a temporary decline of tasks on platforms. This recovered quickly, however, given the larger shift to online labour. While the initial decline of tasks can be understood as weakening marketplace power, it could at first instance appear that the growing demand for digital labour resulting from the pandemic was strengthening labour’s structural power. Even new forms of capital joined such platforms given the low cost of outsourced labour (Stephany et al, 2020). These ranged from companies turning to digital labour as a result of border closures to universities unable to conduct on-campus surveys. In some cases, new tasks and surveys were created precisely to study the effects of the pandemic (Simonite, 2020; Holgersen et al, 2021). The implications of the changing demand for digital labour needs to be regarded holistically in relation to the larger context to grasp the continued loss of leverage on the labour market.

The economic conditions to which workers are subjected in their national contexts led to an increased dependence on these labour tasks in times of a looming reserve army of labour, precisely as a result of its digital nature. If PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) had estimated the digital mediation of a third of all labour transaction by 2025, the pandemic can be regarded as accelerating this trend (PwC, 2015). The International Labour Organization (ILO) has calculated more recently a fivefold increase in these platforms in just the last ten years (Nagel, 2020; PwC, 2015; ILO, 2021: 20; Fairwork, 2021). In fact, workers in conducted surveys underlined the importance of job flexibility especially during a pandemic in which one was confined to the home. Digitally labouring may have appeared as an increasingly attractive alternative given that it does not further expose workers to direct health risks and its low entry barriers, only requiring a device through which to access the Internet. A Google Chrome Extension that helps workers find higher paying HITs has in fact traced an increase for both new MTurk workers (amounting to 20 per cent) and inactive ones (30 per cent) (Simonite, 2020). According to one research, while per study previously 17 per cent of participants were new to MTurk, the number almost doubled during the first months of the pandemic. In fact, an increase of labour activity stemming in particular from Italy and Brazil, two countries severely hit by COVID-19, was already detected by April 2020. Furthermore, some location-based gig workers (such as TaskRabbit), who could no longer perform their work because of political-economic regulations, have also made the shift to digital gig work (Arechar and Rand, 2020; Moss et al, 2020; Savage and Jarrahi, 2020). Labour can be further gendered and racialised, given the local context of workers, their (in)formal employment, (lack of) social safety net and the accessibility of (public) Internet given national regulations (Lourenco and Tasimi, 2020). Such an increase in availability of labour power relates dialectically to the marketplace power, resulting in more competition – all of which is not blind to the global North/global South divide.

Unlike the Amazon warehouse workers, who despite a weakened marketplace power have experienced a growing workplace power, MTurk workers find themselves left with an even weaker workplace power. MTurk workers can be regarded as located in the sphere of production, as their microtasks produce data as a labour product whose surplus value can be realised by further using this data for the training of machine learning algorithms. As MTurk workers are essential given their position within capital’s larger accumulation and across the production line, it could be initially assumed that the instrumentalisation of workplace power into disruptive action is possible. While in 2018, MTurk was estimated to have 100,000–200,000 accounts with around 10 per cent of these being full-time active workers, it can be assumed that accounts have increased, though it is currently difficult to obtain data regarding the exact scale (Ipeirotis, 2018). A large workforce translates into larger potentialities when it comes to resisting and organising. Yet the web-based nature of the platform means not only do workers not confront capital, but they also do not convene within the same workplace and confront each other. The fragmentation and alienating conditions of such web-based platforms in and of themselves rupture the potentials for disrupting the production line. The workplace power dialectically relates back to the marketplace power, as it is weakened precisely by the precarious nature of the labouring, increased dependence on wages, growing supply of workers and larger reserve army of labour. In other words, traditional forms of organising such as strikes become more complicated in a context where one is paid by task while thousands of other workers across the globe compete for the same tasks in real time.

This is further magnified not only by the political-economic implications of the pandemic, but also social ones. As work is performed individually and from any location, much of web-based labour has already prior to the pandemic been conducted from home, though the pandemic further pushes labour into places that have been historically for unpaid reproductive labour (Gregg, 2011). While many workers embrace MTurk precisely for its flexibility and not confronting them with additional health risks, the pandemic has led to more muddling of paid/unpaid labour. As reproductive labour has historically been racialised and gendered, some MTurk workers may face this additional workload more than others as a result of school closures for instance and have needed to adjust their work schedule accordingly (Stephany et al, 2020). Thus, the pandemic did not drastically alter the reality of home labouring for MTurk workers, but given the additional responsibilities of reproductive labour, the pandemic can make it more difficult for workers to digitally labour and balance the different dimensions of their lives – let alone organise. The already precarious and web-based nature of MTurk in a time of heightened precarity can further rupture the structural power of workers only focusing on collecting enough piece-wages amid a pandemic. This also underlines that the marketplace power of workers, while generally assumed to be weak, varies in and of itself depending on the racial and gendered dimensions, especially during a pandemic.

Given the discussed difficulties in instrumentalising the workplace power, it is helpful to grasp the agency of MTurk workers in more alternative ways beyond the traditional organised appearances in order to not risk denying it altogether. Workers were already seeking digital spaces prior to the pandemic that implicitly if not explicitly support their class interests. These have included pushing against the precarious and individualistic nature of the work and the asymmetrical power relation between requesters and workers that is further characterised by a lack of transparency. One such example has been Turkopticon, which flips the panopticon on its head by allowing workers to rate requesters (Irani and Silberman, 2013). Workers receive an approval rating for requesters to see, and Amazon only recently made it possible for workers to view requesters’ approval ratings for paying the piece-wages. Turkopticon, along with other spaces such as One Hit Stop and Reddit, are essentially tools for workers to support each other in finding HITs, and therefore piece-wages, worth pursuing. Rather than approaching each other on the basis of competition given the larger conditions on the labour market, these workers reduce each other’s unpaid labour time in searching for better paid HITs and foster solidarity by answering each other’s questions on how to best navigate MTurk (Savage and Jarrahi, 2020). These present instances of solidarity among workers in collective digital spaces by instrumentalising the infrastructure of the Internet. Thus, the agency of workers can be conceptualised in a broader sense to counter the alienating working conditions of the platform and capital.

The pandemic relates to the organisation of labour to the extent that as previously highlighted, it can be assumed that digital labouring experienced a growth and so too the pursuit for better working conditions. Thus, the decision to collectively convene in a digital space is in part informed by economic interests in the context of downturn, but also solidarity and sentiments of support. Similar to Turkopticon, which was developed by academics, researchers continue to conceptualise and develop tools to further help workers, who as a result of the pandemic have had to shift to digital labour. A recent effort has been to design a system architecture with ‘Solidarity Brokers’ – in which machine learning algorithms facilitate ways by which workers can support each other without taking too much time away from labouring. This thus aims to systematically reduce the unpaid labour time that goes into finding worthwhile piece-wages. This includes a ‘Peer Help Collector’ feature where workers via a plugin can leave a micro-advice of 100 characters related to, for instance, a completed task. Second, the system is designed to include an ‘Intelligent Selector’ which filters these tips according to the ones that others found most useful (initially by upvoting/downvoting these). The final component is the ‘Collective Help Display’ that displays via a machine learning algorithm the four top pieces of advice for workers to develop their skill set (Savage and Jarrahi, 2020). Such ideas demonstrate the potentialities of further instrumentalising the technological conditions and the Internet for possibilities of alternative forms of labour organisation. Thus, where workplace bargaining power becomes more problematic given the anonymised capital-labour relation to begin with and an even weaker marketplace power, these digital spaces become crucial for workers to (in)directly improve their working conditions.

The pandemic relates, therefore, to the case of MTurk given the further shift towards the digitalisation of labour considering national lockdowns, increased remote work, growing unemployment and precarity. While workers were not directly exposed to additional health risks as a result of the pandemic and did not frame resistance in those terms, the larger co-evolving political-economic conditions dialectically relate to a weakening of both the marketplace and workplace bargaining power. Given the difficulties in instrumentalising workplace power of web-based gig workers to disrupt production altogether, previous forms of labour solidarity and organising appear therefore to have intensified with the growing workforce on digital labour platforms.

Discussion and conclusion

As the Internet has been intrinsic to the creation and growth of the platform economy, platforms could – unlike other capital formations – operate without essentially restructuring or reorganising its capital-labour relations with the outbreak of COVID-19. To grasp more concretely how the co-evolving material conditions of the pandemic relate to the agency of platform workers, it has been central to shed further light on the dialectical relations to the nature of the platform itself. The analysis of both Amazon and MTurk workers, which differ in how their labour relations are mediated, demonstrates that these workers (regarded as ‘low-skilled’ labour on (gig) platforms and other industries) have experienced a further dwindling of their already weakened marketplace power. As all workers are located within their respective material conditions, they were faced to different degrees with a looming reserve army of labour, as the pandemic by and large resulted in an economic downturn in capital accumulation and thus rising unemployment across some sectors in different points in time. For one, Amazon warehouse workers could easily be replaced and hired, demonstrated by its exponential growth and multiple hiring sprees in a pandemic. In contrast, MTurk workers have been affected by the larger shift to remote labour and capital’s usage of contracted labour, thereby facing competition both from a workforce and reserve army of labour that knows no geographical bounds.

The weakening of this form of structural power poses in turn consequences for the leverage of workers vis-à-vis capital and also their workplace power. The latter takes on fundamentally different expressions given the nature of the platform. The Amazon case study demonstrates how the potentials of their workplace power can increase vis-à-vis the larger conditions given the growth and expansions of the platform, convening within the same workplace is not only conducive for labour organisation, but also their ability to frame these and react to the direct issues at the workplace: here being the health risks associated with the pandemic. Examples from the global North in Europe and the US, but also India in the global South, demonstrate that the disruptive action can vary in length and even cause a temporary halt of the circulation line. The location-based nature is central, as workers convene within the same space and mobilise their structural power. Workers thus have more leverage by coordinating action and directly halting the production/circulation line. Location-based gig workers, especially food delivery workers that also experienced a surge in demand, share then with these Amazon warehouse workers the additional risk to being exposed to COVID-19 when collecting and delivering food. Thus, though their working conditions are more precarious in nature and may not always be supported by unions in ways presented in the discussion on the warehouse workers, the nature of the platform is shared between these different location-based platforms. This is fundamentally different to web-based works where this nature of platform severely inhibits traditional labour organisation to mobilise a disruptive power. The MTurk case exemplifies how the digital mediation of class relations can tremendously weaken the workplace powers of workers – so that even within a pandemic, it is not possible to halt a production line given the precarious working conditions and the weakened marketplace power. For one, the labouring of MTurk workers was not altered directly as a result of political regulations, but continued along its pre-pandemic nature as workers labour remotely. Thus, expressing their agency was not necessarily in direct relation to the health risks but still needs to be understood in relation to the co-evolving material contexts of workers amid the pandemic. Here too do workers express their agency but in alternative forms and mediums, as they essentially form solidarity and advise each other on better working conditions.

While it is too early to grasp the long-term technological, political-economic and social consequences of the pandemic, the platform economy – and these two contrasting case studies – exemplify possible trajectories for the larger economy. They demonstrate the growing power of platforms, but also the implications for the labour market and capital-labour relations. The Amazon warehouse case demonstrates how the pandemic can dialectically relate to increased labour organisation and opportunities for solidarity, while MTurk sheds light on the larger trends towards the digital mediation of labour, which has been further exacerbated with the pandemic. This may relate to the increased rupture of workplace power and difficulties in organsing in traditional ways, but also opens up a discussion on the ways by which labour organises in alternative ways. An analysis of the dialectical relations and conditions that co-evolve alongside the context of COVID-19 sheds light therefore on the different implications for both capital and labour – which cannot be assumed to be experienced in a homogenous way across the platform economy – let alone the larger economy. It will be crucial to engage with what this means for the working conditions and the future of the labour movement.

Author biography

Sarrah Kassem is employed as a research associate and lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Tübingen, Germany after completing her dissertation on workers’ alienation and agency in the platform economy. Her general teaching and research foci are working conditions in the platform economy, labour organisation and intersectional dimensions of the labour movement.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • 1 University of Tübingen, Germany

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