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Published on April 12, 2021 by Holly Porter

What’s been going on in the commercial world over the past week? Read on to find out!

Amazon Wins Unionisation Vote

On Friday, Amazon defeated activists at the Bessemer plant in Alabama, who had hoped to establish Amazon’s first unionised warehouse in the US. 55% of the facility’s workers cast a vote with the results 1793 to 738 against the effort.

What is the dispute about? Amazon workers have long criticised their working conditions, but this has intensified in recent months. Workers have argued that the constant disinfecting and increase in demand during the pandemic have led to considerable stress and pressure. Amazon refutes these claims citing the fact the company pays its warehouse employees twice the federal minimum wage.

The RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union) is appealing the decision. The main argument for the appeal stems from Amazon’s anti-union campaign in the run-up to the vote. There are allegations that Amazon spent millions on anti-union posters and meetings, as well as pushing the US postal service to install a mailbox on company grounds, which some have argued is part of a monitoring and intimidation operation. The mailbox has since been removed. The President of the RWDSU Stuart Appelbaum has gone as far as to accuse Amazon of ‘efforts to gaslight its own employees’ and obstruction of a ‘free and fair vote’. If the union is successful in its appeal, Amazon will have to negotiate a contract with union officials on working rules, conditions and pay.

Amazon, which now has over 1.3m employees, is also facing worldwide criticism regarding its working conditions. Over the Easter weekend, 500 employees across 15 fulfilment centres in Germany went on strike. Germany is Amazon’s second-largest market outside the US, and normally, when output is down, Amazon can rely on increased efforts in Poland or Czechia. However, there are reports of planned strikes in France, Italy, Spain and Poland involving union action too, meaning Amazon may no longer have this fallback to rely on. India has also seen strikes in Amazon centres in Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Pune and Delhi.

It is important to note that President Joe Biden, Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Marco Rubio are politically in support of the establishment of a union. If political support and global pressure continue, Amazon may need to make some radical changes.

Talking points: What are the labour unions like in the US? Who protects Amazon workers in the UK?


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Geopolitics prove tricky for Western brands

In March 2021, the EU, US, UK and Canada coordinated sanctions for individuals involved with forced labour camps in China’s Xinjiang region. There has been growing discontent over accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where there is a large Uighur Muslim population. It is estimated that, alongside a large network of detention camps, upwards of half a million minority workers are being coerced into seasonal cotton picking. Although the Chinese government denies the claim, Western states have pressed ahead with sanctions.

Around the same time, Swedish retailer H&M issued a statement condemning Xinjiang. In response, H&M clothes have now been blocked from e-commerce apps and there are reports of several landlords cancelling their leases to the brand. Currently, H&M sells around $1bn or 5% of its global sales in China. Retailers Adidas and Nike have both experienced a similar boycott following public statements condemning the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Given China is home to more than 400m middle-class citizens, it is a huge market for Western brands to be left out of.  As a result, some brands such as Muji and Fila have issued statements of commitment to the region. The Xiangjiang region itself accounts for 90% of China’s production and 20% of world supply. This has left many brands in a tricky position as they cannot guarantee that their textiles are free of forced labour. The Chinese government still prohibits in-person audits of its textile factories.

Talking point: What sanctions has the UK placed on goods manufactured in Xinjiang?

Aston Martin will manufacture electric cars in the UK

British luxury car manufacturer Aston Martin has announced it will manufacture all cars in the UK from 2025 onwards. All battery sports cars will be made at its plant in Gaydon, Warwickshire; electric SUV models will be made at St Athan in Glamorgan. The car giant will make hybrid versions of the cars for 4 years, then battery-only models from 2025. There are already 2,500 jobs associated with Aston Martin in Gaydon and St Athan – it is unclear whether the new commitment will bring more jobs as well as investment.

Aston Martin is following in the footsteps of luxury car manufacturers rivals Jaguar Land Rover, who announced in March that its Jaguar brand will be all-electric by 2025, and Bentley Motors, who aim to have a fully electric range by 2030. Similarly, both Ford and Volvo are aiming to sell electric-only cars from 2030 in Europe. The news comes amidst reports that the UK government is planning to phase out the sale of non-hybrid petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

Talking point: Can the UK compete internationally in manufacturing electric vehicles? 

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