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Union takes Amazon to court claiming pregnancy discrimination

SDA will be seeking penalties and damages for loss, hurt and humiliation.
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Union takes Amazon to court claiming pregnancy discrimination

Union takes Amazon to court claiming pregnancy discrimination

19 January 2021

By Gaby Grammeno

On behalf of a pregnant worker, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA) will be seeking penalties and damages for loss, hurt and humiliation in a Federal Court case in early February. The case concerns a labour hire worker who was offered a permanent position after almost seven months’ employment at Amazon, then found the offer withdrawn after disclosing her pregnancy.

The claim: discrimination due to pregnancy

The woman, a casual employee of a labour hire company, worked as a packer at Amazon’s Sydney fulfilment centre, a facility that takes care of inventory, storage, delivery to customers, customer service and returns.

After receiving an email stating that Amazon would offer permanent positions to workers of that labour hire company who had been there for at least three months, the woman was contacted in June 2020 by an Amazon human resources representative who offered her work and invited her to select her preferred weekend shift patterns.

Later that day, however, the worker informed Amazon’s HR representative that she was pregnant.

According to the SDA’s statement of claim, the HR rep’s response was that because of changes in the worker’s role due to her pregnancy, there may not be a permanent position available to her.

Two weeks after this development, the worker was asked to attend a meeting where she was told her ‘pick rates’ were low and that she had failed to attend work on two occasions.

The worker reportedly denied the allegations, but was told at the end of the meeting that Amazon had rejected her application for a permanent position.

The SDA, which is the union for warehouse workers and represents Amazon workers in Australia, is claiming that Amazon's actions breached the discrimination provisions of s351 of the Fair Work Act 2009.

Section 351 states that an employer must not take adverse action against an employee or prospective employee because of the worker's pregnancy, among other grounds. Adverse action is defined to include a situation where a prospective employer refuses to employ the prospective employee.

The SDA has highlighted the case as an example of the precarious nature of insecure work, noting that if the worker had been directly hired from the beginning of her engagement with Amazon, she would be looking forward to the birth, secure in the knowledge she would be taking parental leave and returning to her employment in due course.

According to reports, Amazon has not yet filed a defence but has denied the allegations. In view of the statements said to have been made at the meeting where the woman was told her application for permanent employment was rejected, the company’s defence is likely to be that the job offer was withdrawn in consideration of poor job performance and attendance.

Media coverage makes it clear that this is not the first time Amazon has faced such claims. In May 2019 it was reported that seven pregnant fulfilment centre workers in California were suing the company for discriminating against them because of their pregnancies. Similar claims also surfaced at an Amazon fulfilment centre in Oklahoma.

Activists have alleged that the company’s system is designed to not accommodate anything that diminishes a worker’s productivity, whether that's pregnancy or anything else. In the case of pregnant workers, the complaints have included claims that the company failed to accommodate their needs, including requests for longer or more frequent bathroom breaks and fewer continuous hours on their feet.

Amazon denies any wrongdoing, claiming that it is an equal opportunity employer and accommodates work restrictions for pregnant employees within its fulfillment centres.

The company is building its first robotic Australian fulfilment centre in Sydney’s west in a bid to accelerate order processing times and improve the e-tailer’s competitiveness. The establishment of the new centre is expected to create 1500 permanent jobs when completed in late 2021, as well as a further 700 jobs during construction.

The SDA will make its claim of pregnancy discrimination on behalf of the worker at the first case management hearing in the Federal Court of Australia on 2 February 2021.

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