On 20 June 2023, US Senator Bernie Sanders launched an investigation into Amazon’s “disastrous safety record”. In a letter obtained by the Washington Post, Sanders wrote to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, attacking warehouse conditions as “uniquely dangerous”, and called for the release of the company’s “systematically underreported” injury rates, productivity targets and adherence to federal and state safety recommendations.
While causing quite a stir, it’s not the first time Amazon has been in the firing line. Amazon was once heralded as the epitome of the startup dream. A bullish businessman takes a risk to launch an online bookstore. It fuels the DotCom Boom, survives the DotCom Crash and only makes a profit after 7 years. It would grow immensely in the following years, branching out from books to selling every product imaginable; something that Jeff Bezos himself said wasn’t part of Amazon’s plans. The businessman who once wanted to open a small online bookstore would becomes the richest person in the world and today Amazon is worth an incredible $1.29 trillion.
At first, we marvelled at Amazon’s growth. We loved having items delivered to us the next day. It became normal to have almost any item you needed on the platform. But this growth came at a cost. While consumers benefited from the services provided, little attention was paid to the engine that kept the e-commerce giant running. That is, until it became too serious to ignore.
Warehouse staff asked for longer breaks and complained about the constant monitoring and high injury rates. Things got so bad that rumours began to leak about staff having to urinate in plastic bottles because they weren’t given enough time to go to the bathroom. In combative fashion, Amazon denied the rumours: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.” Although Amazon tried to push back on these claims, it didn’t help. Whether Amazon made a tweet about donations, supporting a cause, or even an April Fool’s joke, people replied with references about peeing in plastic bottles. This is the internet after all.
The scandal transformed from an annoyance to a full blown PR disaster. Amnesty International chimed in, stating that Amazon’s reluctance to let workers unionize denied staff their fundamental human rights. Some reports suggested Amazon’s belligerent stance to the criticism came directly from Jeff Bezos, who supposedly complained that Amazon wasn’t pushing back hard enough on critics. Part of it could also have come from Amazon’s position as a global titan of e-commerce. They’re used to driving competitors out of business, and not used to being pushed around.
But while Amazon was pushing back against criticism from the public and politicians alike such as Congressman Mark Pocan and Senator Elizabeth Warren, its revenues and profits were soaring. So it took to a tactic employed by spammers worldwide – the fake account. Burt at OK4 (@Ok4At) described himself as a “Husband. Father. Happy Amazon employee”, and tweeted, “Unions are good for some companies, but I don’t want to have to shell out hundreds a month just for lawyers!!“. Maybe it convinced a few, but there was a rookie error. Burt happened to be the spitting image of Dude Perfect member, Tyler Toney. Many people caught on to the epic fail that Amazon had created a fake account with the image of one of the most recognizable faces on the internet. The account no longer exists on Twitter.
Criticism of Amazon has continued throughout the past few years, often referencing warehouse staff who continue to provide information about working conditions. Amazon, just like before, has continued to resist and maintains its position as one of the world’s most valuable companies. However it’s unsure how long a company can sustain these practices in the face of such criticism. In 2018, following pressure from Bernie Sanders, Amazon raised its minimum wage in the US to $15 per hour. Sanders is stepping up the pressure once again, which for many is much needed publicity given that Amazon’s serious injury rate is double the warehouse industry average. Ultimately if Amazon doesn’t voluntarily make change, perhaps it will be forced to.