The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) recently announced a partnership deal with Amazon, which included a promotional code for students, in a now-deleted post on their Instagram. The student union faced backlash from students, with many questioning the ethics of a collaboration with a corporation known for exploiting its workers and contributing to the climate crisis. Though SSMU has since issued an apology, their actions highlight the importance of properly vetting all decisions made within their organization, especially when its mandate is to represent students.
Amazon is becoming increasingly known for its problematic unethical practices. One of the company’s most prominent problems is its terrible working conditions. In February 2019, workers at a New York warehouse were given two 15-minute breaks, despite that length of time constituting the walk from the warehouse to the break room. Additionally, many have claimed that managers often ignore workers’ disabilities and accessibility issues, upholding an unsafe work environment. The brutal work conditions can also include 60-hour weeks due to mandatory overtime.
Beyond its shameful treatment of its employees, Amazon has a disastrous environmental record. While other major tech companies such as Google manage to use 100 per cent renewable energy sources, Amazon powers 50 per cent of their servers with fossil fuels, demonstrating blatant neglect and indifference on their part in climate change. Even worse, the company’s lack of concern for the environment is sometimes more explicit: Amazon advertises its AWS machine learning as a tool for expediting oil drilling and production. As the third-richest company in the world, Amazon has the means to pay its employees better and to commit to more environmentally safe practices, but chooses instead to ignore valid concerns in favour of pursuing profit.
As the backlash facing Amazon is widespread, it is unlikely that SSMU simply did not know about it. This mistake appears to be a case of SSMU seeking monetary gain from a sponsorship with a major company and hoping that nobody would notice the problematic nature of the agreement. Even if they truly did not understand the implications of working with a company facing calls for boycott, SSMU is clearly missing a vetting process for their social media posts. Clearly, SSMU can benefit from somebody tasked with researching the implications of their decision to avoid another blunder. As representatives of McGill students, SSMU should be doing the bare minimum of vetting their partnerships.
SSMU should advocate for and represent the interests of McGill students. While the society holds progressive values, they need to be consistent in doing so. Their sponsorship with Amazon was not representative of the values of the student body. It is ironic that SSMU has tried to partner with Amazon while preaching accountability and sustainability on their website. This is not the first time SSMU has been in trouble for the lack of research going into their decisions. Just last year, inaccurate French translations were noticed in their newsletters, creating difficulties for Francophone students. The similarity between the two instances is that both cases are mistakes that are easy to catch and should never have been made in the first place. In a bilingual province there is no reason to have improper French translations the same way somebody within SSMU should have caught the ethical implications of partnering with Amazon.
Sharing the promotional code was a complete failure by SSMU and violates many of the values that they claim to hold. It should not be up to students to remind SSMU to do the right thing, as the Society should be the ones holding themselves accountable. SSMU has said that they will be coming out with formalized steps to combat this, but this should have been done long ago. An apology is meaningless when Amazon’s issues are so widespread. While they have acknowledged their mistake, we still await the concrete steps SSMU will take to ensure that this does not happen again.