Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Just in time for Prime Day, John Oliver exposes Amazon's high-pressure warehouses

John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

John Oliver loves to poke the bear. That is, if the bear is a metaphor representing an individual or corporation the Last Week Tonight host basically double-dog-dares to sue him for airing exposés about their shadiness, heartlessness, or downright criminal negligence. Well, last night, Oliver went after the biggest business bear in the e-commerce forest, spending the bulk of Sunday’s episode examining just how Amazon (and those online retailers who follow Amazon’s lead) are able to deliver you that package of “emergency Oreos” the very next day.

Oliver did his traditional “I’m not saying, but I’m saying” legalese cha-cha when talking about incidents where warehouse retailers have—allegedly—done unconscionable things to workers in their pell-mell pursuit of ruthless efficiency. Verizon subcontractor XPOLogistics, as Oliver makes conspicuously clear, denies forcing its warehouse workers to toil in an oven-like workplace, and especially denies that time workers say they were forced to work around the dead body of a co-worker who expired while trying to keep up with quotas. Nothing if not fair, Oliver was willing to read the company’s internal investigation of the incident, only to find out that XPOLogistics never, you know, actually wrote anything down, unlike the worker who contemporaneously posted online the all-caps complaint, “THEY REALLY TRYING TO MAKE US WORK AND THIS LADY DEAD BODY STILL IN THE BUILDING”.

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But Oliver did his most daring dance during his discussion of Amazon, whose massive, warehouse-based, one-day Oreos model, according to Oliver, “comes with a real cost.” (One Oliver suggests will only mount on beleaguered workers’ shoulders during the two-day July “Prime Day” Amazon spend-a-thon.) Like the fact that the incident of accident and injury in Amazon facilities is higher than that of coal-miners, loggers, or construction workers. Or workers being under the constant scrutiny of computer-micromanaged goals that, when unmet, result in termination, regardless of whether said workers have to skip bathroom hand-washing—or going to the bathroom altogether. Speaking of the various lawsuits by pregnant workers and others, Oliver once more gave Amazon’s lawyers time to deny that the online giant keeps the human beings it employs from exercising a basic and vital bodily function whenever they feel like it, but followed up with testimonials from actual workers explaining how the company’s quota-based performance evaluation means choosing between your job and your bladder/bowels.

If Oliver made it sound like Amazon’s workers were being treated like robots rather than valued employees or, you know, humans, he also noted that Amazon’s efforts to actually replace tiresome and tired humans with actual robots is proceeding apace—with a few snags. Speaking of poking the bear, Oliver noted how, on two separate occasions, warehouse workers found themselves gasping for air when one of their robot co-workers punctured cans of bear-repellent. But being “bear-maced by a robot” is just an outlier according to Oliver, who noted how Amazon head Jeff Bezos has become so unthinkably wealthy on the backs and bladders of his aggressively un-unionized warehouse workers that he’s publicly moaned that the only way he can think to spend his fortune is on vanity rich-guy space exploration. (In an even-more-phallic-than-traditional custom rocket.) As Last Week Tonight put it in the parody Amazon ad that closed out the episode, when it comes to clicking the Prime delivery on those Oreos, “Amazon: Try not to think about it.”

On an almost certainly unrelated note, neither YouTube not HBO Go have yet uploaded last night’s Last Week Tonight as of press time. (The link was up at HBO early this morning, but was inactive, while now it’s disappeared entirely.) Weird. The A.V. Club will include the clip as soon as/if it is made available.

Update: And here is the piece, which went up finally at around 10 a.m. Eastern.

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.