Amazon executives plotted to launch a smear campaign against a rebellious warehouse worker, calling him "not smart or articulate", according to reports.
Vice News reported on Thursday that it had obtained leaked documents from a daily coronavirus planning meeting attended by Amazon's chief executive Jeff Bezos showing "broad agreement" to go on the offensive against Christian Smalls, who was fired on Monday after leading a walk-out in New York City.
The report alleges that David Zapolsky, Amazon's general counsel, advocated making Mr Smalls "the face of the union movement" to head off a growing PR storm. He effectively confirmed those comments on Thursday, admitting he had let his "emotions" rule him while continuing to attack the worker.
It comes amid increasing rancour and fear about the safety of Amazon's warehouses as millions of people suddenly turn to the online shopping giant to keep them supplied while isolated at home.
Last week an anonymous Amazon delivery driver, writing in the Telegraph, accused the company of taking "no precautions to protect its workers and creating a "dangerous" environment.
Mr Zapolsky reportedly said: “We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organiser’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers."
That strategy mirrors statements by other Amazon executives over the last few days, with two of them sending almost identical tweets claiming that Mr Smalls had "knowingly put our team at risk".
You have been misinformed again Sen. Sanders. Mr. Smalls purposely violated social distancing rules multiple times and on 3/28 was put on Paid 14-days of quarantine due to COVID exposure. 3/30 he returned to the site. Knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable. https://t.co/pRDW4ztrpq
— Dave Clark (@davehclark) April 1, 2020
. @SenSanders, I’m confused. Thought you wanted us to protect our workers? Mr. Smalls purposely violated social distancing rules, repeatedly, & was put on Paid 14-day quarantine for COVID exposure. 3/30 he returned to the site. Knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable. https://t.co/WR49t6Qkij
— Jay Carney (@JayCarney) April 1, 2020
A spokesman refused to confirm or deny the Vice report, instead referring the Telegraph to Mr Zapolsky's statement.
The company, which employs almost 800,000 people around the world, says that it fired Mr Smalls for breaking a 14-day quarantine that was imposed on him after he came into contact with a worker who had tested positive for coronavirus.
Yet Mr Smalls says that other workers who had the same or greater contact with the sick employee were not quarantined, and that he was singled out for pushing his bosses to shut down and disinfect the warehouse.
A petition launched last month, signed by more than 1,500 workers, called for Amazon to shut down its facilities and give workers paid leave at their normal rate while the sites are sterilised and staff are tested. The British GMB union has also launched a petition.
On Thursday, Mr Zapolsky admitted that he was "frustrated and upset" with Mr Smalls for "endangering the health and safety of other Amazonians", but did not apologise. "I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me," he concluded.
Dave Clark, Amazon's vice president of global operations, said in a blog post that the company "did not, and [has] not ever, terminated an associate for speaking out on their working conditions," but would "act swiftly" against those who deliberately endanger others.
The Vice News report also claims that executives discussed how to win approval by finding "different and bold" ways of donating masks, such as "giving 1,000 masks to every police station in the [US]".
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has been attempting to unionise Amazon workers since 2018, said: “Every Amazon executive responsible for this stunning conduct, beginning with M. Zaplosky, should be immediately fired."