Keeping tabs on complaints and discussions about strikes
Amazon is covertly monitoring private social media groups used by Amazon Flex workers to discuss their working conditions. According to official company documents discovered online by Vice, the retailing giant employs staff to track and categorize discussions in closed Facebook groups, public subreddits, and on Twitter. Some posts are then “escalated” to internal Amazon teams and company leadership.
As Vice notes, these reports are seemingly compiled primarily to identify and respond to complaints from Flex delivery drivers about things like bugs in the company’s app. But Amazon also appears to be keeping tabs on more sensitive discussions. Those compiling the reports are instructed to note the apparent sentiment of posts and to look for Flex workers sharing news stories where “Warehouse employees [are] complaining about the poor working condition” or that discuss “planning for any strike or protest against Amazon.”
Amazon has confirmed that the surveillance reports seen by Vice are genuine but attempted to downplay its activities. In a statement given to The Verge, a spokesperson for the company suggested that Amazon wasn’t previously aware of the surveillance of closed Facebook groups, and that it “discovered” a single team had been carrying out this activity. Vice, however, reported that the monitoring of closed groups has been going on for “years” as part a wider effort to keep track of workers’ discussions, and included employees in both Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle and others in India.
“Upon being notified, we discovered one group within our delivery team that was aggregating information from closed groups,” said the spokesperson. “While they were trying to support drivers, that approach doesn’t meet our standards, and they are no longer doing this as we have other ways for drivers to give us their feedback.”
The statement from Amazon does not address several issues raised by Vice’s reporting, including whether or not surveillance of non-closed Facebook groups will continue, and why Amazon is apparently monitoring workers’ plan to organize protests. We’ve reached out to Amazon with further questions but have yet to hear back.
Amazon is well-known for employing aggressive tactics against workers trying to organize or protest. It’s fired workers who led strikes or even tweeted criticism of the company, and used heat maps to track pro-union sentiment across its Whole Food stores. Just this week it posted job listings for an “intelligence analyst” role in order to monitor “labor organizing threats.” Amazon quickly removed the listings and said they had been posted in error.
Monitoring discussion among Flex drivers on social media would be in line with this past behavior. Flex drivers are not official employees but freelance workers who make deliveries from their own vehicles. They’re paid in hourly blocks and Amazon says they make between $18 and $25 a hour, depending on tips and the number of deliveries they make. Flex drivers do not receive benefits like health insurance or sick pay available to full-time employees
In countries like the US, where the job market has been hit hard by the pandemic, reports suggest competition for this sort of gig work is fierce. In recent months, Amazon Flex drivers have reportedly resorted to tricks like using automated bots or even hanging their phones in trees near dispatch centers in order to claim increasingly-rare delivery slots.
According to the documents shared by Vice, Amazon’s social media monitoring for Flex drivers covers dozens of groups in the US, UK, and Spain. These include private Facebook pages like “Amazon Flex Las Vegas” and “Official Amazon Flex Drivers of Portland.” You can read more details on the monitoring process, including a full list of the groups under observation, in Vice’s original report here. We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment on the story and will update this article if we hear more.