Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

‘They Treat Us Worse Than Animals’: Working Without Water at Amazon

Taj Ali

Exclusive: Amazon bosses forced staff at the company's Bristol warehouse to work without access to drinking water and toilets — the latest example of the company's hyper-exploitative employment practices.

Amazon workers at the company's Bristol site were made to work without access to water or toilets. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

On Thursday 24 August, at around three in the morning, a water pipe burst in Bristol. For workers at the Amazon BRS1 warehouse, it meant no access to water and toilet facilities. In most industries, a disrupted water supply would lead to an operational standstill. But for Amazon, it was business as usual. Despite workers’ pleas, they were told to remain at their workstations and continue working.   

Hannah, who has worked at the site for a number of years, told Tribune, ‘At 4.30 AM there is a deadline for priority orders [next day delivery] to leave the warehouse. I believe they kept people working to meet this deadline, disregarding any health and safety rules on top of human rights.’  

Another worker posted the following on Amazon’s internal messaging board: ‘Their decision was inhumane as the only solution was to close the company and send employees home. I felt treated worse than animals are treated. Again, the managers showed that only work and making numbers count, not our health and dignity.’  

Tribune has seen a response from management on the company’s messaging board acknowledging the issue. ‘I am sorry to hear how you felt about the events of this morning. Managers reacted to the events of this morning as promptly as they could.’   

Access to clean running water and toilets at work are basic welfare requirements outlined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, all employers must supply workers with an ‘adequate supply of wholesome drinking water.’ Management’s decision could potentially be unlawful.  

Christian, who worked on the night shift, confirms Hannah’s recollections. ‘We didn’t have access to water, plus all the vending machines didn’t work, and they closed all the toilets and told us not to use them.’  

Christian works as an Amnesty Floor Monitor (AFM). The job involves working with robotics and handling damaged items, which could include liquid spillages when there are errors and technical faults.  

‘It was really busy on the floors. At 3:45 AM, my colleagues reported the problem with water to our team lead. He seemed to know about the problem and told us to carry on and to hold it in if we needed to go toilet,’ explains Christian. ‘Nobody seemed to care. At 4:45 AM, after we had all told our leader that we were thirsty and couldn’t carry on in these conditions, our outbound operations manager told us we could stop. They were keeping some people in stations until 5:00 AM.’ 

Hannah explains that the Amazon site is isolated, and public toilets outside the Amazon warehouse are difficult to find. ‘What about people with disabilities, pregnant women or women on their period?’ she asks.  

‘At Amazon, safety first doesn’t exist. They want numbers,’ says Christian. ’Some managers should explain why they act like that. BRS1 is a joke when it comes to safety.’  

The issue continued during the day shift. ‘They emailed dayshift workers at 7 AM to not come to work when the starting time is 7:45 AM, so many were already on site or on their way to work,’ explains Hannah.   

Many workers travel to the Bristol site from the Newport area, roughly an hour and a half away. GMB union organiser Marie McDonald says workers were told to go home and advised that they would be paid for the day. But at about half past twelve, they received a message from the site saying that the water was back on, and they were expected to be on-site by one o’clock. ‘You’ve got to bear in mind that a lot of our members travel great distances to get to work. The bus stop in Newport is not centrally located. They have to walk for half an hour, so many couldn’t get on the bus in time to get back to Bristol,’ she tells Tribune.  

‘One of our members, who couldn’t physically get to the site, was told they would have to take annual leave if they couldn’t get to the site. She doesn’t have any annual leave, so she’s being penalised for an issue completely out of her control. As far as I’m concerned, Amazon is putting productivity over staff safety.’   

Amazon’s record on health and safety leaves much to be desired. In 2022, Amazon warehouse workers in the United States suffered serious injuries at more than twice the rate of comparable facilities.   

In March, during a second wave of strikes at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry, GMB organiser Rachel Fagan highlighted how the warehouse was under so much strain that it was falling apart.  ‘A massive bracket chunk of metal fell off the ceiling and landed on this lady’s head. It nearly split this lady’s head in half,’ she told Tribune 

‘People are bending their backs and twisting their bodies to try to meet impossible targets, which is causing injury,’ says Chris, a worker in Doncaster. ‘A friend of mine who’s just joined the union went over on her ankle and damaged her tendons. She had to have six weeks off work without payment due to the safety boots that Amazon had supplied her, and she got a warning for that when she went back to work.’   

Freedom of Information requests to nine ambulance trusts have previously revealed that from January 2018 to August 2021, 971 ambulance callouts were made to Amazon warehouses in the UK — the equivalent of up to five a week. In Tilbury alone, where a male employee died in 2021, 178 ambulance callouts were made.   

The unwillingness of managers to forsake a few hours of work in the interest of employee well-being is in line with Amazon’s broader employment practices. From drivers urinating in bottles to warehouse workers’ productivity being monitored, ranked and scrutinised as if they are participating in the hunger games, indignity is a defining feature of Amazon employment.  

This is the reality behind one-click e-commerce consumerism. The well-being of warehouse workers is sacrificed in the name of efficiency and profit. Superyachts and space races for billionaires like Bezos while the workers who produce their wealth toil on planet Earth without access to toilets and water.

The growing unionisation of Amazon workers is often understood through the lens of the cost-of-living crisis, but at its core, it is a fight for basic dignity and respect in the workplace. And if Amazon workers aren’t afforded such a privilege, they will demand it. 

Amazon did not respond to Tribune’s request to comment.