Three powerful senators sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Wednesday morning demanding that he answer questions about the retailer’s package delivery operation while denouncing it as “a system of deception” that imposes “unfair and dangerous conditions” on workers and the public.
The three-page letter, signed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren, and Sherrod Brown, comes in response to a BuzzFeed News investigation of Amazon’s delivery network, which the lawmakers called “startling.”
The investigation — which was followed five days later by a story on the same topic by ProPublica and The New York Times — revealed that Amazon uses hundreds of independent contractors around the US to deliver an increasingly large share of its packages, while also creating a legal separation between itself and the drivers who carry its boxes and envelopes. When accidents happen, including numerous deaths, the retailer disavows responsibility.
In their letter, the senators wrote that Amazon uses “a variety of underhanded tactics” to allow the retailer to dodge “oversight and legal accountability for the treatment of its workers” and to avoid regulation, which puts the public at risk.
“Innocent bystanders — as young as 9 months old—have lost their lives and sustained serious injuries from drivers improperly trained and under immense pressure to meet delivery deadlines,” the senators wrote. “It is simply unacceptable for Amazon to turn the other way.”
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the letter. But in response to a tweet last week from Sen. Blumenthal excoriating Amazon’s delivery system as a “callous attempt to shirk its responsibilities and evade accountability,” senior vice president Dave Clark vociferously defended the $900 billion company.
That did little to assuage Blumenthal, Warren, and Brown. In their letter, they asked the tech giant to provide a more transparent accounting of its delivery fleet, provide more detail about those safeguards and audits, and to “cease business with contractors that violate labor laws and to promote standards that protect its drivers and ensure public safety.”
They gave Bezos until September 27 to answer numerous detailed, multi-part questions about the way the company hires and monitors its delivery contractors — which it calls DSPs, or Delivery Service Partners. The senators also asked Amazon to agree to publish the names of all those contractors.
Warren has made consumer protection and workplace safety a centerpiece of her presidential campaign, while Brown has critiqued tech companies for what he views as anti-competitive behavior. And Blumenthal, who is the ranking member of the Senate’s Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, has been an especially tough critic of tech companies’ business practices, calling among other things for the breakup of Facebook.
“Amazon is a company that prides itself on technological innovation and big ideas, but continues to struggle with basic standards of public safety and responsibility,” Blumenthal, Warren, and Brown wrote. “Amazon’s pursuit of larger profit margins, increasingly unsustainable delivery expectations, and methods to avoid regulatory and legal oversight are alarming. Further, we are disappointed by Amazon’s repeated disregard for workers’ rights and consumer safety.”
Although the Seattle-based company still relies on UPS and the US Postal Service to deliver many of its packages, a growing share is handled by its home-grown delivery network, composed of small- and medium-sized courier companies that hire their own drivers.
Many of those companies, the BuzzFeed News investigation found, have no other source of revenue other than Amazon, and face stiff quotas that require them to deliver 99.9% of their packages on time, or risk losing routes or having their contracts terminated altogether.
Drivers, meanwhile, are under tremendous pressure to finish their daily routes — which can include 250 packages or more in an eight-hour shift — on time, and in some cases claim they are asked by managers to skip lunch and even bathroom breaks to accomplish that goal. They are provided far less training than drivers at UPS and FedEx, and the vans they drive, unlike those at the traditional delivery companies, fall just under the size threshold that would subject them to Department of Transportation oversight. Numerous contractors, BuzzFeed News revealed, have been determined to be in violation of federal labor laws.
At present, there is no publicly available listing of the independent companies that deliver boxes and envelopes for Amazon, which is among the factors that makes it difficult if not impossible to track the safety or labor record of the company’s sprawling, decentralized delivery network. Some companies identified by BuzzFeed News have repeatedly been cited by the Department of Labor for improperly paying workers, while others had been sued numerous times over accidents, unpaid overtime, and unpaid insurance bills and loans. Several have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past several years.
Nonetheless, the growth of the delivery network has been relentless. Amazon says it has added at least 200 new companies to its delivery network in the past year.