After a couple of months driving a van delivering Amazon packages to doorsteps, Abdulrahman Al-Arini slipped and fell one Saturday morning, hurting his back, wrist and ribs.
After taking a few shortened work days to try to heal, he soon got back to his normal workload. He would pick up around 150 packages from a warehouse in Brantford, Ont., and load them in his van, working usually from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. to deliver them all.
Al-Arini already had a back injury before he got the job in September 2018, and his work didn’t help.
“I slipped on the ice while making a drop-off and it kept getting worse,” the 26-year-old said.
Al-Arini was considered an independent contractor, hired by a company called Seven Seas Services Inc., that contracts with a larger courier company, Intelcom Express, that contracts with Amazon to deliver its packages.
He made a flat fee of $20 for every 16 packages delivered. He needed the work, and the job was accessible for someone learning English.
Finally, last May, six months after he slipped and fell, he had back surgery. Without extended benefits, he couldn’t afford the recommended physiotherapy, he said. He left Canada last fall and has been recovering in Jordan.
Al-Arini was one small moving part in a largely under-the-radar delivery system across the country that is trying to meet the appetite for speedy delivery of the goods Canadians order online. The delivery network that serves Amazon in Canada involves a range of couriers, from large players like Canada Post, Purolator and UPS, to medium contractors like Intelcom Express, to small ones like Seven Seas.
At the bottom of that pyramid is the delivery driver. Al-Arini and others tell CBC News that the need for speedy, low-cost deliveries can sometimes put their health and safety — and the safety of others — at risk.
Using third-party couriers allows Amazon to quickly ramp up or downsize its delivery operations depending on the shopping calendar. Rather than being paid per hour, many drivers are paid per package, motivating them to fill their vehicles with as many parcels as they can, and to hurry. They get paid when they deliver; when they can’t — due to sickness or snowy roads — they don’t.
Many drivers make more than 100 deliveries in a 10- or 12-hour day, some driving their own cars or rental vans, and using their own smartphones to map their routes.
When drivers for some of those so-called last-mile companies in Toronto spoke up in favour of better working conditions, their action was met with punishment from Amazon, according to filings in a case returning to the Ontario Labour Relations Board on Thursday.
The workers allege Amazon attempted to chill a union drive at some of the companies that deliver for the retailer by using its power over contractors to have drivers behind the organizing effort fired.
Amazon subsidiary Amazon Canada Fulfilment Services Inc. “categorically denies” the allegations in filings to the labour board.
In a statement to CBC News, Amazon said it has a “strong safety and labour compliance record” across its transportation network of employees and contractors. The company declined to say how many small- and medium-sized contractors are part of its network in Canada, or what proportion of Amazon deliveries they make.
Amazon said contractors are required to be fully insured and comply with labour laws.
Seven Seas Services Inc., the subcontractor that hired Al-Arini, did not respond to CBC’s requests for comment.
‘You start taking shortcuts’
An investigation by ProPublica published in September found dozens of cases of injuries and deaths related to drivers delivering Amazon packages in the United States.
Logistics consultant Marc Wulfraat said the same risks exist in Canada when drivers are under pressure to make so many deliveries so quickly.
“If you’re late or you slow down, you start taking shortcuts to get your job done on time,” said Wulfraat, of the Montreal-based firm MWPVL International.
“It could be something simple like throwing the package on the customer’s doorstep and not ringing the bell,” Wulfraat said. “It could be something like running a red light. It could be something where you’re driving too fast. Could be a lot of things that introduce safety risks to the public at large.”
In a statement, Amazon said, “Safety is and will remain Amazon’s top priority as evidenced by the vast percentage of deliveries that arrive on time and without incident.”
Nick Frauhajm began delivering Amazon packages for Intelcom Express in Calgary in 2016. He drove his own car and paid for his own phone and gas to make deliveries, receiving about $1.55 per package, he said.
“The pressure was 100 per cent on the drivers,” he said. “When you’re a driver, you’re working for pay and you don’t care about anything else. You’re working to get stuff done as fast as you can so you can get paid more.”
Frauhajm had been working as a bouncer and welcomed the chance to do something different. He said the gig was attractive to out-of-work oil industry workers, as jobs were hard to come by in Alberta.
He said whenever drivers raised concerns about safety, pay or hours, the response from higher-ups was that the whole business existed under the threat of being cancelled by Amazon.
“If you don’t do this, Amazon is going to revoke the contract and none of us are going to have jobs,” he said the workers were told. He left the company in 2017 over concerns with his workload and hours.
Intelcom Express declined to comment on the allegations.
In a statement, Amazon said it uses technology for its contractors to make sure drivers “aren’t receiving and driving with too many packages” and limits the number of hours drivers are on the road.
‘Someone is going to get really hurt one day’
Julian Back lives on a one-way street in Toronto’s St. Clair West neighbourhood. On roughly 10 occasions, he’s seen rental vans going the wrong way down the street while making Amazon deliveries, he said.
One driver in an Enterprise van got into a collision with his neighbour’s vehicle in April 2018, just after delivering Amazon packages on the street, Back said.
“They went the right way, made their delivery, did a U-turn and went the wrong way,” he said. “Someone was pulling out of their driveway and they collided.”
He attributes the problem to drivers not necessarily knowing the area and trying to hurry.
Back said he has alerted city officials to the problem. He’s captured some of the wrong-way drivers on a video camera mounted on his house.
“It’s frustrating because someone is going to get really hurt one day,” he said. “Who is accountable? Who is going to be accountable? Do you think Amazon is going to take responsibility? Probably not.”
Wulfraat, the logistics consultant, said the emphasis on speed and lower prices comes with safety risks.
“I know Amazon claims otherwise, but you don’t get cheap, fast and safe quality all in the same bucket,” he said. “If you’re going to go cheap and fast, there’s going to be something that slips … and that’s going to be safety. And the risk is just going to be higher.”
A ‘chilling effect’?
The question of Amazon’s responsibility for contracted couriers is among those to be answered in an Ontario Labour Review Board hearing set to resume this week.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 175 filed for the review after it had organized courier drivers delivering around the Greater Toronto Area for Amazon. The union argues that even though drivers were technically employed by sub-contractors, Amazon has “complete direction and control” over the courier companies.
For example, the union claims Amazon sets the requirement that drivers deliver 15 to 25 packages per hour and maintains statistics on driver performance and hours. The union alleges the drivers who led the unionizing effort were fired.
The union argues Amazon’s actions had a “chilling effect” on workers and dissuaded them from unionizing.
Amazon denies the allegations, saying it “is not in the business of providing trucking services.” The company says it has contracts with arm’s-length courier companies that are responsible for hiring and setting hours and pay.