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Workers Take to the Streets in Protest on Black Friday

As Black Friday shoppers flocked to the streets in search of deals, the people who stitch their clothes, ring up their purchases and pack their deliveries did too, albeit for wholly different reasons.

In northwest Spain, roughly 1,000 shop assistants who manned the tills at Zara and other Inditex brands went on strike to demand higher wages amid a cost-of-living crisis. The workers, most of them women, protested outside 44 Inditex stores in A Coruña, a port city in the Galicia region where Amancio Ortega opened the first Zara store in 1975 and where Inditex still maintains its headquarters. The retailer did not respond to a request for comment.

The two-day walkout, which commenced Thursday and continued into one of the biggest shopping days of the year, caused two outlets—one Zara, another Massimo Dutti—to temporarily shutter, union leaders from the Confederación Intersindical Galega (CIG) told Reuters. Most stores, however, were able to pull enough managers and non-striking employees to cope with the crush of bargain hunters, who elbowed past signs saying “We made you a millionaire, you give us precarious pay” and “I work for Inditex but don’t make it to the end of the month.”

CIG members voted to strike last week after negotiations with Inditex collapsed. The retailer had offered to give shop workers a monthly wage increase of 182 euros ($188), plus a one-time bonus of 1,000 euros ($1,034) in 2023 if they made sales targets. While two other unions, Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) accepted the deal, CIG and some UGT members said they wanted at least twice as much because online orders have increased shop assistants’ workload. They deserve some pay parity with their better-compensated logistics counterparts, they argued.

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“Inditex is increasing its prices and improving its profits, while employees’ wages are lagging behind,” one union leader told Reuters. “We want a real wage rise…not the 1,000-euro bonus offered as candy.”

More than a thousand miles away in the United Kingdom, a crowd of labor activists and trade unionists gathered outside Boohoo’s headquarters in Manchester after an undercover report into one of its warehouses accused the e-tail giant of treating its workers like “slaves.”

Fulfillment workers at the warehouse in Burnley, The Times investigation said last week, are made to walk the equivalent of a half-marathon per shift in a warehouse where nighttime temperatures can soar to nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The “harsh” conditions, the outlet said, have resulted in workers collapsing in the aisles, with an ambulance called to the site around once a month. Boohoo has rejected the claims, saying that though it takes the allegations seriously, they’re not reflective of its “colleagues’ experiences.”

But the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), which represents Boohoo warehouse and call center workers, says it has written to Boohoo CEO John Lyttle to discuss warehouse conditions after being swamped by calls for workers asking for help. Antony Higginbotham, Member of Parliament for Burnley, said he has convened private meetings with warehouse employees to look into the claims.

“If even one of the allegations [is] true, that falls well below the standards that I—and I think all local residents and other business in this borough—would expect of an established business,” he told BBC News.

USDAW says that Boohoo refuses to acknowledge the union, undermining its goal of becoming an “ethical trader.” This, too, the Nasty Gal and PrettyLittleThing owner refutes.

“We respect people’s right to join a trade union if they choose to do so. Indeed, we have been working constructively with trade unions in Leicester to facilitate introductions with manufacturers in our supply chain,” a spokesperson for the retailer told Sourcing Journal. “We have an extensive colleague engagement program that allows people to speak openly and honestly about their working environment. Through these forums, our people tell us they are happy and feel valued, and there is little support for unionization.”

Thousands of Amazon workers in more than 30 countries also opted for picket signs over doorbuster deals as Thanksgiving in the United States came to a close. In New York City, they marched outside founder Jeff Bezos’ Manhattan penthouse to demand that it pay its taxes, its workers and for the damage it’s wreaking on the planet. In Germany, demonstrators disrupted operations at nine of Amazon’s warehouses in the country, where they say workers can walk up to 12 miles a day. In Bangladesh, garment workers in Dhaka and Chittagong urged the Everything Store to sign the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment Industry.

“Today, unions, civil society, and progressive elected officials will stand shoulder to shoulder in a massive global day of action to denounce Amazon’s despicable multimillion-dollar campaigns to kill worker-led union efforts,” said Christy Hoffman, president of UNI Global Union, which helped convene the Make Amazon Pay coalition. “It’s time for the tech giant to cease their awful, unsafe practices immediately, respect the law and negotiate with the workers who want to make their jobs better.”

This marks the third year that Make Amazon Pay has organized a Black Friday global day of action against the Whole Foods owner, which has been accused of retaliating against employees engaged in union activities. It’s also been fighting to roll back a historic labor victory in New York, where thousands of JFK8 warehouse workers voted to form its first U.S. union. According to filings with the U.S. Department of Labor, Amazon spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants in 2021 alone.

But the online Goliath’s problems extend deeper into the supply chain. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal found that Amazon was selling clothing from dozens of blacklisted Bangladeshi factories that most leading retailers had deemed “too dangerous” following the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013. Some of the garments were listed for sale by Amazon directly, but two-thirds were being sold by third-party sellers using its platform.

“Garment workers, like those I represent, toil to swell Amazon’s coffers often without any recognition that we are even Amazon workers. Amazon is the third-largest direct employer in the world, but when you take us in the supply chain into account, it is even larger,” said Nazma Akter, president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation in Bangladesh. “At work, we can face sexual harassment from management and victimization when we try to organize in a trade union against that violence and for better pay and conditions.”

Daniel Kopp, Make Amazon Pay coordinator at Progressive International said that the retail juggernaut is forcing pay cuts on workers and shirking its taxes despite its skyrocketing profits. And although Amazon drastically undercounts the emissions of the products it sells—as little as 1 percent of its total inventory, according to a report obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this year—these still increased by 18 percent in 2021, Kopp noted.

“We all know that the price of everything is going up, as is the temperature of our planet. Instead of paying its workers fairly, its taxes in full and for its damage to our environment, Amazon is squeezing every last drop it can workers, communities and the planet,” he said. “In the face of the cost-of-living scandal, global debt crisis and climate emergency, we are coming together to Make Amazon Pay.”

Addressing the criticisms, Amazon said that while it is “not perfect in any area,” it takes its role and impact across a variety of issues “very seriously.”

“We are inventing and investing significantly in all these areas, playing a significant role in addressing climate change with the Climate Pledge commitment to be net zero carbon by 2040, continuing to offer competitive wages and great benefits, and inventing new ways to keep our employees safe and healthy in our operations network, to name just a few,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Anyone can see for themselves by taking a tour at one of our sites.”