By Levi Sumagaysay
Amazon.com Inc., which has touted its commitment to civil rights in the past year and signed a statement this week to speak up against voter restrictions, is opposing all human- and civil-rights resolutions brought before its shareholders this year as its departing chief executive seeks to be “Earth’s best employer.”
Among the proposals Amazon (NAS:AMZN) is recommending its shareholders vote against are reports on pay by race and gender; who gets promoted; how customers use its technology; and the tech giant’s lobbying activities. The company said in its proxy that it generally opposes proposals requesting other reports, policies or initiatives “as they do not take into account the actions we are already taking or have already reported on to address such issues.”
After George Floyd was killed while being held by Minnesota police last year and the subsequent widespread racial-justice protests, Amazon was among the many companies that declared “Black Lives Matter,” including by putting the phrase on its home page. Yet the company, like others, is this year saying that what it’s done in response make efforts to keep it transparent and accountable unnecessary.
See: Companies declared ‘Black lives matter’ last year, and now they’re being asked to prove it
In the case of a resolution seeking an independent audit of the company’s impact on civil rights, equity, diversity and inclusion, Amazon had asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to allow the company to block it from its proxy. The SEC would not, so shareholders will have the chance to vote on it.
“An independent examination of just how Amazon is addressing racial injustice in its workplace, in the wages it pays and in the products it sells, will help ensure the company is confronting institutionalized inequality and the impact on its business,” said New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who had filed the resolution on behalf of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, in a statement after the SEC’s decision.
In its proxy, Amazon touts donations it has made to racial-justice organizations and its diversity efforts in its workforce, including “doubling the number of Black directors and vice presidents in 2020 and again in 2021 through effective executive development and recruitment programs.”
In addition, an Amazon spokeswoman noted that the SEC agreed with the company on excluding a separate resolution calling for a diverse-candidate search policy. The company had argued, among other things, that such a policy is not needed because it already has diversity initiatives and policies in place.
Amazon has also been in the spotlight for its relationship with its employees. In his annual letter to shareholders, Chief Executive Jeff Bezos declared that the company will focus on “a vision for [employee] success” after Amazon staved off an employee unionization effort at a warehouse in Alabama.
See: Bezos’ swan song letter vows an ‘obsession’ with employee welfare
Yet Amazon is opposing a shareholder resolution calling for a policy to consider alternative board candidates, including employee representatives.
“Amazon has been publicly excoriated for mistreating workers — including criticism over dehumanizing working conditions, antiunion activities, and placing significant strain on taxpayers by forcing their employees to rely upon food stamps,” the resolution says, adding that worker representation on the board could help address the issues directly.
In its statement opposing the resolution, Amazon said there are “multiple channels” through which the company and the board engage with employees and address their concerns, including Connections, its employee-feedback platform, plus employee surveys and an open-door policy.
As for how its products are used, Amazon shareholders will vote on two resolutions that address possible abuses of surveillance, artificial intelligence and machine learning technology.
“Amazon’s surveillance and cloud products may exacerbate systemic inequities, compromise oversight, and contribute to mass surveillance,” says one resolution that calls for a report on customer due diligence. The resolution mentions Amazon’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ring’s police partnerships and sales of Rekognition, the company’s facial-recognition technology, to police.
Another resolution asks specifically for a report on Rekognition and reads in part: “Human and civil rights organizations are concerned that facial surveillance technology may violate civil rights by unfairly and disproportionately targeting and surveilling people of color, immigrants and civil society organizations.”
See: Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan urge shareholders to vote against racial-equity audits
In recent years, the American Civil Liberties Union has published studies showing Rekognition failed to correctly identify U.S. lawmakers, for example.
In response to both proposals, Amazon disagrees with the characterization of Rekognition, and adds that it has advocated for regulation of facial recognition.
“Amazon Rekognition is an image analysis service that can analyze objects, people, text, scenes, and activities in images and videos,” the company says. “Contrary to the proponent’s mischaracterization, it is not a surveillance system.”
The company also notes that it implemented a one-year moratorium on police use of Rekognition, and that it has turned down potential customers that would violate its policy for acceptable use of the technology.
Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC (Media and Information Companies Initiative), a nonprofit that works on socially responsible investing and shareholder engagement and helped shareholders develop the resolutions, said that despite Amazon’s stated commitment to civil liberties, “dozens of national and local civil rights groups have explicitly and continuously called out Ring, Rekognition, Amazon’s surveillance of warehouse workers and drivers, and other ongoing civil rights threats.”
Finally, Amazon is asking shareholders to vote against a proposal for a report on its lobbying activities, saying it complies with federal and other applicable disclosure laws.
The resolution seeks additional disclosures on direct and indirect lobbying, and grass-roots lobbying communications, and notes that disclosure at the state level is spotty or nonexistent. Further, it points out that Amazon’s spending sometimes contradicts its public positions.
An example: “CEO Jeff Bezos signed the [Business Roundtable’s] Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation — committing to invest in employees — yet Amazon hired lobbyists on COVID-19 issues to counter workers who protested lack of protections,” Newground Social Investment wrote in its proposal.
In response, Amazon pointed to in-house COVID-19 testing for its employees and its advocacy for front-line workers to get vaccinated.