John Oliver rips Amazon over warehouse work and tech giant’s operations chief calls it ‘insulting’

Working conditions in Amazon’s fulfillment centers got a blistering critique at the hands of the HBO series “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on Sunday. And in a what has become a new norm at the tech giant, a top executive didn’t wait long to fire back on Twitter.

Oliver’s 21-minute report on warehouses and workers focused a great deal on Amazon, with other jabs at retail rival Walmart as well as conditions at a facility that handles Verizon phones.

Oliver hit on some of the consistent points used to question what workers go through to ensure that items are shipped in the speediest fashion by Amazon. He referenced previous reports on inadequate bathroom breaks, long shifts and lots of miles of walking, and even an instance where a robot in a fulfillment center punctured a can of bear spray that sickened workers.

Oliver joked that it was alarming that anyone would treat his “stupid” Amazon purchases with the urgency that warehouse workers clearly demonstrate.

“You’re not delivering diphtheria medicine to a remote Alaskan village here, you’re delivering novelty horse head masks to people who frankly forgot they ordered them until they showed up,” Oliver said.

Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of Operations, woke up in a tweeting mood the morning after the segment aired. In three posts Monday, he said that he is a fan of the show, but that Oliver is wrong on Amazon. Oliver and producers did not take Amazon up on an offer to tour a facility and ultimately the portrayal of the company is “insulting,” Clark said.

Oliver did throw Amazon a bone for raising minimum wage to $15 an hour and he said they’re not the “worst actor in the industry” because they generally don’t subcontract out their warehouses.

“But being ‘not the worst’ is a low, low bar,” Oliver said. “And they have huge influence here,” he said, adding that a move to reduce Prime free shipping from two days to one caused Walmart to follow suit in the ultra-competitive industry.

“Basically Amazon is the industry trend setter,” Oliver said. “They’re the Michael Jackson of shipping: they’re the best at what they do, nobody tries to imitate them and nobody who learns a third thing about them is happy that they did.”

On “Last Week Tonight,” a worker dances on bad knees in a spoof mocking Amazon’s promotional videos for fulfillment centers. (YouTube screen grab)

Clark’s reaction is in line with what we’ve seen of late from the normally reserved tech giant, which has taken a more active role in calling out any high-profile dialogue that questions its business practices. The company has been particularly vocal in going after politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Jay Carney, a former press secretary for President Obama, is now Amazon’s public policy and communications chief. CNBC reported recently on his unique presence in the company’s highest ranks, saying that CEO Jeff Bezos hired Carney as Amazon was entering a tougher regulatory environment around taxes and shipping regulations and eventually drone delivery rules and content copyright legislation.

CNBC said that under Carney’s leadership, “Amazon’s policy team ramped up dramatically, going from a group of a few dozen people to roughly 250 people today.” And sure enough, he didn’t miss Clark’s tweets, which he shared on Monday.

Oliver’s report was peppered with plenty of comedy — he even took a shot at the shape of Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets — but like much of what he sets his sights on at “Last Week Tonight,” there was a hefty amount of scathing criticism baked in.

“The more you look at Amazon the more you realize that its convenience comes with a real cost,” he said. “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.”

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