Update [1:15 p.m. ET]: Amazon responded to Oliver’s segment, claiming the HBO program declined the company’s invitation to tour one of its facilities.
“As a fan of the show, I enjoy watching John make an entertaining case for the failings of companies … But he is wrong on Amazon. Industry-leading $15 minimum wage and comprehensive benefits are just one of many programs we offer,” said Amazon executive Dave Clark in a statement. “We are proud of the safe, quality work environment in our facilities … 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 … 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.”
Weeks ahead of the company’s massive Prime Day event, John Oliver took aim at Amazon — arguing that the retail giant prioritizes profits and shipping speed over worker conditions.
“The more you look at Amazon, the more you realize that its convenience comes with a real cost,” the host said on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight. “Think about it: We used to have to drive to stores to buy things. Now those things are brought directly to us and they’re somehow cheaper. That didn’t just happen with a clever algorithm. It happened by creating a system that squeezes the people lowest on the ladder hard.”
While Oliver focused his critiques on Amazon, he framed the larger piece around e-commerce and the need for physical warehouses — a development prompted by the rise of services like two-day Prime shipping. In 2017, Bloomberg reported that “the number of workers who lost their jobs at department stores like Sears, Macy’s and J.C. Penney since 2000 is about the same as the 444,000 hired by the warehousing industry.”
“It’s as if warehouses are absorbing America’s lost retail employees, which initially sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it?” Oliver said. “It’s like hearing that there’s actually a farm upstate where Borders, Circuit City and Tower Records employees can run around and be free, when you always just assumed that was just a lie and that they were all euthanized.”
But working at one of these warehouses — which are often the size of multiple football fields — can take a physical toll. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics, in 2017, the injury and illness rate in the warehouse industry was higher than for like coal mining, construction and logging.
The conditions for warehouse jobs can be grueling. Oliver highlighted several Amazon employee testimonies, which included complaints about walking 15-plus miles per shift, being monitored electronically for speed and skipping bathroom breaks to meet daunting quotas. And as the host observed, shorter restroom breaks could have unsanitary consequences: “The next time you order something online,” he said, “it’s probably safe to assume its’ been packed by urine-soaked hands.”
As Amazon has continued to push the standards for shipping speeds, even rolling out one-day shipping for some products, competitors like Walmart have followed suit. “Amazon is the industry trend-setter,” Oliver said. “They’re the Michael Jackson of shipping: They’re the best at what they do, everyone tries to imitate them and nobody who learns a third thing about them is happy that they did.”
The company’s innovation has helped make founder-CEO Jeff Bezos the world’ richest person, at $118 billion. And though the company recently raised its base pay to $15 an hour, Oliver argued that the move wasn’t enough.
“Amazon has driven the whole warehouse industry to move constantly faster and faster on already-low margins,” he said. “And sure, the fact that it pays at least $15 an hour is nice, but raising workers’ wages is only part of the equation here. Making sure these jobs are safe and that the pace is sustainable is critical too … It isn’t a question of whether [Bezos] can improve working conditions for his employees —it’s just a question of if he wants to.”