John Oliver Takes Aim at Amazon: "Convenience Comes at a Real Cost"

John Oliver - Show 3- HBO Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

After opening Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight with gimme potshots at Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, John Oliver set his sights on the logistics and warehousing policies of America's e-commerce giants, and in particular the biggest company of them all, Amazon. 

Oliver began by praising e-commerce industry for absorbing the lost brick-and-mortar retail jobs through their network of warehouses, but he quickly pivoted to the reality of such jobs. "What actually happens in warehouses can be invisible to most people, unless companies like Amazon choose to give us entertaining glimpses of the 'fun' workplaces they run," he said before showing an Amazon-made behind-the-scenes video featuring cheery employees performing, dancing and hugging packages at one of their warehouses. 

"The truth is those jobs are not all dance-offs and box-hugging, they are physically hard," he said before going through the back-breaking labor that warehouse employees have to endure. "The injury and illness rate in the warehouse industry is higher than industries like coal mining, construction and logging." 

Oliver began his deep dive by looking at the warehousing company XPOLogistics, a subcontractor of Verizon, which has been accused of running oven-like warehouses. Oliver cited a New York Times report that an employee died of cardiac arrest at an XPO warehouse and workers were forced to continue to work around her dead body. Oliver was at pains to say that XPO denied the allegations, but also that they were not able to share their internal investigation with his researchers because “there was no written report as it was given to them verbally.”

The focus shifted to Amazon, which Oliver said sets the bar for the warehousing industry. “Amazon is not the worst actor in this industry; they generally don’t subcontract out their warehouses and they made headlines last year for raising workers' base pay to $15 an hour … but being not the worst is a low, low bar.”

Oliver then illustrated the “physically draining” work conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, where workers can walk 15 miles or more a day around their giant facilities. He also shared cases of workers skipping bathroom breaks because of quota pressure from managers and constant scrutiny of time-keeping.

“Over the years, Amazon has been criticized by workers for their unwillingness to accommodate basic human needs like using the bathroom,” Oliver said, before making the point that workers denied adequate toilet breaks will inevitably shorten their time for things like washing their hands. “The next time you order something online, it’s probably safe to assume it’s been packed by urine-soaked hands.”

Oliver then concluded that "the more you look at Amazon, the more you realize its convenience comes at a real cost." He finished the segment by pointing out that Amazon has made CEO Jeff Bezos the world's richest man by squeezing "the people lowest on the ladder hard." The comedian slammed Bezos' obsession with multibillion-dollar space travel and phallic-shaped rockets and suggested he focus more on the employment practices at Amazon. 

Amazon's svp of worldwide operations, Dave Clark, responded to Oliver's segment on Twitter on Monday morning, claiming that the Last Week Tonight host is "wrong on Amazon" and "to suggest [Amazon employees] would work in an environment like the one portrayed is insulting."

"We are proud of the safe, quality work environment in our facilities - so much so that we offer tours to the public, ages six and up. But unlike over 100,000 other people this year, John and his producers did not take us up on our invitation to tour one of our facilities," Clark wrote. "If they had they would have met the amazing people who work in our operations. People whose passion and commitment are what makes the Amazon customer experience special. I am proud of our team and to suggest they would work in an environment like the one portrayed is insulting."

Read Clark's tweets below.

9:25 a.m. This story has been updated with Amazon's response to Oliver's segment.