Tim Bray being arrested at the ‘Protect the Inlet’ protests against Canada’s Trans Mountain pipeline in March 2018
Tim Bray being arrested at the ‘Protect the Inlet’ protests against Canada’s Trans Mountain pipeline in March 2018 © AFP via Getty Images

A senior software engineer at Amazon has quit in protest at the firing of whistleblowers who had raised concerns about the safety of the online retailer’s warehouses during the coronavirus crisis.

Tim Bray, a vice-president and top engineer at Amazon Web Services, the retailer’s cloud computing division, said on Monday he had resigned after having “escalated [concerns] through the proper channels and by the book”.

“I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19,” he said in a blog post. Amazon said it had no comment to make on the matter.

Mr Bray joined the company's Vancouver office in 2014 and worked on its so-called serverless architecture, which allows companies to build and run applications on Amazon's cloud servers. He was previously employed by Google, and contributed to developing the encryption service OpenKeychain used across the Google-backed mobile operating system Android.

Mr Bray has been outspoken on issues of social and environmental justice in the past. In 2018, he was arrested after protesting against Canada’s controversial Trans Mountain oil pipeline, while last year he was one of 8,702 signatories of an open letter calling for action from Amazon on climate change.

Unprecedented demand for online shopping during the pandemic has prompted the company, a world leader in ecommerce and cloud computing, to hire 175,000 new warehouse workers in just under two months. However, Amazon has been accused of putting employees in danger by not slowing the pace of their work or providing them with adequate protective equipment.

Surging sales have also come at a high cost, with the company last week warning that it expected to spend $4bn on Covid-related charges in the second quarter of the year.

But many still argue the company has not done enough. In Italy, workers have gone on strike at several distribution centres in the north of the country, protesting against unsafe working conditions and a lack of information about infected colleagues.

Just over a week ago, the French government ordered Amazon to only ship “essential” items until it could ensure sufficient health and safety measures were introduced in warehouses.

In the US, where unions are weak, Amazon has fired several workers who were behind protests and walkouts organised to draw attention to concerns over staff safety.

Chris Smalls protests outside an Amazon warehouse in New York on Friday
Chris Smalls protests outside an Amazon warehouse in New York on Friday © Bloomberg

Chris Smalls, who in March organised a walkout at an Amazon fulfilment centre in New York, was fired by the company for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk”.

The company has since also laid off white-collar office workers who voiced concerns about their roughly 1m colleagues working in Amazon warehouses.

Mr Bray has contributed to the development of several well-used technology standards including the mark-up language XML. In his note, he said user experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, who were members of an internal climate change activist group, were fired after organising a video call featuring warehouse workers from around the world, including “guest activist Naomi Klein”.

“The justifications [for their dismissal] were laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing,” Mr Bray said.

He also noted the personal loss he would incur as a result of his resignation. “What with big-tech salaries and share vestings, this will probably cost me over a million (pre-tax) dollars, not to mention the best job I’ve ever had, working with awfully good people,” he said. “So I’m pretty blue.”

Christy Hoffman, general secretary of international federation UNI Global Union, said criticism of Amazon’s treatment of workers in its fulfilment centres was affecting its ability to retain tech talent.

“Many people came to Amazon to make the world a better place, and now you see top leaders saying that the company does not share that mission,” she said.

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, among the richest people in the world, was on Friday called to testify before the US House of Representatives judiciary committee after claims that his company had misled Congress over whether it uses data from third-party sellers to promote and sell their own goods.

In his resignation letter, Mr Bray contrasted the working conditions between warehouse workers who “are getting weaker with mass unemployment and [in the US] job-linked health insurance” and employees working at Amazon’s offices.

Amazon Web Services, he said, “was a different story [ . . .] its workers have power, the average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better”.

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