Amazon does not admit publicly that its workers sometimes have to pee in bottles because they don’t have enough time to go to the bathroom. When Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) recently tweeted critically about the company, suggesting it was laughable for them to call themselves the “Bernie Sanders of employers” because they “union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.” Amazon’s official news account replied to Pocan, scoffing at his claim and saying:
You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.
But as journalists quickly showed, the “peeing in bottles thing” is true. Investigative reporter James Bloodworth, who worked in an Amazon warehouse in researching his (excellent) book Hired: Six Months Undercover In Low-Wage Britain, saw firsthand during his employment that workers were not able to take sufficient bathroom breaks, and reported on the pee bottles in 2018. Bloodworth cited survey results showing that the overwhelming majority of Amazon warehouse workers in England feared that they would miss productivity targets if they went to the bathroom. In response, Amazon claimed that it “ensures all of its associates have easy access to toilet facilities” but did not respond to the allegation that taking bathroom breaks could cause workers to fall short of their quotas.
In response to Amazon’s most recent denial of the “pee bottles” story, reporters quickly went out and immediately found evidence that the company was lying. VICE labor reporter Lauren Kaori Gurley actually got (rather gross) pictures of the bottles workers peed in. Gurley says the phenomenon has “been well-documented, and is a huge talking point among many delivery drivers.” The facts are straightforward: Amazon delivery drivers have large quotas to meet, and it takes time to find a bathroom when you’re out on the road making deliveries. (You can’t just pop into any package recipient’s house to relieve yourself.) Because time is precious, many drivers who are behind have no choice but to urinate in a container. In fact, it would be surprising if this didn’t happen, given how well-documented it is that Amazon drivers have to meet a punishing delivery schedule. Public restrooms can be very hard to find in a city—we can easily see that this might be a half-hour detour or more. With a company that has made it clear its workers are expendable and need to hit their targets, who can afford this kind of diversion? As one Amazon driver told VICE, “I can tell you that if I drove to find a restroom that I would be bringing back packages every night and that would eventually mean I would get infractions, which would lead to termination.”
Further confirmation of the story came from Intercept reporter Ken Klippenstein, who obtained documents showing not only that Amazon workers do have to pee in bottles, but that the company knows about it and has responded not by easing up on quotas but by threatening to punish workers if it found their bottles. Klippenstein obtained an incredible email from an Amazon Logistics area manager, warning employees that the company was dissatisfied with the amount of urine and feces it was finding in its trucks:
Another email from the manager at an Amazon delivery contractor warns that “Vans will be inspected by Amazon during debrief, if urine bottle (s) are found, you will be issue [sic] an infraction tier 1 for immediate offboarding.”
Several things are notable here. First: Amazon lied to Congressman Mark Pocan when it said that the story wasn’t true. This isn’t “lying to Congress” in the criminal sense, but they did lie to an elected official. Their lie was brazen. (So brazen, in fact, that they must just have figured that workers were so unlikely to be heard by the media that the company could get away with claiming something that could be immediately refuted by those with firsthand knowledge.) Amazon should not be trusted on any of the claims it makes about its working conditions, because they’ve shown a willingness to lie.
Second, notice how Amazon responds when it discovers evidence of what is happening. Instead of seeing the presence of urine bottles in trucks as a terrible indictment of the company’s brutal quota system, they see it as an infraction that needs to be met with punishment. A company that cared at all about its workers would immediately alter its policies, realizing that if people are pooping in bags, it’s not because they enjoy it, but because they have to go and there’s nowhere else to do it. Amazon’s response, at least as seen in this leaked email, is to threaten to identify poopers using the QR codes on the bags. It’s a completely inhumane response that confirms everything we already know about the way Amazon treats workers like disposable pieces of machinery.
Let’s also take a moment to be amused by Amazon’s claim that “nobody would work for us” if the peeing-in-bottles thing was true. This is the regurgitation of free market dogma, which treats employment contracts as the product of freely-made choices, meaning that if a job is bad, people will just get another job. We can see how this reasoning leads to an absurdity: it would mean that jobs were, by definition, not bad, because if they were bad, people would leave. This theory ignores the reality that people take the jobs they can get, and need their jobs in order to survive. Plenty of people work shitty jobs because they have no realistic other options. “If it were true” that you had to pee in a bottle at your job, you might not want to take the job, but sometimes people reason that the money they need to live is worth suffering the indignity of not getting a bathroom break. This is how many exploitative jobs have found ready workers throughout the years. Amazon’s reasoning is as if the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—which burned down 110 years ago this month, killing 146 workers—had said that if their facility was really likely to catch fire, nobody would have chosen to work there.
Amazon is facing a serious challenge right now in the form of a union organizing drive at its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse. If the workers there unionize, they will be the first Amazon workers in the U.S. to successfully do so, and a precedent will be set that will probably lead to other Amazon worker unions around the country. Amazon has met an unusually high amount of criticism this time around, with even President Joe Biden issuing a surprisingly pro-union statement. (Though, irritatingly, avoiding calling out Amazon by name.) The company is on the defensive; after Amazon was criticized by Bernie Sanders, who is visiting the Bessemer workers, a company executive insisted that Amazon embodies Bernie’s views of a fair workplace, since it offers a $15 an hour starting wage.
Of course, the only reason Amazon began offering a $15 minimum wage is that it faced pressure from Bernie Sanders (in the form of his STOP BEZOS Act) and the Fight For 15 movement. The company even admitted that it made the change because it had “listened to its critics.” They’ve made it very clear that they will continue all of their worst labor practices until they face sufficient pressure to change, which is why having unions to challenge their power is so important.
This latest incident confirms Amazon’s ruthlessness and amorality. It should be a major scandal for the company to directly lie about its working conditions. Cynics might assume that Amazon’s deceptiveness and exploitation is common knowledge, but that’s not necessarily true; the company is known to be one of the “most admired” and best-reputed brands among American customers. This is because Jeff Bezos—who is essentially a real-life Bond villain—has made sure that customers have a great experience of Amazon, even if workers don’t. It’s very important that Amazon’s true face be exposed to the American public, because they’ve made it clear that they value their reputation and will cave when it’s at risk. Everyone needs to be made aware of the fact that Amazon drivers are forced to work in unconscionable conditions, and that the company will lie about this and cover it up.
Listen to an interview with a union organizer from the Amazon campaign on the Current Affairs podcast.