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Migrant Workers in Minnesota Win Landmark Safety Protections

The Warehouse Worker Protection Act ensures that Amazon cannot disregard workers’ safety and livelihoods.

Worker Melissa Navarrete Urena stows goods into a movable pallet at Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale, California on August 31, 2021.

On May 16, Minnesota lawmakers passed the nation’s strongest Amazon warehouse worker protection legislation with the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, which ensures that workers can take breaks during the workday and have access to relevant quota and performance standards and data on how fast they’re working.

The bill’s passage marks a significant victory for migrant workers — especially Minnesota’s Somali immigrant population, of which the state has the largest in the country.

For Khali Jama, a former worker in Amazon’s fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, the new bill offers reprieve and protections that she worked to mobilize. As a Somali and a Muslim, Jama said the Warehouse Worker Protection Act ensures some equity in Minnesota’s facilities.

“[The day the bill was passed] was the proudest day of my life,” she said. “I’m happy that this passed because even if I leave Amazon, I know those workers are safe. I know that they have rights now, and they can fight the company. So to me, it means the world.”

Jama was a vocal advocate for the legislation, attending committee hearings, staging walkouts with fellow night shift workers, and providing education during breaks to teach newly immigrated Somalis about their rights. At times, fighting for protections on a state level felt like an uphill battle for the registered nurse, especially with Amazon’s tactics to curb any momentum. Labeled the “troublemaker,” Jama was approached a handful of times by her managers about her actions.

“For them to come to me this much to push me out, there’s got to be something they’re afraid of,” she said. “Because why are they spending all this time pushing me if they’re so powerful? That’s one of the things that opened my eyes and motivated me to fight them more.”

One of the bill’s most notable protections includes authorizing the Minnesota Commissioner of Labor and Industry to investigate employers with occupational injuries and illnesses that are at least 30% higher than the industry average. According to the Strategic Organizing Center’s (SOC) Amazon injury report in April, the tech company’s facilities and operations continue to be more dangerous for workers than the rest of the warehouse industry.

After analyzing the 2022 injury data that Amazon reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the SOC recorded 38,609 total injuries at warehouses that required medical treatment beyond first aid or time off. Of these incidents, 95% were categorized as “light duty” or “lost time” injuries — those where workers were unable to perform their regular job functions or were forced to miss their shifts entirely. The SOC also found that the serious injury rate at Amazon warehouses in 2022 was 6.6 per 100 workers — more than double the rate at non-Amazon warehouses.

“It’s time for Amazon to admit that their production pressures are causing a tidal wave of injuries and to take action to stop threatening to fire workers who don’t meet their unrealistic production requirements,” said Eric Frumin, the health and safety director at the SOC. “Amazon and its management are on a collision course with history. They can’t keep this up and expect workers or the government or the public to tolerate it forever.”

Workers inside Amazon’s facilities were wary of how management mishandled their injuries, leaving many feeling threatened with termination or loss of pay despite needing proper medical treatment. Abdullahi Abdi, who began as a picker at the Minneapolis warehouse in 2020, witnessed several instances where Amazon withheld pay for those who suffered injuries inside the building.

“Amazon can put you on leave for a week or two weeks, and then if you ask them if you get paid, they will look at you like, OK, we’re not sure about that,’” he said. “A lot of the people live paycheck to paycheck. So when you lose one paycheck, he or she or they have to come back to work. No one will risk losing a paycheck.”

Abdi witnessed a lot of turnover as a result. He recounts one injured worker who suffered back pain but ended up seeking another job due to financial insecurity. For Abdi, the Warehouse Worker Protection Act ensures that workers recovering from injury will receive some assurance that they won’t lose their jobs.

“We are looking for somewhere that we can work for a long time,” he said. “We are looking for a better place to work every day where it is equal for all employees.”

The bill also ensures protections around Minnesota workers’ selfhoods, such as transparency for the quotas they are expected to meet — available in their preferred languages — and preventing employers from disciplining workers for taking meal breaks, prayer breaks, and bathroom breaks. Much of these regulations help alleviate anxiety for workers with little to no grasp of English.

In her first 90 days at Amazon, Jama felt compelled to assist migrant workers with language barriers.

“Orientation was so quick, with English being spoken the whole time, but half of the people in the room were Somali,” she said, noting that there were no interpreters in the room despite company policy stating that such services would be available. “Some people were only in the U.S. for 30 days. I was helping with their exam with Amazon not stopping me.”

Jama was further compelled to organize after seeing Muslim workers denied their right to prayer breaks, especially during the holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

“That’s what made me go for a protest: not letting Muslim people celebrate their religious rights,” she said. “They were telling people no because they knew those people were not looking into their rights. You had that in your contract, but you were not giving people education about it.”

Both Jama and Abdi cite Amazon’s unwillingness to educate migrant workers about their rights as a reason to organize around state legislation. They began organizing with the Awood Center — an organization dedicated to building East African worker power in the Twin Cities area — to mobilize fellow warehouse workers around the Warehouse Worker Protection Act. One of their major undertakings was informing as many of these employees as possible about the bill as it progressed through committees, the House, and Senate.

According to The Awood Center Executive Director Abdirahman Muse, there are about 1,500-2,000 migrant workers employed by Amazon in Minnesota. The Awood Center had been organizing around the Warehouse Worker Protection Act for two years. The bill followed a series of recent legislation that had passed in states such as Washington and New York to protect other Amazon employees, as organized by respective worker groups and coalitions.

Amazonians United’s New York chapter declined a request from Prism to comment, citing that they haven’t yet had the occasion to use the New York law because it has not gone into effect since it passed in January. Other Amazonians United chapters have organized walkouts and protests on shop floors to force managers and their employers into concessions. One chapter in Philadelphia has been focused solely on reinstating what benefits they already had at the start of the pandemic, including a $2-an-hour hazard pay and on-site parking, which managers took away from workers within less than a year.

“They did it in the most disrespectful possible way,” said Paul Blundell, an organizer with Amazonians United’s Philadelphia chapter. “They have the A to Z app, our numbers, and email addresses, but they didn’t tell us in advance. They just sent a couple of associates out into the parking lot at the beginning of the shift to flag everybody down and say you can’t park here. Then the people who turned around to park in the remote lot were marked late.”

Alongside walkouts, petitions around employment policies, and direct actions such as “Marching on the Boss” — where workers gather around managers to share their collective concerns — Amazonians United’s Philadelphia chapter won concessions such as the restoration of their on-site parking and maintaining staffing and work speed at safe levels.

For Blundell, the greatest power resides on the floors of these facilities, as inspiring as it may be to see bills such as Minnesota’s Warehouse Worker Protection Act gain more ground on a national scale.

“It’s very similar to the bill that was passed in New York in that it mostly grants rights to workers to information, and that’s useful, but what we really need is for the speed of the work to be brought down to a physically sustainable level,” he said. “It’s possible that there are regulations that would help to make that the case, but these laws are not that.”

The Philadelphia chapter credits their Sacramento, California, and New York comrades for inspiring their collective action and innovative ways to enact change from within, even as they organized around their respective state bills.

“As workers, we know that our greatest power is at work when we unite and stand together,” Blundell said. “While we would welcome legislation and regulations at the state or federal level to help workers, we don’t see a lot of promise on the near horizon that is more promising than building that power at work.”

Jama also acknowledges that it takes time and energy to watch a bill pass through the system, which can take time away from staging direct actions. Alongside her day job as a nurse and raising two children, she offered what remaining time she had to show up to hearings in defense of warehouse workers.

“It was hard,” she said. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I always learn to be patient as a Muslim person. We say God doesn’t give us a burden that we can’t handle.”

Even after the passage of the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, Frumin and the SOC are wary of how the legislation will be enforced, given the nascent history for these kinds of protections. However, the SOC has also seen OSHA’s robust enforcement history for companies with abusive work paces and environments. For Frumin, there shouldn’t be any mystery about what the legislation in Minnesota, New York, and California will do over time.

“If it’s enforced by the states’ agencies in the way they should, they will find — barring some change from Amazon — that the company has threatened to fire workers constantly who failed to meet [quotas] and in violation of this version of the legislation,” Frumin said. “But that could take time, and in the meantime so many workers will suffer the physical and emotional consequences of being thrown into industrial scrap.”

The Awood Center’s work does not stop either. Abdi feels there is still much to do, especially on the shop floor, while Minnesota’s Warehouse Worker Protection Act goes into effect.

“Our next step is to inform all those employees,” he said. “I think not all of them know about [the legislation] now. We’ll try to make them know about the process, and if anything, just speak up. You now have additional protections.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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