Oobah Butler in Channel 4's The Great Amazon Heist. Image: Channel 4
Oobah Butler is taking the piss in new documentary The Great Amazon Heist. No, really. There he is, roadside, near Amazon Fulfilment Centres in both Los Angeles and Coventry, picking up discarded bottles of urine.
Why? Because the working conditions for Amazon deliver drivers are, he says, so strict, and the pressures to meet targets so intense, that drivers are forced to urinate in bottles.
“It is honestly degrading. You feel like you have no option,” one driver says in Butler’s Channel 4 exposé. The drivers face sanctions if these bottles are found in their van. So each day, bottles are thrown from the window of vans at the end of drivers’ shifts.
Butler has a history of employing elaborate pranks to highlight failings or flaws in online commerce. Most notably, in 2017, the writer and filmmaker gamed the system into ranking a fake restaurant in his shed as London’s best-rated eatery on TripAdvisor. The Shed at Dulwich soon had influencers, food critics and celebrities falling over themselves to try to book a table – showing up just how unreliable these ratings can be.
Now he is taking on the corporate giants of Amazon. And after collecting bottle after bottle of discarded urine, he goes one step further. Butler repackages Amazon drivers’ urine as ‘Release’ – a reusable energy drink. After deploying his friends to buy the product and leave positive feedback, the drink climbs the Bitter Lemon drink charts (yes, there is one) on Amazon’s site. Soon, their, erm, number ones hit the coveted number one spot.
His methods may not be traditional, but there is a serious side to Butler. This stunt and others in The Great Amazon Heist highlight hypocrisy at the heart of Amazon’s operation. Their much-lauded, super-convenient goods delivery system is only made efficient by massively inconveniencing thousands of delivery drivers.
According to Butler’s documentary, they are also only able to maintain their market lead by actively scuppering attempts by its workforce to unionise and by monitoring their workers’ every movement (bowel and otherwise).
When Butler tries to interview Amazon workers in Coventry, most are too worried about repercussions to talk. So he dyes his hair, disguises his face with glasses, and bags a job at the Amazon Fulfilment Centre to observe exactly what goes on.
Smuggling a hidden camera into one of the most surveilled workplaces imaginable is tricky. He claims a pelvic screw, rather than the camera hidden in his pants, is triggering the airport-style security sensors. For almost three days he is able to capture life in the warehouse before he is rumbled. And it’s illuminating.
One worker describes the result of standing up for entire ten-hour shifts. “Back pain, back pain, back pain.” Butler himself is left to work in unfit conditions for hours. And he discovers he is one of hundreds of new workers employed just as Amazon’s workforce was hopeful that they could reach the magic 50% figure in favour of unionising. Was the new influx of workers an attempt to shift the goalposts? Amazon deny this in their right to reply.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is now one of the wealthiest people on the planet. Much of the corporation’s European revenue is channeled through Luxembourg to take advantage of the country’s tax laws. Butler copies their methods in a final stunt aimed at forcing Amazon into unwittingly growing a social conscience and contributing towards the upkeep of the roads their drivers spend so many hours on.
Nadia Whittome MP says: “Everything that people care about could be funded by money lost by wealth not trickling down but gushing off-shore.
“That wealth could be taxed and could be paying for the NHS, social care, schools, roads, transport. How long would it take for an Amazon delivery without roads paid for by our taxes?”
It’s a good question. And while Butler’s documentary is unlikely to bring down one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, it will at least make viewers ask questions.
Because the inconvenient truth about the online marketplace that prides itself in being the most convenient way to shop is that Amazon succeeds on the back of poorly paid workers with little or no long-term security and profits that are not taxed in the country in which they are generated.
So every time we shop with them, we are, in a way, condoning these practices. We are also, as The Great Amazon Heist shows, buying products from a marketplace that doesn’t fully regulate its goods. How else to explain Butler’s cheeky young nieces Penny and Eve using Alexa to buy knives and rat poison, which are delivered with apparently no age checks?
Like The Big Issue, Amazon’s busiest time of year is Christmas. Unlike The Big Issue, Amazon’s success at this time of year is not driven by a mission to eradicate poverty and help people. Oobah Butler’s film is a timely reminder. Spend your money wisely, folks…
Almost immediately after publishing, a spokesperson for Amazon contacted The Big Issue to dispute the contents of The Great Amazon Heist.
“Channel 4 has presented a heavily distorted picture of our processes and operations that do not reflect the realities of shopping with or working for Amazon,” the spokesperson claimed. “We strive every day to create the most trusted experience for our customers and the safest environment for our colleagues – and we work fast to immediately fix anything falling below our high-standards.”
They also insisted Amazon was “committed to the safety and well-being of delivery drivers” and that the company operates are “caring and supporting working environment”. The spokesperson went as far to say: “Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees.”
As with most things, it will be up to the viewer to decide whose version of accounts they believe.
The Great Amazon Heist airs on Thursday 19 October at 10pm on Channel 4.