Amazon caused an uproar on Thursday when it denied reports that its delivery workers have been forced to urinate in bottles due to lack of access to bathrooms, but a leaked internal memo shows the company has been aware of the problem for at least several months.
Documents provided by employees at Amazon to the Intercept showed that an email sent in May 2020 admonished workers for urinating in bottles and defecating in bags while on the job.
“This evening, an associate discovered human feces in an Amazon bag that was returned to station by a driver,” the email reads. “This is the 3rd occasion in the last 2 months when bags have been returned to station with poop inside. We understand that DA’s [driver associates] may have emergencies while on-road, and especially during Covid, DAs have struggled to find bathrooms while delivering. Regardless, DAs cannot, MUST NOT, return bags to station with poop inside.”
The email went on to say: “We’ve noticed an uptick recently of all kinds of unsanitary garbage being left inside bags: used masks, gloves, bottles of urine.”
Workers told the Intercept the issue was commonly referred to in internal discussions, with one former Amazon employee telling the publication that drivers are “implicitly forced to do so, otherwise we will end up losing our jobs for too many ‘undelivered packages.’”
The revelation followed a combative tweet from Amazon aimed at a Wisconsin congressman, who took the company to task over working conditions. The saga unfolded amid a showdown with workers in Alabama who are trying to unionize the workplace.
It’s not the first time workers at Amazon, which is known for its gruelling hours, have spoken out about the problem.
Workers have previously told the Guardian they needed to urinate inside water bottles on a daily basis for fear of missing delivery rates. A forum on Reddit dedicated to Amazon drivers, which, while impossible to vet completely for authenticity, nonetheless shows hundreds of comments from drivers claiming they frequently have to urinate in water bottles for lack of bathroom breaks while on the job, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic increased the amount of deliveries.
Amazon saw a 37% increase in sales in one quarter alone in 2020 and executive Jeff Bezos personally saw his personal net worth increase by $70bn during the pandemic.
The bathroom controversy exposed on Thursday marks just the latest blowback surrounding how Amazon treats employees – and its delivery drivers in particular. Earlier this week, Vice reported drivers were being forced to sign “biometric consent” forms to continue working for the retailing giant.
These forms would allow AI-powered cameras to keep watch over the drivers, who number around 75,000 in the United States, while on the clock. Evan Greer, the deputy director of workers rights and privacy advocacy group Fight for the Future, said lawmakers must ban biometric surveillance entirely, because workers trying to stay afloat during precarious times cannot reasonably be expected to turn down the policy if it means losing a job.
“Forcing workers to agree to constant monitoring by racist, AI powered surveillance cameras or get fired is not how consent works,” she said. “Lawmakers should act now to ban these practices entirely. No one should be forced to work in inhumane conditions, and hand over their sensitive biometric information to their boss, just to put food on the table.”
Amazon did not respond to request for comment.