On Tuesday 15 December, MacKenzie Scott, the world’s 18th-richest person, publicly revealed that she was the one behind the donations to dozens of colleges and universities in the US, part of nearly $4.2 billion she had given to 384 organisations in the last four months.
Scott, who was formerly married to the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (also known as the world’s richest person), has pledged to give away most of her wealth. Her shares in Amazon were valued at about $38 billion last year but would have gained value during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to The New York Times, Scott made donations to colleges and universities that many people have never heard of, and that tended to serve regional, minority and lower-income students. The money came after weeks of secret conversations between Scott’s representatives and college presidents who were interviewed about their missions, as several of the presidents revealed on Wednesday.
When they learned who was behind the effort, it was a surprise but it could not have come at a better time, when the pandemic was hitting their student bodies hard, they admitted. After Scott gave $50 million, the biggest gift the university had ever received, to Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college in Prairie View, Texas, its president Ruth Simmons thought she had misheard and the caller had to repeat the number: “five-zero.”
Scott made gifts to more than a dozen historically black colleges and universities, as well as community and technical colleges and schools serving Native Americans, women, urban and rural students. Some of the college presidents said that Scott had put no restrictions on the funds, allowing them to determine how to use them.
The funds were delivered to Prairie View on 20 October, and Simmons said she had been permitted to start disbursing money immediately to students affected by the pandemic. Speaking to The New York Times, Simmons said she was initially asked to keep word of the gift confidential, yet argued that making it public knowledge would send an important message.
“I used to be the president of one of those big colleges—Brown University—and there, of course, it was quite routine to be in conversations with people about gifts of this size,” Simmons said. “But it rarely happens in institutions like Prairie View, and it rarely happens especially for the kinds of students that we serve.”
The Borough of Manhattan Community College, a predominantly black and Hispanic institution in Lower Manhattan, received $30 million from Scott. A sister school within the City University of New York system, Lehman College, also received $30 million. Morgan State University, a historically black university in Baltimore, was given $40 million, and West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah $15 million.
Scott’s latest gifts bring her charity to almost $6 billion in 2020, an impressive amount. In a Medium post on Tuesday, she wrote: “This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling. Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty.”
Of course, many other billionaire philanthropists have previously donated impressive amounts of money to schools but few choose to make donations to colleges and universities that many people have never heard of. To these institutions, a $20 million donation is the equivalent of several times that to a Harvard or Yale, and could have a disproportionate impact.
Scott does not have a personal connection to most, if any, of these universities, which could imply that she simply is conveying a message of support and inclusion to minority and lower-income students.
West Kentucky Community and Technical College said it would use its gift to help disadvantaged rural adults and students prepare for the workforce. Prairie View A&M is using $10 million of its share to create the Panther Success Grant Program, to help juniors and seniors who have suffered financially from the pandemic to pay their college bills. The rest of the money will be allocated to the university’s endowment, raising it to $130 million from $95 million, which would support things like faculty recruitment and undergraduate scholarships.
Scott’s generosity is an endorsement of the value of these schools’ students and what they are doing in striving for education—something that Bezos has never done before and will probably never do in the future.
Amazon’s staggering mistreatment of its employees has been making occasional headlines around the world for some years now. In some cases, increased scrutiny and persistent backlash by workers resulted in the latter’s victory against the retail giant; for the most part, however, Amazon’s empire emerged unscathed and continued to abuse its employees.
But Amazon’s abysmal mistreatment of employees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and its failure to provide them with even the most basic protection measures from the virus—while registering record profits that were siphoned directly to the pockets of Jeff Bezos and other executives—has given rise to a resistance movement of workers unprecedented in its size and scope.
From India and Bangladesh to Australia, the US, and multiple European countries, Amazon workers have united under a coalition called Make Amazon Pay and voiced a unanimous demand to see an immediate improvement in their workplace conditions, wages, contracts, and ability to unionise. While strikes and protests by Amazon workers have been happening sporadically for years, Make Amazon Pay constitutes the first globally coordinated effort by employees of the company and their allies to take on the multi-billion-dollar retail mammoth and hold it accountable for its inhumane and destructive conduct.
Amazon workers’ conditions have been deplorable long before the outbreak of the pandemic. Time and time again, horrifying stories leaked about mistreatment of workers at warehouses during excessively long and stressful shifts. In the UK, some warehouse employees reportedly had to urinate into bottles because they were prohibited from using the bathroom mid-shift. In several locations across the US, employees died from exhaustion on the warehouse floor.
Amazon’s refusal to allow workers to unionise and its practice of enlisting workers on temporary, unstable contracts have made it incredibly difficult for the company’s employees to organise and fight for their rights. The retail giant’s continued surveillance of employees has been inspiring an atmosphere of fear among them and discouraged many from coming forward and complaining. Those who do often face retributions and lose their job.
The advent of COVID-19 has made a bad situation worse for Amazon workers. Taking advantage of the precarious economic situation and workers’ fear of losing their job during the pandemic, Amazon has forced its employees to deal with the rising volume of orders without any precautions. Around the world, Amazon warehouse workers attested that no safety measures were introduced to guarantee the health of workers, and hawkish sick leave policies have left many employees who feared for their jobs to show up to work visibly ill, which rendered entire warehouses to hotbeds of infection. Amazon, on its part, all but brushed such incidents under the carpet and, on multiple occasions, failed to report the accurate number of COVID-19 cases on its premises.
Moreover, during the pandemic Amazon has refused to adequately pay its workers despite raking in a mind-boggling $96 billion in the last quarter alone. The company reportedly neglected to pay suppliers for completed orders that were cancelled as a result of the virus, and, as reported by The Intercept, paid a meagre $300 in holiday bonuses to its workers in the US and UK, while many in other countries received no bonuses at all. Meanwhile, towards the end of August 2020, it was reported that Bezos’ wealth reached an estimated $202 billion.
The rapidly deteriorating situation for Amazon workers, which only worsened during Black Friday and the lead-up to Christmas, has sparked a tidal wave of walk-outs, sickouts, protests, strikes, and a flurry of lawsuits against the company. It was also the impetus behind the formation of the Make Amazon Pay coalition.
While Amazon workers have made, over the past few years, protracted gains in certain countries and locations, Make Amazon Pay seeks to secure comprehensive commitments by the company that would affect workers equally across the globe.
Among the coalition’s top demands is the universal right for all Amazon workers to unionise. “We have a lot more control as unionized workers,” Natalia Skowrońska, a packer in the Poznań warehouse, said in an interview with The Intercept’s Natasha Lennard, adding that employees’ “capacities are far greater as an entity that the company has to contend with.”
Other demands by the coalition include workers’ universal right to strike without fear of retribution, improvements in wages, safety conditions, and job security, as well as a commitment by the company to terminate contracts with the fossil fuel industry and drastically reduce its carbon footprint (which currently exceeds that of two-thirds of the world’s countries). Make Amazon Pay also demands that the company ends its surveillance practices—not only of workers, but of labour unions and environmental groups whom it perceived as threatening and has evidently surveilled.
The coalition has so far gained the endorsement of numerous human rights, labour, and environmental organisations, as well as of hundreds of politicians from across the world. In November, Amnesty International published an extensive report titled Amazon, Let Workers Organize!. That same month, the coalition published an open letter, which was signed by 401 parliamentarians and public officials from 34 different countries, and personally addressed Bezos, stating, “We, elected representatives, legislators, and public officials from around the world, hereby put you on notice that Amazon’s days of impunity are over […] We write to you now with a single commitment: to Make Amazon Pay.”
Passing bold legislation would certainly constitute a monumental step toward holding Amazon accountable for its behaviour. It would also, potentially, pave a clear path to increasing regulation and oversight of other major corporations in the future and compel them to guarantee the safety and well-being of their workers and comply with national and international labour, human rights, and environmental standards. Relevant legislation could also be instrumental in decentralising Amazon and granting workers voting rights over decisions that impact them (another demand of Make Amazon Pay); this, too, could be used as a blueprint in the effort to tackle widespread abuses by other monopolies.
But we, as consumers, play a critical role in this crisis as well. It is easy to glance at news of this ongoing struggle by Amazon workers from a detached place. Yet, it is us spurring these surges in orders across the globe; it is we who keep funnelling money into the pockets of Bezos regardless of his corporation’s manner of conduct, thus allowing him to act with impunity and amass an obscene amount of wealth at the expense of his employees’ welfare.
Yes, we find ourselves in a tricky situation, seeing as—pandemic or not—we can only expect our reliance on online retailers such as Amazon to grow over our lifetime. But, still, we must assume responsibility for our part in perpetuating this cycle of abuse (of both workers and our planet) and actively support efforts to hold Amazon accountable. We can do so, for example, by rethinking our consumption habits and searching for alternatives to Amazon whenever possible, keeping the conversation about the company’s conduct and the protests alive online and in our communities, and pressuring our elected officials to institute checks and balances over tech giants.
That’s a tall order, true. Why not start by signing Make Amazon Pay’s petition?