Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–…): Season 6, Episode 17 - Amazon - full transcript

Main story: The often brutal exploitation of workers in giant warehouses used or operated by e-commerce businesses and corporations like Amazon ; plus, Jared Kushner's Middle East peace plan.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Welcome, welcome, welcome
to "Last Week Tonight"!

I'm John Oliver.
Thank you so much for joining us.

Just time for a quick recap
of the week,

which was a big one
for Trump and diplomacy,

two words that go together
like "fire" and "Chicago, 1871."

Trump was overseas this week,

meeting with his favorite

He joked with Putin about
meddling in U.S. elections,

called Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman
"a friend of mine,"

and just this morning,
popped across the DMZ

to North Korea
with Kim Jong-un,

while seemingly being thrilled
that he'd been invited over.

It's an honor to be with you,

an honor that you asked me
to step over that line,

and I was proud
to step over the line.

I thought you might do that.
I wasn't sure, but I was ready to do it.

And I want to thank you.
It's been great.

Oh, that's actually nice.

So Trump wanted to step over the line,
was ready to do it,

but waited until he received
affirmative consent.

What a refreshing
change of pace for him!

Maybe--maybe Trump's mantra
going forward should be,

"Treat women with the same respect
you show murderous autocrats."

He's growing!
Good for him.

The other big diplomacy news
of the week

concerns Jared Kushner,
Slender Man's weird nephew.

Jared's Middle East peace plan has now
been over two years in the making,

and even before taking office,
Trump was hyping it like this:

If you can't produce peace
in the Middle East, nobody can. Okay?

All my life, I've been hearing

that's the toughest deal
in the world to make,

and I've seen it.

But I have a feeling that Jared
is gonna do a great job.

Of course he is!

Jared's racked up an impressive list
of accomplishments in his 38 years,

from having a "very smooth, shiny face,"
to "end of list."

Well, this week,
Jared announced

his "Peace to Prosperity" plan
during a conference in Bahrain

with a stirring speech.

The Peace to Prosperity vision

is a modern framework

for a brighter
and more prosperous future.

The man is
a once-in-a-generation orator.

He's like Cicero reincarnated
as a garbage disposal.

And look, while that may not be
Jared's real voice,

what he presented this week
is also not a real plan.

It is a "vision" that fits somewhere
between "economic wish list"

and "half-remembered
rich boy wet dream,"

because essentially,

it describes
hypothetical investments

in Palestine and its neighbors
worth more than $50 billion,

once peace is achieved.

But achieving peace
is the really important part.

Without that,
you've got nothing.

Jared punted announcing that part
of the plan until later this year.

The more you listened
to him talk about his vision,

the less he seemed
to actually say.

So how do we begin to make
this change?

We need the right plan,
and to create the right environment.

If we have a real peace, and there's not
a fear of people doing terrorism,

then all of a sudden,
we can thin the borders

and allow for a much faster
flow of goods and people.

After years of thinking,
Jared's arrived at the conclusion

that the Middle East
would be better off

if people stopped
"doing terrorism."

Think about the chain of events
that led him to that moment.

Jared had that idea,
"no doing terrorism,"

and thought, "That's an awesome point.
I'll write that down."

So he did,
and then he went to sleep,

exhausted by the thought.

He woke up,
read what he'd written,

and he was like, "Yup, nailed it.
I'm a good boy!"

Then he said that point,

out loud in front
of actual human beings.

Which should be humiliating.

I'm far from the only one
critical of his plan.

Dan Kurtzer, a former
ambassador to Israel,

reportedly said, "I would give
this so-called plan

a C-minus from an undergraduate

Although I doubt
that actually bothers Jared,

'cause a C-minus is
the trust fund boy's A-plus.

And to give you some sense of Jared's
odds of success, I should point out,

no Palestinian officials
attended Jared's conference,

possibly because they don't see
Jared, or Trump,

as neutral mediators,
and why would they?

Jared's family is so close
to Netanyahu,

the prime minister once stayed at their
home and slept in Jared's bedroom,

in what I'd imagine
was Jared's racecar bed,

under a shelf of other kids' soccer
trophies that his dad bought for him.

And it's not just that.

The administration recognized
Jerusalem as Israel's capital

and cut hundreds of millions
in aid to the Palestinians.

When Netanyahu got wind
that Trump would recognize

the Golan Heights as part of Israel,
he responded like this:

Prime Minister Netanyahu
has announced he's naming

a controversial new settlement
in the Golan Heights

after the man he calls his good friend,
Donald Trump.

That must've been the fastest,
easiest decision in Israeli history.

"How should we thank Trump?

"Just slap his name on a sign.
"He'll love it.

"Oh--oh-- oh, shit, the Golan Heights
just went bankrupt.

We probably should've
seen that coming."

But maybe the clearest sign

of how poorly thought-out
Jared's approach is

comes from this
Palestinian olive farmer.

A few years ago,
he proposed a joint venture

between Palestinians
and Israelis,

only to see his project then defunded
by the Trump administration.

And Jared's plan contained
a special surprise just for him.

Junaidi is still bitter at how the
administration treated his project.

So imagine his surprise
when we told him

that his face was being used

in the glossy White House

promoting Jared Kushner's
peace plan.

Did you know that they're using
your image in these proposals?

The Kushner plan, yeah.

You didn't know
they're using your--

- Your face?
- No.

This is a--
this is the report.

This is the White House

That's you, right?

Wow. You know you're fucking up
your peace process

when you can't even get an actual
olive farmer to extend an olive branch.

But in the end--
in the end, that olive farmer

may have summed up
Jared's proposals

better than anyone else.

Kushner is very bad student.

He don't know nothing.

Exactly! He is right, because if you
didn't know it before this week,

it's now clear that the only way
Jared's getting peace in the Middle East

is if he somehow stumbles upon
a button in the woods

labeled "Middle East
Peace Button."

And even then, there's only
around a 50/50 chance

that he knows enough
to fucking press it.

And now this.

The 20-pound live lobster
patted down by the TSA.

Exclusive: it's his lobster.

So why is he so upset?

When you stuck your fingers
in that alligator's nose,

what did the alligator do?

Plus, the phone sucked
right out of an airplane.

Then, don't hold the mayo.

Can you believe this guy?

It's Suzy the tiger, and...

back-to-school nose jobs
for twins.

Plus, the bear
that invited himself

to the family barbecue.

And...fear of nuclear war
got you down?

Buy a doomsday bunker.

Why escalators can be so terrifying
for elderly people.

And food buffet secrets.

Cough syrup
murder investigation.

And real-life mole people

Plus, killer umbrellas.

And...funniest pitch ever?

Moving on.

For our main story tonight,
we're gonna talk about e-commerce.

It's like regular commerce, but no one
calls the police when you do it naked.

The rise of e-commerce
has dramatically changed

the way we shop
for everything,

and its convenience is irresistible,
as this woman admits.

If I don't have to get out
of the house,

why not just
Amazon Prime it?

I know she might sound lazy there,

but you simply can't blame
Ashlyn Aardema.

She's spent her life
at the beginning

of every alphabetical list.

She's never had to wait
for anything!

N through Z, that's the sturdy boy's
half of the alphabet.

That's where you learn the meaning of
the phrase "Hold on a second, John."

She's right. 20 years ago, when you
ran out of something like toilet paper,

you had to pull on your
Juicy Couture velour pants,

Uggs, and Von Dutch hat,
leave your house,

and go to something called
a "store,"

physically locate something
called an "aisle,"

pick the toilet paper up
with your physical arms,

drag yourself to the register using your
legs and feet, pay for it with cash,

and then somehow transport
the toilet paper

all the way back to your house in a bag
even if you were thirsty!

It was hell.

Now, thankfully, you can just click
a button, which is much better.

It's no wonder
that e-commerce

is chipping away at
brick-and-mortar retail sales.

And it can seem like the retail
jobs are shifting too.

The number of workers who lost
their jobs at 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?

It's like hearing
there's a farm upstate

where Borders, Circuit City,
and Tower Records employees

can run around and be free,

when you always just assumed
that that was a lie,

and that they were all

But what actually happens in warehouses
can be invisible to most people,

unless companies like Amazon
choose to give us entertaining glimpses

into what a fun workplace
they run, like this.

Have you ever wondered
how Amazon

gets your packages to you
so quickly?

We do it with two things:

amazing technology
and amazing people.

Tell us about yourself, Sean.

I receive products,
and I'm a horrible dancer.

Can we see some moves?

The SLAM machine weighs,
scans your box,

and attaches a label
all in, like, one second.

Oh, and that's Ryan.
He loves photography.

I do love photography.

Finally, Jackie gives every single box
a long and loving hug

before loading it
onto a truck.

-No, I don't.
-Maybe just this one?

-Aww, you love it.

Hold on. Hold on.

Saying "You love it" after coercing her
into hugging a box

is gross.

It's telling that on YouTube-
and this is true-

comments are disabled
for that video.

Presumably because Amazon knew
the only reasonable response to that is,

"Fuck everything about this."

The truth is, those jobs
are not all dance-offs and box hugging.

They are physically hard,
as this commentator says,

albeit in the most tactless way

But when you go to the
distribution centers--

they call them fulfillment centers,

'cause it's supposed to be fulfilling--
it's not.

It's an amazing thing to see,
but when I--

my first time I visited one
of these massive warehouses

with row after row after row of stuff
and these people walking miles,

tens of miles a day picking these things
and putting them back in there,

it just looks like backbreaking,
exhausting work.

-It made me thank God I went to college.
-That's right.

Wow, joking about people
not going to college

is some concentrated elitism.

Although, to be fair,
it is the condescension

that really pulls his outfit

A lilac plaid shirt
beneath a pastel plaid blazer--

you look like
a Brooks Brothers mannequin

who was thrown out
for being a noise violation.

But the thing is, he is right:
it is backbreaking labor,

sometimes literally.

The injury and illness rate
in the warehouse industry

is higher than industries
like coal mining,

construction, and logging.

I didn't know there were jobs
more dangerous than those,

other than maybe rodeo clown,
Oompa Loompa, or shark dentist.

And now is a good time
to talk about this,

because Amazon just announced
their annual Prime Day,

one of their biggest
sales events--

basically, Black Friday
in the middle of July.

So tonight, let's look

at the warehouse part
of the logistics industry

and the people
who work inside them.

Because the margins
are razor-thin,

and the tiniest details
can make a huge difference.

At Walmart's most recent
shareholder meeting,

their CEO brought
two workers onstage

to show off how a minor change
they'd made to packing trucks

was going to pay off
in a big way for investors.

We had this two-step stool
in the trailers, and guess what?

It's kind of clunky.

It's a little bit big,
and it's a little bit heavy.

So Francisco does this job
every day

and figures out that
if we change to this stool,

which is lighter
and easier to move around,

people will actually use it
all the time,

and we're doing a better job
of cubing out the trailers.

It's gonna save us
at least $30 million this year.

Can you thank these two for us?

Great job.
Great job.

Really appreciate it.

See ya.

Yeah! Give these guys
a warm Walmart thank-you!

Which is a small round of applause,
two hearty claps on the back,

and the request that they get this shit
off the stage and get back to work.

So there is a lot that goes on
behind the scenes at warehouses,

far from customers' eyes,

because many retail giants

to lesser-known
outside companies.

Take this warehouse in Memphis.

It shipped phones for Verizon,
but it wasn't run by Verizon.

It was owned and operated
by a company called XPO,

one of the bigger names
in logistics.

And workers there said
conditions could be brutal.

Just last year, they complained
about extreme heat.

The workers said in the complaint,
there's no air conditioning

in most of the metal warehouse
on Citation Drive

and contended inside temperatures
can get dangerous on hot days.

A TOSHA spokesperson said

there's no requirement
for air conditioning

in any Tennessee workplace.

An oven. Now I understand
how a chicken feels

when we put 'em in the oven.

That sounds terrible.
Although I will say,

a chicken shouldn't be feeling anything
when you put it in an oven.

If it does, for the love of God,
check your recipe.

You may have missed
some key steps.

And heat is just the start

"The New York Times" reported
that a woman actually died

of cardiac arrest
at the warehouse.

And a coworker told reporters
she'd witnessed her telling managers

that she was short of breath
and asking for an extra break,

which her supervisor denied.

Not just that--
other workers said

managers then told them
to keep moving boxes

as her body lay on the floor.

Now, legally, here is where
I have to tell you

that XPO takes issue
with "The Times's" story.

They deny
that the worker who died

told her supervisor
she was feeling unwell,

and said
the company did allow workers

to leave for the day
after that worker died.

Although I simply don't know
how that squares

with this actual post
on Facebook from that day,

where an XPO employee wrote,

"They're really trying
to make us work

and this lady's dead body
still in the building."

XPO also insisted to us they conducted
a full, independent investigation

that showed just how wrong
"The Times's" story was.

So we said, "Great!
Can we see the report?"

They said the investigation
had been run

by someone who worked
for Michelle Obama.

And we said, "Great!
Can we see the report?"

And they said no,
because, and I quote,

"There is no written report,"

because it was given to them

So which account
should we believe here?

XPO's spoken-word report,

the details of which may disappear
into the wide chasm of history

in the grand tradition
of oral storytelling?

Or this written, contemporaneous account
from someone who was there,

about having to work around
a coworker's dead body?

It's up to you.
The lawyers say it's up to you.

I asked the lawyers, "Can it be
up to me?" And they said no.

And I said, "If it was,
I'd choose the Facebook one."

And they said, "You can't say that."
So I'm not going to.

The point is,

the warehouse industry operates
at a breakneck pace.

At this point, we should
probably turn to Amazon,

because they've increased competitive
pressure across the industry.

As a former executive explains,
they set the bar high.

There is a promise of speed,
which is completely sacred.

When you receive
an email from Amazon

saying the item is on the way
and you'll get it tomorrow,

that promise has to be met,
at any cost.

Wow, "at any cost." It's a little weird
to hear someone

treat my stupid Amazon
purchases with such urgency,

'cause you're not delivering
diphtheria medicine

to a remote Alaskan village

You're delivering
novelty horse head masks

to people who've forgotten they
ordered them till they showed up.

Amazon is not the worst actor
in this industry.

They generally don't subcontract
out their warehouses,

and made headlines last year for raising
workers' base pay to $15 an hour.

But being "not the worst"
is a low, low bar,

and they have
huge influence here.

When Amazon announced
this year

that they'd be making one-day shipping
standard for Prime members,

Walmart immediately hinted
that it would do the same.

Basically, Amazon is
the industry trendsetter.

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.

Because the conditions
in their warehouses

are not nearly as fun
as their ads like to suggest.

They can be
physically draining,

as this seasonal worker
in his 70s will tell you.

I had a scanner in my hand,
and the scanner would tell me

to go pick up a box
of Oreo cookies

in the purple section.

I would go there,

and then I'd get another scan,

go pick up some STP oil
in the green section,

which is the opposite side
of the warehouse,

which the warehouse
is two football fields

or three football fields.

So I would end up, on a 10-hour shift,
walking 15 to 17 miles a day.

Yeah, and watching that
might stick in your head

the next time
you're sitting there

ordering next-day delivery
of Oreos.

Do you really need them that fast?
Probably not, right?

How about a 72-pack of Tide Pods?
Again, I'd argue no.

Or this costume that makes your cat
look like a sharpshooter?

Well, here it does get
more complicated, doesn't it?

Your cat could be
a little cowboy.

You could call him
"Butch Catsidy,"

and you might want that
to happen as soon as possible.

It's not an emergency, no,
but it's also not unimportant.

And if you're thinking,
"That sounds tough,

but maybe that job
wasn't for that man,"

you should know, the rate at which
Amazon has workers pick items

can exhaust workers of any age.

Pickers like Steven Abadelli

walk 15 miles or more each day

to retrieve as many
as 200 items an hour.

A handheld device
dictates every move

and counts down tasks
to the second.

It would say, I need to be
in aisle 54, get this item,

and then suddenly,
"You're going to aisle 72,

and you have 10 seconds."

Abadelli struggled
to keep up,

and, like many,
was eventually let go.

I would get out of work,
get home,

and sit on the couch,
and my body would quit on me.

You're a guy
in your early 20s.

-And you're still wiped out.

I was dead
at the end of the day.

Look, no one should be
in their prime in the morning

and then dead
at the end of the day,

unless they are a mayfly.

And mayflies are just not
spending their one day on Earth

in an Amazon warehouse.

Of course they're not.
They know the precious value of time.

They're spending their day
doing a mountain of cocaine

and fucking!



But by many accounts,

Amazon operates
at a relentless pace.

As one YouTuber who's worked
in an Amazon warehouse will tell you,

even when they offer
a rewards system,

the incentives can be
a bit of a slap in the face.

They would be like,

everyone's rates are really, really low,
so we'll have a power hour

where you guys have to push
and push and push

as hard as you can,
and the winner gets a prize

for pushing and pushing
through the pain and all that.

Guess what the damn prize was.

A $10 gift card
to In-N-Out burger!


I get why that was annoying.

You know what's better than
a $10 gift card to In-N-Out burger?

Just $10!
It's like an In-N-Out gift card,

but it can be used for things
that don't come "Animal Style."

Plus, over the years, Amazon has faced
criticism from workers

over their willingness to
accommodate basic human needs,

like using the bathroom.

Seven lawsuits have been filed
against them by pregnant workers,

who say they were refused
longer bathroom breaks

and fewer continuous hours
on their feet.

Now, legally, here is where
I have to tell you

that Amazon says
it's accommodated

of pregnant associates.

And more generally, they say,

"Associates are allowed to use
the toilet whenever needed."

But that simply doesn't square
with many accounts from workers,

both in news reports and many,

many first-person testimonials
on YouTube.

If you go to the bathroom during your
break, you have to wait in line,

and you won't make
your numbers for that period.

Someone will come and talk to you.

If you're far away
from the bathroom,

it's gonna take you
a long time just to get there,

use it, and get back.

Now your rate has plummeted.

Unless you really, really,
really have to,

just hold it until
you have your lunch break,

because it will mess up
your rate,

and they will find any excuse
to fire you.

And that's just
not a good system

for multiple reasons,
including the fact

that when people spend less
in the bathroom,

they don't shorten
the bathroom part.

They shorten
the hand-washing part.

So the next time
you order something online,

it's probably safe to assume it's been
packed by urine-soaked hands.

And if you're thinking,

it can seem Amazon barely sees their
workers as human, you're not alone.

Just watch this interviewer have
that exact thought in real time.

The number of items
they pick per hour,

the number of steps they take,
it's measured,

and when they're not as
productive as their colleagues,

they're put on alert.

There's a line of other people in these
communities waiting to take jobs.

They're almost like robots,

except they're obviously
human beings.

Yeah, yeah.
I could honestly watch that guy

figure out what things are almost like
for hours.

Giraffes are almost
like horses,

except they're obviously

And Amazon--
Amazon is rolling out

more and more robots
in its warehouses,

increasingly working
side by side with humans,

a relationship
which isn't always seamless.

An automated machine
like this one,

used by Amazon
to move merchandise,

accidentally punctured
a can of bear repellent.

The toxic bear spray got
into the building's air vents.

More than 50 workers

about trouble breathing

and a burning sensation
in their eyes and throats.

Yeah. The workers
were bear-maced by a robot.

Amazon says
they've now changed

how bear repellent is stored,
which is frankly just as well,

because their workers have been
bear-maced more than once!

In 2015,
a Texas fire department

responded to an emergency
caused by a robot

running over a can
of bear repellent.

So in 50 years' time, when humanity
is caught in the crossfire

of the great
bear versus robot war,

robots fired the first shot,

and they fired twice.

And it's not just exhaustion

or the potential
of being bear-maced.

Reports have found numerous
cases of Amazon workers

suffering from workplace
accidents or injuries,

which isn't even surprising.

Remember, this is
a physically demanding job.

And you might hope
that a labor union

could step in to push
for more protections,

but Amazon has actively
fought against that happening,

even producing a union-busting
training video for managers,

which leaked onto the internet
last fall.

We are not anti-union,
but we are not neutral either.

We will boldly defend our direct
relationship with associates

as best for the associate,
the business, and our shareholders.

We don't believe unions
are in the best interest

of our customers,
our shareholders,

or most importantly,
our associates.

Our business model
is built upon speed,

and customer obsession,

things that are generally
not associated with unions.

Yeah, "customer obsession"

is not generally
associated with unions,

'cause it's
a very creepy phrase,

and not one that I want to be associated
with any brand,

much less one
that is so desperate

to put fucking microphones
inside my house!

The more you look at Amazon,

the more you realize that its
convenience comes with a real cost,

because 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.

And all the while,
the man behind Amazon

is now worth $118 billion,

more than anyone else
in the world.

He is so rich,
he seems to actually think

that this is a reasonable
answer to a question

about what he plans to do
with his personal wealth.

The only way that I can see

to deploy this much
financial resource

is by converting
my Amazon winnings

into space travel.

Okay, so first:

$118 billion
is not anybody's "winnings."

It is a computer error
in capitalism.

But it is true: Bezos is spending
a billion dollars a year

on his personal space-exploration
company, Blue Origin.

I'm not saying that billionaires playing
space games is a Freudian issue.

Anyone can talk about how
rockets look like dicks.

I will just say,
this is his actual rocket,

which looks even more
like a dick

than you expected it to.

It has a head!

And even at
a billion dollars a year,

that's just a drop
in the bucket of a fortune

that Bezos can't seem
to figure out how to spend.

some of his employees

seem to be working themselves
to exhaustion.

Amazon has driven
the whole warehouse industry

to move constantly faster
and faster

on already low margins.

And, sure, the fact that it pays
at least $15 an hour is nice.

But raising workers' wages

is only part of the equation

Making sure these jobs
are safe

and that the pace is
sustainable is critical too.

And if Bezos has enough money

to fund his space dicks
in perpetuity,

it isn't a question
of whether he "can"

improve working conditions
for his employees.

It's just a question
of if he wants to.

And if he doesn't want to,
at the very least,

Amazon should present
a more realistic picture

of what their promises
cost the workers

who make it all happen.

Have you ever wondered
how Amazon

gets your packages to you
so quickly?

We do it with two things:

amazing technology
and amazing people.

Every day, thousands of items arrive
and Sean goes to find them.

Tell us about yourself, Sean.

I pick up products,
and I'm a horrible dancer.

That's fun.
Can we see some moves?

Oh, I've already walked
12 miles today.

I said dance!

Ah, fuck! Shit!

Sick moves!

That's Ryan. He moves items
around the fulfillment center.

I don't have time to go
to the bathroom,

so I'll stand here
and wet myself.

-Good for you, Ryan.
-All right.

-Can't do it while you watch.

-All right.

All right. Seriously.

Lisa here packs your stuff
into boxes, don't you, Lisa?

Can't talk, I'm running behind
on my units per hour.

It's okay. Just tell us a little bit
about yourself, Lis.

I'm a mom. Got two kids. I don't see
them as much as I like, but--

Nobody cares about your kids, Lisa.
You're falling behind! Faster!

-Oh, fuck you.
-No, fuck you!

The SLAM machine weighs,
scans your box,

and attaches a label
all in, like, one second.

-And this is Alberto.
-My friends call me Al.

And I got to say, I think a union
would help address

some of the systemic problems--

-Oh! Bear spray!
-Jesus Christ!

And finally,
Jackie hugs every box.

-No, I don't.

-Maybe just this one?

-Because a lot of people want this job.

One day,
a robot will hug boxes,

and we'll be done
with this charade.

-Yeah, I get it.
-But until then, hug the box, Jackie.

-Good. Now kiss it.

-I don't want to.
-I said, kiss the box.

Every day, hundreds
of thousands of packages

are shipped
to your front door,

and that's all because
of our amazing associates.

-Happy Prime Day, everyone.
-Happy Prime Day.

Bear spray!

Hey, what's up, Sean?

Try not to think about it.

That's our show.
Thanks for watching!

We're off next week,
back July 28th. Good night!