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Amazon apologizes for denying its drivers urinate in bottles

Amazon apologized for disputing a lawmaker’s claim that its workers urinate in bottles, admitting in a blog post on Friday that it was “incorrect” to deny the report. The online retailer said the problem affected drivers, not employees at its many warehouses across the United States.

Questions about whether Amazon workers working under strict weather conditions sometimes resort to urine in bottles raised in a 2018 book by British journalist James Bloodworth, who infiltrated to briefly work in an Amazon warehouse to document the hardships of low-wage work in the UK.In his account, he came across what looked like a bottle of urine hidden on a shelf in warehouse, which he assumed was a worker’s solution. to the difficulty of squeezing bathroom breaks into the huge facility.

Until his apologies, Amazon had completely refuted these accounts. “You don’t really believe in the pee in the bottles thing, do you? If it were true, no one would work for us,” the company’s Amazon News account tweeted on March 24 in response to criticism. by Representative Mark Pocan that the online monster was not enlightened in its workplace practices simply because it was offering a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour.

Even though Amazon has denied the information, other reporters have documented workers at the company relying on bottles for relief. Last month, the Intercept disclosed internal Amazon documents berating workers for “public urination” and “public defecation,” while a worker said he received an email from management asking drivers to check their vans for “urine bottles” and report such “violations.”

At the same time, Amazon has battled a host of other allegations about workers’ working conditions, such as a New York state lawsuit alleging the company failed to protect workers from COVID-19. Investors are also pushing Amazon for the change, including CtW Investment Group, which represents the pension funds of around 5 million unionized workers.

“Very important symbol”

Amidst these challenges for Amazon, it was the reports of employees peeing into bottles that galvanized public attention and sympathy. Bloodworth told CBS MoneyWatch this month that his description of finding a bottle filled with what looked and smelled like urine was a “throwaway line” in a book about low-wage working conditions.

“It has become an iconic image because we are talking about the richest multinational in the world led by the richest man in the world, and yet you have a workforce which, in my own experience, was afraid to take bathroom breaks, ”Bloodworth told CBS MoneyWatch earlier this month. “It’s a pretty shocking thing in the 21st century.”

The issue has also caught the attention of investors. CtW Investment Group executive director Dieter Waizenegger told CBS MoneyWatch that its pension funds care about the working conditions of workers and the company wants to ensure these values ​​are reflected in its investments. The investment group, which owns 900,000 Amazon shares and manages $ 250 billion in assets, reached out to Amazon to improve working conditions, such as improving health and safety protections.

“The pee in the bottles is basically a very important symbol, but it’s part of a much bigger picture,” Waizenegger said. “If you invest in your workers and give them good working conditions and a sense of dignity and respect, they will work harder for you.”

Amazon did not immediately return a request for comment.

The experience of a former worker

Although Amazon acknowledged that its drivers could occasionally resort to urine in bottles, it described a different situation in its warehouses.

“A typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of washrooms, and employees can walk away from their workstations at any time. If an employee at a fulfillment center has a different experience, we encourage them to talk to their manager and we work to fix it, ”the company said on Friday.

But former warehouse workers say it can be difficult to take a bathroom break, given their 15-minute breaks and the vast spaces they sometimes have to cross to reach one. Chris Smalls, a former deputy warehouse manager at Amazon who was fired in March 2020 after staging a walkout for lack of precautions to stop COVID-19 infections, said it was not easy to ” use the toilet.

Workers “get hunted down to the second,” Smalls told CBS MoneyWatch, adding that warehouse bathrooms are often a five to 10-minute walk from a worker’s station, making it difficult use of the toilet during a 15-minute break. If workers exceeded their break time, managers would draft them, Smalls said, which could eventually lead to a layoff.

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As a supervisor, he said workers complained about not having enough time to use the toilet. “I would say, ‘You can use the bathroom,’ but I had to warn them of the repercussions of running out of time,” he said.

Once, Smalls added, human feces were found on a set of warehouse steps, which he said was due to a worker not being able to get to the bathroom on time.

Smalls said his recommendation would be for Amazon to stop tracking workers when they use the toilet. “This time should not be used against them at all,” he said. “It is a human right.”

All eyes on the Alabama warehouse

Amazon’s latest scrutiny of workplace practices comes as approximately 6,000 workers at a corporate warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, await the results of a vote last month on whether to unionize, representing the largest labor force surge in the retailer’s history.

If the vote supports unionization, it could encourage more warehouse workers to unionize or demand better working conditions, experts say. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union, which led the union campaign in Bessemer, declined to comment as votes are currently being counted.

Amazon’s initial response last month to criticism of Representative Pocan, saying people wouldn’t work for the company if such stories were true, echoes logic other employers have historically used not to provide. safe and hygienic workplaces, said Professor Rebecca Givan, associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University.

“If the kids didn’t want to work in the mines, why would they take it? If people didn’t want to be sexually harassed, why were they working there? ”She said, summing up those views. “It’s insulting because it belittles workers who have bills and mouths to feed.”

Even if the union vote fails, Amazon will likely continue to come under scrutiny from customers and other stakeholders, experts say. A vote against unionization will also highlight the issues facing low-wage workers in an era of huge wealth creation for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and investors.

“A lot of workers, especially low-paid workers, don’t have a lot of options,” Givan said. “I don’t think we will be able to conclude that these workers do not want to be heard in the workplace, but that it is rather extremely difficult to organize” under the current law.


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