November 20, 2014
Former Amazon employee planning hunger strike to protest unethical labor practices
by Liam O'Brien
A former Amazon employee is escalating his ongoing protest of the company. Kivin Varghese plans to go on a hunger strike beginning next week, as reported on Geekwire. Varghese has been camping out in front of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters for two weeks to draw attention to what he sees as a toxic and systemic pattern of employee mistreatment.
Varghese plans to continue the strike, as well as call on a customer boycott of the company, to coincide with the expected surge of holiday spending to last “until Jeff Bezos puts forth a credible and accountable plan to fix the issues around employee treatment, ethics, and the environment.”
Like most stories involving litigation, this has some backstory. Varghese got fired by Amazon in 2012, and he took them to court over it. He claimed unfair termination, among other things, and Business Insider ran down the full fascinating list. The alleged events leading up to Varghese’s termination were a series of confrontations between Varghese and upper Kindle management over misuse and waste of advertiser money.
Varghese had been hired to work on the Fire tablet launch during its confidential phase, and he claims that an oblivious and image-obsessed management was unwilling to address multiple instances of buggy ad tech and bungled promos, problems which were then allegedly kept from the advertisers whose money was being wasted. After Varghese was put on Amazon’s version of probation, the “Personal Improvement Plan” (about as Amazonian a name as something can have without having the word “fire” in it) he filed an internal ethics complaint. The subsequent investigation found no rules were broken, and he was fired.
He won part of the suit, but the decision of damages has been pushed back until next year. In the meantime, Varghese began mounting a protest against the company as a whole, criticizing Amazon’s treatment of its corporate and warehouse employees, claiming unethical treatment on a broad scale, and maintaining that the retaliation he faced is not isolated. He then sent a letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board detailing his complaints.
He sent the same letter to the Washington State’s Attorney’s office. The letter contains multiple emails, names, and internal documents-all of which effectively became public record. Amazon responded by seeking sanctions against Varghese for violating a protective order applying to the internal documents, and Varghese began his vigil outside the headquarters.
Varghese comes across as a cautious optimist in the face of his latest move’s safety risks:
Asked about the implications for his health, he said, “I will have a doctor monitoring my vitals so I’m hoping I can get a proposal from Amazon prior to organ failure.”
A hunger strike is an extreme but effective publicity move. It also means that Varghese’s protest is sure to be reduced to simple interpretations as his media profile grows. It’s either “The little guy against the machine” or “disgruntled axed employee who was fired for cause wants to make a buck”. But Varghese’s timing isn’t arbitrary. Amazon’s holiday sales are massive, and massively important to the company’s success and image, and Amazon Anonymous, German labor unions, and Varghese know this.
In the New York Times recently, David Streitfeld profiled a Connecticut Amazon user who had become disillusioned with the company in the wake of the Hachette fiasco. Though she personally stopped using Amazon for moral grounds, it was hard to adjust to life without as much convenience, and she questioned if it was worth it.
“I’m feeling a bit like I decided to go on a hunger strike but did so in the privacy of my own home without letting anybody know,” she wrote a week [after stopping].”
Six months later, Varghese is doing the same thing, but in full public view. Brace yourselves, readers, these next six weeks are going to be interesting.
Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.