By Martin Coulter
LONDON (Reuters) -UK lawmakers have called on Amazon to clarify comments made by a senior executive at a recent parliamentary hearing, after an advocacy group accused him of providing "misleading" evidence concerning the company's treatment of warehouse workers.
An Amazon spokesperson told Reuters the company strongly denied the executive - European policy chief Brian Palmer - had misled parliament when he testified to the Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee on Nov. 15 as part of a wide-reaching panel on technology in the workplace.
At issue is whether Amazon uses tracking technology in its warehouses in Britain primarily to surveil worker productivity – a claim Amazon has repeatedly denied – or to promote worker safety, as the company says.
In response to a question about workplace surveillance from the chairman of the committee, Labour MP Darren Jones, Palmer said it was used mostly to monitor goods rather than people: "They are not primarily or even secondarily to identify under-performers. Performance-related feedback is really focused on safety."
Palmer also told MPs that Amazon continues to "perform better than industry" on employee safety, and he said warehouse workers could easily access their performance targets through "online tools that are made available to every single employee".
In a Dec. 2 letter seen by Reuters, Foxglove, a London-based worker advocacy group, wrote to the committee disputing Palmer's statements.
"Brian Palmer's evidence was materially misleading in several respects," the letter said, refuting his statements on the use of tracking tools, Amazon's track record on safety and the transparency of workers' performance targets. It cited legal filings related to U.S. court cases where regulators say safety risks arose because of productivity pressure, and testimony from workers at five warehouses in the UK.
"The Committee may wish to clarify with Mr Palmer and Amazon whether the company can prove that the position is different in UK warehouses - a matter that Amazon should be asked to demonstrate with evidence, rather than merely assert," the group said.
Committee member Andy McDonald, MP for Middlesbrough for the opposition Labour party, said he had raised concerns about Palmer's testimony in writing with the group, after viewing Foxglove's letter.
"We were extremely unhappy with his testimony," McDonald told Reuters. "If somebody comes before the Committee and misleads us, they are duty-bound to correct the record."
Rather than recall Palmer, however, Committee chair Jones has written to Amazon, outlining eight points he said required further explanation, related to allegations of employee surveillance and health and safety data.
"If the Committee isn't satisfied with the quality of the answers we will call Amazon to give further public evidence," he wrote.
Palmer declined a Reuters request for comment.
An Amazon spokesperson said that Amazon used CCTV cameras "to ensure the safety of employees and security of products". Amazon has a system to recognize strong performance by employees and to encourage coaching for those who are not meeting their goals, the spokesperson said.
"To suggest that the use of these standard business practices amount to surveillance of employees is wrong," the Amazon spokesperson added.
Labour's Shadow Minister for Employment Rights and Protections, Justin Madders MP, told Reuters his party would introduce legislation "to protect workers from surveillance" should it win the next general election in Britain. The incident comes at a time when Amazon is facing accusations by the U.S. Department of Labor that it failed to properly record work-related injuries and illnesses at six warehouses in five states.
Amazon has until Jan. 24 to respond to Jones' letter.
(Reporting by Martin CoulterEditing by Daniel Flynn and Aurora Ellis)