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Amazon picks a Twitter fight over claims that workers resort to urinating in bottles

The company pushes back against reports about the intensity of productivity mandates

A man walks past an Amazon logo outside the company's collection point in Mumbai on March 19. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

Amazon took an unusually combative tone on social media in pushing back against reports and tweets that its productivity demands are so intense that workers routinely urinate in bottles because they can’t take restroom breaks.

“You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” began a thread by Amazon News, which describes itself as the official account for news about Amazon. The company appeared to reference several media reports, including a recent article in the Guardian, in which Amazon workers and contract drivers have said they had to urinate in bottles in their vehicles to keep up with productivity rates.

“Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday. He was initially responding to a tweet from Amazon’s top retail executive, who described the company as “the Bernie Sanders of employers,” calling out the progressive senator who is expected to be in Alabama on Friday in support of Amazon workers seeking to unionize.

The Guardian report cited a former driver who worked for several Amazon delivery providers in Austin and who described overwhelming 14-hour shifts. Delivery rates were so high, the driver told the Guardian, he used a plastic bottle to relieve himself on a daily basis.

“I saw no effort on Amazon’s part to push delivery service providers to allow their drivers to use the restroom on a normal human basis, leading many, myself included, to urinate inside bottles for fear of slowing down our delivery rates,” the former driver said, according to the Guardian.

News reports have previously documented claims from Amazon warehouse workers who also said they were compelled to skip restroom breaks to keep up with fulfillment demands, based on the 2018 book “Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain,” by the journalist James Bloodworth, who went undercover as an Amazon worker. In a 2018 exposé, Business Insider reported that contract delivery drivers said they faced a “physically demanding work environment in which, under strict time constraints, they felt pressured to drive at dangerously high speeds, blow stop signs, and urinate in bottles on their trucks.”

Amazon employs more than 1.3 million workers worldwide, but it contracts with other companies to ferry packages to customers’ doorsteps. Last fall, the company said it had 1,700 delivery-service partners in the United States, Canada, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. More than 400,000 drivers deliver goods for Amazon, all either self-employed or working for other companies even if they wear Amazon uniforms and drive trucks with its branding.

But the company flatly dismissed those claims on its Amazon News Twitter account.

“You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us,” it said. “The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.”

The tweet drew immediate pushback from Twitter users, including journalists who linked to news reports documenting workers’ claims of having to forgo restroom breaks. Ken Bensinger, a reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News, tweeted a photo sent by a former driver that purports to show one trucking company advising drivers that they are responsible for cleaning their vehicles at the end of their routes, including “urine bottles” under company policy. The company, Synctruck, is a former Amazon contractor, Bensinger said.

And late Thursday, the same Amazon account tweeted with disdain at Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who criticized the company for paying little in taxes while registers huge profits. Warren has frequently criticized Amazon for using tools to substantially reduce its federal tax bill.

“That’s just not right – and it’s why I’ll be introducing a bill to make the most profitable companies pay a fair share,” Warren tweeted.

Amazon fired back on Twitter, all but daring Warren to pass the legislation.

“You make the tax laws @SenWarren; we just follow them,” the company tweeted. “If you don’t like the laws you’ve created, by all means, change them.”

The Twitter exchanges come as workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are in the last days of voting on whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Mail-in balloting ends Monday, and if the union wins, the warehouse would become the first Amazon facility in the United States where workers would be represented by organized labor.

The union’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, seized on Amazon’s tweet, calling the company “arrogant and tone deaf.”

“If the working conditions were so great, Amazon wouldn’t have such an extraordinarily high turnover rate,” Appelbaum said in a statement.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

It’s not the first time Amazon used Twitter to push back on claims from lawmakers. Last August, Sanders criticized the company for “denying paid sick leave, hazard pay and personal protective equipment” even as Bezos’ wealth soared. Amazon’s public policy Twitter feed responded, urging Sanders to “to accept our long-standing invitation” to visit a warehouse and see the conditions for himself.

The union fight at Amazon has emerged as the biggest labor battle in recent U.S. history. Late last month, President Biden gave the unionization effort an enormous boost, tweeting a video saying workers should be able to make their decision in the election without pressure from the company. Although Biden didn’t name Amazon in the video, he made it clear that he supports the union drive.

Ahead of his visit to Bessemer, Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized Amazon’s efforts to fight the union.

“I look forward to meeting with Amazon workers in Alabama on Friday,” Sanders wrote in a tweet. “All I want to know is why the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, is spending millions trying to prevent workers from organizing a union so they can negotiate for better wages, benefits and working conditions.”