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AWS’ Tim Bray Quits Over Amazon Whistle-Blower Firings

'May 1st was my last day as a VP and distinguished engineer at Amazon Web Services, after five years and five months of rewarding fun,' Tim Bray writes in a post on his blog. 'I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistle-blowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.'

Tim Bray, a vice president and “distinguished engineer” at Amazon Web Services, has quit his job with the cloud provider due to Amazon.com’s alleged handling of whistle-blowers complaining about warehouse safety conditions amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“May 1st was my last day as a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, after five years and five months of rewarding fun,” Bray wrote in a post on his blog. “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistle-blowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19. What with big-tech salaries and share vestings, this will probably cost me over a million (pre-tax) dollars, not to mention the best job I’ve ever had, working with awfully good people. So I’m pretty blue.”

Bray (pictured above) said he “snapped” following the reported firings of two Amazon Employees for Climate Justice workers -- Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa – who had promoted a petition demanding Amazon coronavirus protections and organized a video call with outside activist Naomi Klein and Amazon warehouse workers after the online retail giant fired another worker who had been conducting organizing efforts for better safety conditions, according to his blog post.

“The justifications were laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistle-blowing,” Bray wrote in his blog. “Management could have objected to the event, or demanded that outsiders be excluded, or that leadership be represented, or any number of other things; there was plenty of time. Instead, they just fired the activists. At that point I snapped.”

Acknowledging that vice presidents “shouldn’t go publicly rogue,” Bray said he raised his concerns through the proper Amazon channels “by the book.”

“I’m not at liberty to disclose those discussions, but I made many of the arguments appearing in this essay,” Bray said. “I think I made them to the appropriate people. That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.”

Bray didn’t immediately respond to a CRN inquiry for additional comment. AWS declined to comment on Bray’s post and his departure.

Amazon, meanwhile, said it expects to invest approximately $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives, including more than $800 million on safety measures. Among actions the company said it’s taken to date are 150 “process updates” including enhanced cleaning, social distancing measures and disinfectant spraying at its facilities; distributing personal protective gear including masks to employees; conducting temperature checks at its facilities; giving an additional up to two weeks paid time off for employees diagnosed with the coronavirus; increased pay; and the establishment of a $25 million relief fund for partners such as delivery drivers and seasonal associates. The company also has said its building scalable coronavirus testing for workers.

Bray worked with AWS’ serverless group at its Vancouver, Canada, office. His discontent with Amazon apparently reached further back to the company’s response last year to Amazon Employees for Climate Justice workers’ promotion of a shareholders’ resolution calling for Amazon to lead action on climate issues and the company allegedly threatening to fire those leaders.

Referring to Amazon’s reported coronavirus-related firings, Bray offered these descriptive phrases to describe them: “chickenshit,” “kill the messenger,” “never heard of the Streisand effect,” “designed to create a climate of fear” and “like painting a sign on your forehead saying ‘either guilty, or has something to hide.’”

“On the other hand, Amazon’s messaging has been urgent that they are prioritizing this issue and putting massive efforts into warehouse safety,” Bray said. “I actually believe this: I have heard detailed descriptions from people I trust of the intense work and huge investments. Good for them; and let’s grant that you don’t turn a supertanker on a dime. But I believe the worker testimony, too. And at the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.”

While Amazon is “exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them,” Bray said “it has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”

“If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things,” Bray said. “We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.”

Firing whistle-blowers is “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture,” Bray alleged.

“I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison,” he said.

But Bray had kinder words for how workers are treated at AWS, calling it a “different story.”

“It treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance, struggles to move the diversity needle (and mostly fails, but so does everyone else), and is by and large an ethical organization,” Bray said. “I genuinely admire its leadership. Of course, its workers have power. The average pay is very high, and anyone who’s unhappy can walk across the street and get another job paying the same or better.”

“At the end of the day, it’s all about power balances,” Bray continued. “The warehouse workers are weak and getting weaker, what with mass unemployment and (in the US) job-linked health insurance. So they’re gonna (SIC) get treated like crap, because capitalism. Any plausible solution has to start with increasing their collective strength.”

Bray previously worked as a developer advocate at Google and director of web technology for the former Sun Microsystems and was a co-author of the original XML specification. He said he didn’t know what his future plans will be.

“I don’t know, genuinely haven’t taken time to think about it,” he said. “I’m sad, but I’m breathing more freely.”

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