We Welcome Global Distribution Centers to Hawaii, But Let’s Also Have Fair Labor Practices

When does speed become unethical to workers and working conditions? In today’s high tech, blitz-fast working environment, this is what California lawmakers had to balance in passing a new landmark law that many say is a victory for workers, and to others, simply an update to labor laws that were already in need of adjustments.

California became the first state to bar mega-retailers from firing warehouse workers for missing quotas that interfere with bathroom and rest breaks under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The law originally intended to address Amazon, the online retail giant, and similar companies from prohibiting workers from being fired for failing to meet a quota that interfered with their ability to use the bathroom or take rest breaks, and it bars employers from disciplining warehouse employees for being “off-task” when they are complying with health and safety laws.

The bill applies to all warehouse distribution centers and does not specifically mention Amazon.

It’s significant because the bill is the first of its kind and could pave the wave for other states to follow, including Hawaii if needed as Amazon prepares to open for business here.

AB 701, was authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a lawyer and former labor leader who accused Amazon of disciplining warehouse workers at the direction of “an algorithm” that tracks employees’ activities and can determine that anything not directly related to moving packages is “off-task.” She said, “Amazon is pushing workers to risk their bodies for next-day delivery, while they can’t so much as use the restroom without fearing retaliation.”

In considering Assemblymember Gonzalez’ description, AB701 is a humane bill. No worker should fear having to use the restroom or account for every second of non-working activity or “off-task.” Not only is this physically straining having to refrain from taking bathroom breaks, but it’s also a source of mental anxiety that each time you do take a bathroom break, an “off task” clock is running from which a worker cannot exceed.

What kind of time are we looking at for “off-task?”

recent study conducted by the Ontario-based Warehouse Worker Resource Center and Human Impact Partners shows Amazon warehouse workers are allowed just six minutes of “time off task” a day, aside from their 30-minute lunch break. Employees say this is not enough time and the closest restroom in the company’s massive warehouses often could be more than six minutes away from their workstation.

“Workers reported that Amazon’s excessive quotas make it impossible to complete work and make rate safely,” the report said. “The majority of workers surveyed reported that they experienced a constant state of stress trying to keep up. Amazon’s work rates dictate a dangerous pace of work that leads to injury.”

Detractors of the bill such as the California Retailers Association said there are already laws in place like Cal/OSHA that enforces workplace safety, and called the new bill as a whole new set of laws that could impact other industries besides distribution centers.

Welcome Amazon
Amazon is already readying to open its first distribution center in Kalihi-Sand Island, Hawaii.

Many residents and businesses in Hawaii are welcoming the global giant to the island which is expected to bring added business activity and jobs. It’s a wait-and-see situation if unethical operational practices reported in California and other states will be implemented in Hawaii. Of course, Amazon should be given the benefit of the doubt that it will conduct ethical operational practices at its new distribution center in our state. This is fair. And we join the community in welcoming Amazon and wish them much success.

Historical context of Hawaii labor laws
When discussing the issue of how Hawaii became pro-worker rights, labor leaders will always go back to the plantation days of early Hawaii. 

Most immigrant plantation workers in the early 1900s were bound by labor contracts as outlined in the Masters & Servants Act. Under this law, for example, absenteeism or refusal to work could cause a contract laborer to be apprehended and sentenced by the district magistrate or police office to work for the employer an extra amount of time after the contract expired, usually double the time of the absence.

Clearly, we are far from this kind of indentured slave-like conditions. But looking back at what was considered “acceptable” is always important to give a comparable context to modern times. The goal is for employers to maximize efficiency, but there are humane boundaries that cannot be crossed. Or we find ourselves going backwards to conditions that endanger workers’ safety and workers dignity.

As for government interference in businesses operations, the US government has been stepping in to provide workers’ rights since the early 20th century. Federal labor laws have given workers the right to organize labor unions and have bargaining power.

They have set the 40 hours work week with recommendation that states enact laws that companies give extra pay beyond the 40 hours. Labor laws established a federal minimum wage, a right to safety in the workplace, a right to not be discriminated against based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” (sexual orientation and gender identity were recently added to this list), a right to sue against wrongful termination, and others.

The new California law is unique because it addresses abusive quota systems in the framework of advancing technology (tech that can account for employees movement by the seconds).Kudos to California legislators for adopting AB 701. Other states, including Hawaii in the near future, will be keeping an eye on Amazon and other distribution centers to see if such a legislation is necessary in our Aloha state.

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