Amazon’s Covid-19 response criticized more than Alibaba and JD.com

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Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, pictured on September 13, 2018.

Bloomberg | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has put a huge burden on e-commerce giants around the world but some appear to have dealt with it better than others.

Amazon has had Covid-19 related deaths, protests, and law suits. Its closest equivalents in China, Alibaba and JD.com, have had none of those.

While these sprawling e-commerce giants are all very different, they’ve all had to respond to the same virus.

China’s e-commerce giants rushed in safety measures, but Amazon has been accused of having a slower response with some dubbing its warehouses as “breeding grounds of coronavirus.”

Both Alibaba and JD.com told CNBC they have recorded zero warehouse worker deaths as a result of the virus, whereas Amazon has had at least eight.

Jeff Bezos’s Seattle-headquartered company has created a Covid-19 blog where it posts daily updates on how it is responding to the crisis. It’s a lengthy read, suggesting Amazon is taking plenty of steps to protect workers, customers, and the business itself.

But questions are still being asked and far fewer are being asked about Alibaba and JD.com’s response. However, that’s not to say everything is perfect. It’s harder to get a true picture of what’s happening behind the scenes of Chinese tech companies as Chinese workers rarely speak out against their employers and Chinese firms aren’t scrutinized by the media as much as their Western counterparts.

Amazon struggled?

Over 50 Amazon “fulfilment centers” around the world have seen cases of the coronavirus.

In March, a dozen Amazon warehouse workers told CNBC that they were terrified to go to work. “The workplace is overcrowded,” said Hibaq Mohamed, a warehouse worker who works out of MSP1 in Minnesota. “I am afraid, but I cannot stop working without pay.”

The situation got so bad in France that a French court ordered Amazon to shut down six warehouses across the country on April 6 to protect workers and the facilities weren’t allowed to reopen until mid-May.

Amazon warehouse workers in the U.S. and Europe voiced their concerns in public protects, which Amazon clamped down hard on by firing workers. 

Last month, Amazon VP Tim Bray quit “in dismay” at the firm’s crackdown. In a blog post, the Amazon Web Services engineer said the firing of protestors was evidence of “a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.”

Too little, too late?

Amazon says it has gone to “great lengths” to protect workers from the coronavirus. Temperature checks, disinfectant spraying, “enhanced” cleaning and social distancing have been introduced at warehouses, and workers are given protective masks to wear.

But some of these measures took weeks to implement and many of them were in place at Alibaba and JD.com soon after they learned of the virus.

Amazon has also introduced contact-tracing systems at some warehouses to try to monitor the spread. However, three workers filed a law suit this month alleging the measures were inadequate and that Amazon has “sought to create a façade of compliance.”

At the time, Amazon told CNBC in a statement that it has always followed the guidance of federal and local health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, its own workplace health and safety experts and an independent epidemiologist.

The company subsequently announced that it is in the process of rolling out cameras that issue an alert when workers aren’t properly following social-distancing guidelines.

Testing is also ramping up. Amazon wants the bulk of its warehouse workers to be tested every two weeks and it’s setting up its own testing labs inside the warehouses themselves. Under the plans, reported by CNBC this month, workers would test themselves using a guidance video and a clinical professional would supervise.

Staffing up

Amazon, Alibaba and JD.com have all embarked on aggressive hiring sprees as a result of the coronavirus but Amazon is the one searching for the most people. 

On March 17, Amazon announced that it was hiring 100,000 staff to help it deal with the surge in online sales. Less than a month later, on April 13, it said it was hiring another 75,000 workers. New recruits include a skydiver, a scuba diving instructor, a speedway rider, and a pub landlord, according to a promotional video posted on an Amazon blog.

All these workers are set to cost a lot. On April 30, Amazon said it expected to spend its second-quarter profit of $4 billion on tackling coronavirus.

Alibaba and JD.com have not announced plans to hire anywhere near as many new staff.

Jack Ma, CEO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, speaks during his visit at the Vivatech startups and innovation fair, in Paris on May 16, 2019.

Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images

Around the middle of February, Alibaba’s online grocery store, FreshHema, announced it planned to recruit 30,000 new staff in 2020, with roles spread across procurement, marketing, and delivery.

Meanwhile, JD.com, which had 180,000 logistics workers before the pandemic, announced plans to hire slightly more.

On February 12, JD Logistics, a business group under JD.com, said it intended to recruit 20,000 frontline staff including warehouse workers, pickers, couriers, and drivers. JD-backed local on demand delivery platform Dada Group offered a further 15,000 couriers.

As other companies have collapsed, the world’s three biggest e-commerce companies have seen their share prices rise since the start of the year. Amazon is now worth $1.36 trillion, while Alibaba is worth $610 billion and JD.com is worth $92 billion. 

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