Titled the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (Stop BEZOS) Act, Mr Sanders took direct aim at companies such as Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos. While Mr Bezos’ wealth stood at $168bn, the Vermont senator said, many of his employees were forced to use food stamps and other federal and state benefits because their wages were so low.
“At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, when the 3 wealthiest people in America own more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent and when 52 per cent of all new income goes to the top one per cent, the American people are tired of subsidising multi-billionaires who own some of the largest and most profitable corporations in America,” Mr Sanders said at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
“Let me give you just a few examples of what we are talking about. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the wealthiest person on earth. Today, his net worth is $168bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Since the beginning of this year, his wealth has increased by about $260m every single day.”
Mr Sanders, who challenged Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, added: “Meanwhile, Mr Bezos continues to pay many thousands of his Amazon employees wages that are so low that they must rely on food stamps, Medicaid or public housing in order to survive - programmes that are financed by middle class taxpayers.”
Mr Sanders’ comments about Mr Bezos were just his latest assault upon the Amazon founder and owner of the Washington Post. Two weeks ago, he launched a petition to try and force the Amazon boss to pay what he termed “a living wage.” He also invited Amazon employees to contact his office with their own personal stories.
“I think there is something weird and wrong with people who have that much and are willing to step over working people, many with families and young children, in order to get more and more,” he said at the time.
On Wednesday, Mr Sanders shared some of those employees’ stories. He quoted a current Amazon employee in Illinois who worked “40 hours a week at $13.25. I have 2 kids to support. I receive 90 dollars of food stamps…I don’t make enough to eat lunch at work so I split a protein shake between two meals to make sure my children eat”.
He said a former Amazon worker from North Carolina had told his staff: “Been on food stamps the entire time I have been working at Amazon - back-breaking labour, terrible pay and even worse conditions - no union backing. I feel like a slave and if anyone complains they will fire you on the spot. This is the 21st century sweatshop.”
He said that in April, Amazon reported half its workforce made less than $28,500 a year – about $13.67 an hour. He said even this figure was misleading because 40 per cent of its workforce was employed through temporary staffing agencies. He said Amazon was currently advertising jobs in Phoenix, Arizona, for $12.25.
Mr Sanders was asked if was not guilty of hypocrisy, given that his home state of Vermont had a minimum wage of just $10.50 an hour, the annual equivalent of $21,840.
“As I am sure you know, with my very strong support, the state legislature voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour,” he said. “Our Republican governor vetoed the the measure.”
The legislation, which has been co-sponsored by Democratic congressman Ro Khanna of California, came as top officials from several technology companies, including Facebook and Twitter, appeared before elected politicians amid a growing debate over whether such firms need more regulation.
It also came a day after Amazon reached a $1 trillion in market cap, the second company to do so after Apple passed the milestone last month. Amazon is now the second highest-valued publicly-traded US company.
Aware of his planned legislation, Amazon preemptively responded on one of the company’s blogs.
“Senator Sanders continues to make inaccurate and misleading accusations against Amazon,” it said. “We have been in regular contact with his office and have offered several opportunities for Senator Sanders and his team to tour one of our fulfillment centres. To date he has still not seen an FC for himself.
It added: “Instead, Senator Sanders continues to spread misleading statements about pay and benefits. Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone. In the US, the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centres, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15 per hour before overtime.”
The Vermont senator, who many believe will make another presidential run in 2020, said he was not concerned simply about Amazon or Mr Bezos.
“The Walton family of Walmart is the wealthiest family in the country with a net worth of nearly $175bn. This one family owns more wealth than the bottom 40 per cent of Americans,” he said.
“Meanwhile, just like Amazon, Walmart pays its workers’ wages that are so inadequate that many of them are forced to depend upon public assistance programmes in order to survive at a cost to taxpayers of some $6.2bn each and every year.”
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