Labor rights activists say Amazon’s plans to shutter a Minnesota facility and terminate hundreds of jobs is retaliation for workers’ organizing efforts, but the online retail giant rejects such claims.
Amazon plans to shut down a sort center in Shakopee after the facility’s lease expires, according to a January 30 letter the company sent to the Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development this week.
The sort center will cease operations on March 31, at which point an estimated 680 workers will also be terminated, according to Amazon’s letter. The center, located at 5825 11th Ave. East, is smaller than the company’s fulfillment center in the same suburb.
The retail giant’s actions have drawn the attention of the Awood Center, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that supports East African workers. The organization has worked extensively with Amazon employees who have staged several walkouts and demonstrations at the company’s facilities in Shakopee and Eagan.
Abdirahman Muse, executive director of Awood Center, called the company’s announcement an act of retaliation against workers’ organizing efforts.
“We believe that Amazon’s decision to close this facility is wrong and retaliatory based on the powerful efforts of workers who have been organizing with the Awood Center and demanding better working conditions, particularly through their advocacy for the warehouse safety bill in the Minnesota Legislature,” said a statement from the Awood Center.
Local Amazon workers, led by East African staff, have publicly demanded pay raises while criticizing the company for work quotas and workplace conditions. Workers have also said the company refused to give Muslim employees time off to celebrate the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr.
Steve Kelly, a spokesperson for Amazon, said closing the facility has nothing to do with “reducing headcount” or ongoing worker protests at the nearby fulfillment center.
“We’re always evaluating our network to make sure it fits our business needs and to improve the experience for our employees, customers, partners, and drivers,” Kelly said, “As part of that effort, we may close older sites, enhance existing facilities, or open new sites, and we weigh a variety of factors when deciding where to develop future sites or maintain a presence.”
Amazon officials said workers at the sort center will have the option of transferring to other facilities in Minnesota instead of being terminated. Kelly said Amazon employees who choose to leave the company instead of relocating to a different facility would be given “support,” but did not specify what that would entail.
“Affected employees who are separated as a result of this action will be paid all wages and other benefits to which they are entitled (if any) through their date of separation, provided they do not resign from their employment with Amazon prior to that date,” said Amazon’s January 30 letter to the state.
Amazon hopes to accommodate employees’ scheduling preferences for those looking to transfer within the company, Kelly said. The company declined to say how many employees are expected to part ways with Amazon.
Amazon has 10 different operations sites in the Twin Cities area—all of which operate on the same pay scale—including three other sort centers, according to the company.
Asha Ibrahim, 30, has worked at the Shakopee sort center for a year, and is trying to transfer to the Amazon fulfillment center nearby.
“I felt sad because the place I had been working at is being closed,” Asha said through an interpreter.
Asha said her transfer has not been finalized.
The Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee has been the site of rallies where workers demanded better pay and time off for religious holidays.
Amazon employees in Eagan, where Asha previously worked, walked out in November after the company announced it would be laying off workers who couldn’t switch from a day shift to a night shift.
“We stand with Amazon workers and will continue to support their fight for better working conditions,” said the Awood Center’s statement. “We are calling on Amazon to refrain from closing the facility, and if the closure moves forward, we demand that Amazon transfer workers to nearby Amazon warehouses so they can keep their jobs.”
Abdirahman said the Awood Center would continue advocating for workers’ rights, and is supporting the warehouse safety bill currently in the Minnesota Legislature. The bill establishes worker safety requirements.
The bill was “strongly” opposed by Amazon in last year’s legislative session, he said, but is now on the verge of passing.