Last year, Amazon gave $5m to homeless charities in Seattle. The city has the third largest homeless population in the US. So, who could argue with Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’s philanthropy? Well, the homeless of Seattle probably could.
In 2018, the city council voted unanimously to introduce a $275-per-employee tax on large employers as a means of funding homelessness programmes. Amazon launched a ferocious public campaign against the tax. It also “paused” work on new offices and suggested it might move staff elsewhere. Four weeks after the tax started, it was scrapped. The tax would have raised £48m annually. So the price of a £5m donation was $43m lost for the homeless. And that’s just for the first year.
It’s a story worth keeping in mind when thinking about Bezos’s latest philanthropic wheeze: $10bn “to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change”. That’s a month after Amazon threatened to sack employees who spoke out about the company’s climate crisis policies.
How come Bezos has $10bn lying around to throw at climate change? Because, as journalist James Bloodworth observes in his book Hired, Amazon workers are thought to be among the worst treated of all low-paid staff. An investigation last year by Reveal and Atlantic magazines showed that the injury rate at Amazon’s US centres was more than twice as high as the industry average. It’s little different in Britain.
So, if anyone is paying for Bezos’s philanthropy it’s Amazon’s workers, on whose backs he has become the richest man in the world. Rather than flaunting his philanthropy, Bezos might try providing decent wages and better conditions. Charity, they say, begins at home. Or in your warehouse.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist