On Friday, Amazon's PR team issued a response to the Wisconsin congressman it mocked for pointing out that overworked Amazon employees often pee in bottles on the job. The response, while apologizing for the company’s initial lie denying the practice, also made things much worse by continuing to misrepresent the reality of working at the online retail giant and attempting to take the focus off of Amazon.
Amazon is currently facing a historic union campaign at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama that has drawn the attention of the nation. On Wednesday, after Amazon called itself "the Bernie Sanders of employers" as the Senator planned a trip to support workers, Rep. Mark Pocan made a tweet asking how the company could call itself a "progressive workplace" while union-busting and making its workers pee in bottles. In a reply, Amazon didn't deny the union-busting charge but said, "You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us."
What followed was over a week of leaks and reporting confirming in excruciating detail how widespread the practice is at Amazon and how much the company knew about it. Motherboard shared pictures from and conversations with Amazon drivers who urinated in bottles, revealed how much worse the problem was for women drivers, and earlier reported that Amazon internally warned employees against “public urination and defecation,” indicating that it was a known issue. At Amazon, "managers frequently referenced it during meetings and in formal policy documents and emails" but did little to change working conditions causing it, The Intercept reported.
In the face of this massive blowback to an obvious lie, Amazon issued an apology on Friday saying that it erred in denying the pee bottle phenomenon. The blog post pointedly notes that the company “apologize[s] to Representative Pocan” and not the drivers who have been forced to work in these inhumane conditions or have been forced to watch their employer lie about them as this has all ensued. The “apology” also added more confusion to the pile by stating that while pee bottles are an issue for drivers they are not necessary for warehouse workers. In essence, Amazon is saying that it did an “own-goal” because it forgot about a gigantic part of its workforce.
"First, the tweet was incorrect. It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers," the statement reads. "A typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of restrooms, and employees are able to step away from their work station at any time. If any employee in a fulfillment center has a different experience, we encourage them to speak to their manager and we'll work to fix it."
Amazon must know full well about this issue in its warehouses, however, as it was revealed in an undercover investigation of a UK Amazon warehouse in 2018. Motherboard also recently spoke with Amazon workers in Bessemer, who confirmed that peeing in a bathroom on the job is difficult due to intense work pressure.
"You're sitting there and you have to go take a piss, but you don't want to rack up 'time off task'," Catherine Highsmith, an Amazon warehouse worker in Bessemer, said. "So you're like man, if I just hold it for another hour, I can go to the bathroom."
"If you go to the bathroom a normal amount... it starts becoming a problem," she continued. "We can be written up, you can be fired."
Amazon’s next move was to attempt to spread blame around, saying that peeing in bottles is an issue for workers at many companies. The company wrote that “we know that drivers can and do have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic or sometimes rural routes, and this has been especially the case during Covid when many public restrooms have been closed. Amazon described it as “a long-standing, industry-wide issue” that is not specific to the company and said it will look for “solutions” to fix the problem although it doesn’t “yet know how.” Amazon then provided links to news stories (including one from Motherboard) about gig workers on platforms such as Uber not having a place to use the restroom.
There’s a couple things to unpack here, the first being that Amazon wants us to believe that “driving” and “peeing in a bottle because you cannot stop or else” are inextricably and historically linked and there is simply nothing one company can do about this problem which has followed humanity from the primordial ooze. The second thing is that Amazon does not appear to be looking internally for a solution but seems ready to externalize the cost to governments and taxpayers.
Finally, by shifting the discussion away from warehouse workers to delivery drivers and the gig economy, Amazon is shifting the discussion to a workforce where it assumes no liability but enjoys total control. The blog post itself does not apologize to its workers, who have repeatedly said they’re being gaslit, but does apologize to the lawmaker the company tweeted at. The post does not acknowledge their humanity or the fact that peeing in a bottle is not an enjoyable experience for anyone.
Amazon spokespeople were not immediately available to comment.
Amazon attempted to play its disastrous PR strategy off as a mistake in its response. “The tweet did not receive proper scrutiny,” the statement said. “We need to hold ourselves to an extremely high accuracy bar at all times, and that is especially so when we are criticizing the comments of others."
This contradicts reporting that shows Amazon’s aggressive tweeting (which alarmed even the company’s own security staff) is part of a predetermined strategy that has now gone wrong. Recode reported that the wave of aggressive tweets came because chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos was upset that "company officials weren't more aggressive in how they pushed back against criticisms of the company."
Tweets from the company’s official accounts were just one part of the broader strategy. It also deployed warehouse employees in the Amazon FC Ambassador program to defend its working conditions on Twitter on personal accounts. According to The Intercept, these workers were specifically trained to deflect criticisms under a program codenamed “Veritas.”
So, to recap: Amazon has inhumane working conditions, lied about them, and made jokes mocking anyone who believed the public evidence even as workers were suffering them at that moment. When it became clear that Bezos’s aggressive PR strategy backfired, the company offered a non-apology, spread more disinformation, deflected the blame, reframed the discussion around a new issue, and did not explain how it was going to fix the problem.