Amazon Apology Pee Bottles Warehouse Situations Drivers Tweets Mark Pocan
Amazon rarely apologized Friday for its rash tweet to Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, D, in which the company denied that its employees were forced to urinate in bottles. The tweet was part of an ongoing Twitter war between Amazon and the Congressman in which the retail giant essentially shot itself in the foot while trying to fight back allegations of inhumane working conditions. Reportedly, Amazon’s aggressive stance came straight from Jeff Bezos himself.
When reports came in of brutal labor quotas and bottles of piss and even bags of feces in Amazon vans, Amazon turned the trend. It publicly apologized to the Congressman for denying the problem existed. With the company almost never apologizing for anything, most observers were so surprised that they didn’t see the message for what it was – an extremely clever and effective way to change the subject.
It looks like Amazon will get away with it. If so, it results in a short-term gain but risks a long-term loss. A wise business leader should watch out for both.
What do you do when you’re in the middle of an argument that you can’t win because the facts are against you? Any good debater knows the answer: update the conversation and make it about something else. You yell at your spouse for failing to take out the trash when you lift the lid of the garbage can and find that it has been taken out. So, without missing a beat, you start yelling at them for the socks they left on the floor instead.
That’s in line with the brilliant tactic used by Amazon in its apology message. It starts with a very simple mea culpa.
This was an own goal, we are unhappy about it and we owe Rep Pocan an apology.
Then the company explains why something went wrong.
First, the tweet was wrong. It didn’t take into account our large driver population, it just falsely focused on our fulfillment centers. A typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of toilets, and employees can step back from their jobs at any time.
And we make our way to the races. After some predictable comments about the tweet “not being properly scrutinized” and not reflecting the high standards Amazon must adhere to, the company started on the topic it would much rather talk about – the socks rather than that Rubbish. The rest of the message focused on the well-known problem that delivery drivers have been unable to find public toilets, especially since the pandemic. This is an argument that Amazon knows can win because it isn’t the only one. UPS drivers and many others have come forward saying they have this problem as well.
See how nicely Amazon diverted the debate from the original issue, which were the brutal quotas its employees, especially warehouse workers, must meet? The comment that lots of bathrooms and workers are free whenever they want may be true, but none of these things matter when people are tied to quotas so high that toilet break time could cost them their jobs.
This is exactly what the union leaders and some Amazon warehouse workers are saying. A warehouse worker in New York City told The Guardian that to do her job, she has to inspect and scan outbound parcels at 18,000 an hour, resulting in a parcel every two seconds. It’s hard to see how it could take someone at this rate ten minutes to walk across the warehouse to a bathroom, use it, and go back again without falling behind and earning one of the company’s “points”. Too many points can lead to dismissal.
There is particularly damaging evidence from the UK, where an anonymous survey by a workers’ rights organization found that “74 percent of workers do not use the toilet because they fear they will miss their target and get a warning point”. And reporter James Bloodworth worked undercover in a UK Amazon warehouse for six months, reporting that people are really peeing in bottles for fear of being fired. Whether or not there is evidence that U.S. employees are doing the same thing, there’s no denying that an Amazon warehouse can be a strenuous and dangerous place to work. A report showed that Amazon warehouse workers were injured twice as badly as the industry average.
With all that said, Amazon’s attempt to change the conversation seems to be working. All of the news I’ve seen since apologizing has centered on drivers peeing in bottles and having to ignore storage conditions as a whole. That’s a win for Amazon – in the short term. In the long run, the company’s reputation as a brutal workplace, where people get seriously injured, affects its standing with potential employees, political leaders, and perhaps even the public. If the economy opens again and both workers and buyers have more options, it could affect the bottom line.
Amazon is known to be a smart company. Is it wise enough to correct storage conditions before this happens?
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.