Six people died during a tornado in an Amazon warehouse on 10th December 2021 in Edwardsville, Illinois. Media reports “Deadly tornadoes, storms strike US; roof collapse at Amazon” and “Six dead, no hope of more survivors after tornadoes destroy Amazon warehouse” rather than ‘Amazon forces employees to work during extreme weather conditions, causing six deaths for their lack of storm shelters in place’. Put more simply: why is corporate crime not a crime?
Amazon – Corporate Health and Safety
Amazon is a multinational corporation that employs more than 1.5 million people worldwide, with a net income of $33.4 billion for the year 2021. Their warehouse operation focusses on completing fast product distributions, offering next-day deliveries. This means people need to be working round the clock to be able to honour all orders, a timely delivery of goods is the key component of the business organisation. Many times, the pressure created by Amazon’s fast turn-around is reflected in the warehouses – employees are evaluated on their productivity to maximise their capacity and to prevent employing more people, a common business model adopted by most western corporations.
The working conditions in Amazon warehouses are exacerbated by the fact that Amazon in the US, along with its CEO Jeff Bezos have adopted a covert anti-union stance. In one warehouse facility in Alabama, Amazon hired a law firm that was supporting anti-union propaganda and intimidating workers who wanted to join the union before the vote was cast. This resulted in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filing charges of unfair labour practice with the National Labor Relations Board as Amazon clearly interfered with the results of the vote.
Amazon warehouse workers also report lacking the ability to take any time off from November until after New Year amidst Black Friday and Christmas shopping peaks; having to take annual leave to go to doctors’ appointments, and having to work mandatory overtime. There are also “productivity” hours when the fastest and hardest working employees are given prizes, often consisting of tokens they can spend in the warehouse cafeteria rather than financial bonuses. There have also been reports of frequent ambulance visits to many warehouses due to overworking, as well as a report of two deaths within hours of being denied sick leave. Another questionable practice includes forcing warehouse employees to work through extreme weather – a case that has proven fatal to six employees in Edwardsville. Reports from New York warehouses staying open and functional through a snowstorm, or during Pacific Northwest heatwaves confirm that corporate profit is clearly more important to Amazon than workers’ safety.
By focussing on profitability and timely delivery rather than health and safety, Amazon is clearly responsible for creating harmful working conditions which in December amounted to the preventable deaths of six employees. Yet, mainstream media channels rarely report corporate wrongdoing as crime. This raises important questions: why do incidents of this character keep happening and why is no one labelling them as crimes?
Why Don’t We Recognise Corporate Crime as Crime?
The failure to consider corporate crime as crime is rooted in its neglect within Criminology and subsequently reflected in public perceptions which are communicated through media. Amazon’s (in)actions can be situated under the umbrella of corporate crime. Corporate crimes are actions and omissions perpetrated by corporations that are punishable under criminal, civil, regulatory, and administrative laws. As these actions involve a wide spectrum of offences, ranging from corporate manslaughter, environmental damage to financial and consumer frauds; it is almost impossible to unify a general theory about them within Criminology. This is further complicated by the fact that some corporate crimes question the very core concept of Criminology – what should and should not be crime in two ways. One, corporate crime fails to fulfil the traditional definition of criminality as it may include non-individual offenders, acts that span across long timeframes, and no mens rea. Two, it may include acts that are not criminal, but cause discernible and avoidable harms (such as environmental damage or fast fashion working conditions) which causes some to question whether the concept should even be studied in the field of Criminology. This results in an absence of unified body of literature, neglecting the topic of corporate crime which is merely reproduced within the media that also fails to identify the criminal conduct of corporations.
The complexity of corporate crimes and corporate operations also obscures our ability to recognise if a crime has been perpetrated. Corporations are multi-national organizations with structures that extend over multiple departments, individuals, and countries. Corporate crime results from multitude of decisions taken by various decision-makers, some of which may span across years, as opposed to traditional criminality based on individualism of space, time and perpetrator, (hence, many traditional theories also lack appropriateness in this area). There is also a possibility that some of the decisions undertaken were, indeed, mistakes combined with wrongful conduct that may lack mens rea as well as intentional criminal conduct. As such, our ability to discern where and if a criminal conduct has occurred is diminished.
The absent concern for corporate crime is perpetuated by media which becomes problematic as media is the main source of data on corporate crime. It is well established in media studies research that media is used to construct realities as well as to shape public opinions. Mass media is owned by large corporations and is dependent upon advertising by other large corporations and as such, it is difficult for them to critically report on crimes perpetrated by corporations. Furthermore, concerns about legal actions and inequality of access to legal expertise may make media organisations strike a more rather than less cautious tone and content when addressing the conduct of powerful corporations.
This is not to say that journalistic standards are not adhered to, merely to suggest that the way in which journalists decide to frame corporate crimes is very different to the framing of street crimes. It is common for media to identify corporate crimes as accidents, scandals, and disasters, lacking the criminal and malicious discourse attached to interpersonal crimes. This also normalises corporate criminality in the public consciousness, labelling it an expected outcome of the way in which capitalist systems work. Further, corporations have the ability to sue media outlets for slander/libel when media uses accusatory language towards them. As such, media outlets may avoid condemnation of corporate actions under the threat of lawsuits to avoid having to pay for damaged reputation. Public perceptions of the seriousness of corporate crime are very low compared to traditional crime, contrary to evidence from research. This is evident by the language media used in the Amazon case:
Both statements suggest that the tornado was the cause of the collapse of the wall and the subsequent death of the employees. But the truth is that no one would have died had Amazon focussed on worker safety and protection during extreme weather, meaning that the negligent conduct of Amazon decision-makers significantly contributed to deaths of the workers. Indeed, an investigation by OSHA has been launched into the workplace deaths which will most likely uncover what media has already been reporting on – the lack of storm shelters in the warehouse. The media has also been reporting on a new development in the case, a wrongful death lawsuit being filed by the family of one victim in the case, offering a more balanced and neutral argument. Though based on my research of corporate crime media portrayals, the first few days of coverage are the most formative ones when it comes to opinion forming, so this is unlikely to alter public perceptions about the seriousness of this case.
Placing the Amazon case within the natural disaster reporting takes away corporate responsibility and whitewashes the corporate involvement in a crime. There is nothing accidental about the fatalities that have occurred in the Amazon warehouse, workers could have been ordered to stay at home, or at the very least, they could have been provided with appropriate storm shelters. But alas, it is difficult for Criminology, media, and the public alike to recognise that a crime has occurred and just like that, corporate crime turns into, well, NOT a crime. As such, more needs to be done to bring this argument to the foreground of Criminological and public discourses.
About the author
Jana is currently working on her Ph.D. that examines media portrayals of corporate crime at The Open University with an ESRC scholarship. The key research focus throughout her Criminology-focussed studies has always been corporate crime and its marginal position in and out of academia, which she hopes to challenge with her future contributions.
This article was previously published on the BSC Blog