Hello World

By Julia Angwin

Fighting for the Right to Pee





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This Week
Hello, friends,
It’s the year 2021, and peeing is on the legislative docket. California lawmakers have just passed a bill that would prohibit companies from penalizing warehouse workers for failing to meet their quotas because of a need to take a bathroom or water break.
Why is such a law needed, you might ask? Well, even though Amazon isn’t named in the legislation, AB-701, the bill is squarely aimed at the retail giant—which has faced repeated allegations that the strict quota system in its warehouses penalizes employees for peeing.
As reporter Dara Kerr reports this week in The Markup, Amazon worker Yesenia Barrera says she was terminated from her Amazon warehouse job after she’d racked up around 60 minutes of “time off task,” in part because of three bathroom breaks during a 10-hour shift. Amazon delivery drivers have been known to pee in bottles because their schedules don’t allow them time for breaks. 
Last year, a group of 15 U.S. senators wrote to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to express “serious concern” about worker health and safety, including quota pressures that forced “urinating in plastic bottles on the warehouse floor.” And Amazon recently settled a class-action lawsuit in California brought by 27 warehouse workers who said the company violated the state’s labor codes by denying them adequate bathroom and rest breaks. 
The California legislation tackles the Amazon workers’ grievances in two ways. It requires warehouse operators like Amazon to report to the government—and their own employees—the quotas and speed metrics being used to govern workers. And it prohibits companies from punishing workers for failing to meet those quotas due to health and safety issues.
Amazon has not publicly commented on the bill, but it has donated to the campaigns of nearly half of the assembly members who voted no on the bill (and to some legislators who voted yes). And a trade group Amazon is on the board of, California Retailers Association, opposes the bill, claiming that “establishing potentially open-ended employee access to bathroom facilities … will make employers’ ability to enforce production standards even more complex.”
To understand how the tech industry evolved from promoting shiny gadgets to fighting against workers’ rights, I spoke to Veena Dubal, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law who researches the intersection of law, technology, and precarious employment. Dubal’s work has been instrumental in the fight to gain employee benefits for gig workers. She has also fought to put the gig worker struggle in historical context with comparisons to early industrialization working conditions.
The transcript of our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Veena Dubal
Veena Dubal
Angwin: Let’s start with AB-701. How did we get to a point where we have to pass a bill to allow workers to go pee? 
Dubal: Yeah, I’ve been surprised about the degree of pushback that the bill got from the right and from industry, because it’s such a really mild bill.
This constant fear of regulating the workplace reminds me a lot of the early 20th century and the late 19th century, when you started to see the first workers’ rights bills and laws ever passed in the United States. 
You had laws, such as a New York bakery law—debated [and found unconstitutional] in the famous Lochner case—which said you can’t force a baker to work for more than 60 hours a week. The pushback there was similar: The state shouldn’t micromanage what’s going on in a workplace.
But the impetus for AB-701 was also exactly the same. You had employers who were pushing people beyond what was humanly possible. It was that cruel drive for profit that was impeding worker health and well-being. And so you saw legislators step in and try to create some kind of boundary.
And I would say that 60 hours a week was a moderate boundary to try to implement. Similarly, this AB-701 boundary is pretty moderate. The California legislature is essentially asking warehouses to follow existing health and safety laws and to not allow the speed standards and quotas to interfere with the ability of workers to do basic things like urinate, change their pads or tampons, or pump milk or whatever the case might be. 
And so I think we’ve gotten back to this point—full circle in 100 years—because we are in this moment of extreme capitalism where people are being forced to work like they’re robots. And they’re not robots.
Angwin: Is the driving force the fact that people don’t have a boss anymore? They just work for the quota system or they work for the Uber routing system, etc. 
Dubal: Yes, I think that’s right. It’s interesting to note that there has been this hysteria over the last five to 10 years about workers being replaced by robots.
But what we are seeing is that workers are not being replaced. They are being asked to engage in repetitive tasks alongside robots or machines. They are literally cogs in a larger machine, and their own behavior and movements are not tied to an internal clock or even an external mandate from a boss, but rather tied to an AI analysis of how fast someone can possibly work. 
It’s very much analogous to the Industrial Revolution, when skilled workers in the factory had their tasks broken down into different pieces. That was not the taking away of human labor or the elimination of human labor. It was the fragmenting of work so that you didn’t need as much skill to produce something. 
What that did for the employers was make workers much more fungible. Employers are much less dependent on a worker if that skilled worker’s job can be turned into 10 different low wage jobs. Those workers can be fired or replaced very easily. It makes it much easier to engage in really harsh and oppressive work conditions and practices. It reduced worker power.
Similarly, what we’re seeing now is harsh working conditions and reduced possibilities for worker power.
Angwin: So robots didn’t take our jobs. They just became our really mean, uncaring boss?
Dubal: That’s well put. The kinds of personal relationships that we’re able to cultivate with our bosses is part of what gives workers some semblance of control over their lives. Your boss knows that you have three kids, and when little Timmy gets sick and you have to take off work or take a break to talk to his doctor or teacher, your boss might understand that. Algorithms don’t.
Political scientists used to call that kind of responsibility that employers took for their workforces “high road employment.” This was sort of the ideal workplace in the 1950s and the postwar era where employers supposedly really cared about their employees and wanted to invest in them.
This “my boss is an algorithm” world of work is like the “lowest road employment’‘ because you don’t have those kinds of really important human interactions. Workers will tell you it’s really humiliating. In my research with Uber drivers, drivers will talk about how they feel they have just become part of the app for consumers. Like they’re not humans who are performing a service. 
And I think that that’s how Amazon really understands warehouse workers. They’re just cogs in the machine, and things like having to urinate is friction that they want to eliminate. So they eliminate that friction by creating crazy quotas and using AI technologies to penalize or terminate people when they don’t meet those quotas. That forces workers to self-regulate into doing things that are terrible for their bodies. 
Angwin: But these working conditions tend to fall more heavily on workforces that have a majority of workers of color, correct? Amazon’s warehouse workforce, for instance, is majority workers of color. Warehouse workers are paid by the hour, subject to their quotas, but many drivers and delivery workers are independent contractors paid per task. You have written about what you call the “The New Racial Wage Code” that largely affects workers of color. Can you explain?
Dubal: In the back of our minds, I think we all know that the people who are in the warehouse, the Uber drivers who get us from point A to point B and the Amazon delivery workers who deliver our items from the warehouses are [primarily] people of color.
But we don’t think enough about why that is, and how this whole logistics area can be thought about through the politics of race.
In my new paper, I talk about the fact that workers at these “on-demand” companies such as Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, and Amazon are all operating under a set of wage laws that they have invented. 
Meanwhile, most people in the U.S. are paid by the hour, because of labor agitation and the Fair Labor Standards Act. We have some way to predict how much money we’re going to make at the end of the day. And in theory, that amount should give us a living wage (even though we know that is not the case, and that the minimum wage needs to be raised nationally).
What these companies have done through their on-demand models is shift all of the risks and liabilities associated with employment onto the worker by saying that many of these workers are independent contractors, despite the fact that the workers are hyper-controlled by the company’s algorithms.
Not only are these workers paid by “the piece” rather than by the hour, but the companies also make it impossible for them to know how many “pieces” they’re going to get in any given day. 
These Uber drivers or Amazon delivery drivers don’t know how many packages they’re going to have to deliver or how many rides they’re going to be allocated because all of that is determined algorithmically, not just based on demand but on a calculation of that worker’s behavior.
The fact that these companies operate like this all over the United States means that a subordinated racial minority and immigrant workforce is not benefiting from the same minimum wage and overtime laws and other protections as every other worker in the service economy is benefiting from. I call this the new racial wage code. 
We’ve seen this before in history, when agricultural workers and domestic workers, both largely African-American workforces, were completely carved out of employment and labor laws by Congress at the behest of Southern Democrats who were trying to protect plantation culture.
That resulted in generations of racialized poverty. And we see the same thing happening in this creation of a whole other workforce that’s experiencing the same kind of racialized poverty. 
Angwin: So, what can we learn from the past about how to change this?
Dubal: I understand that these companies don’t hire historians to inform their actions, but I’m always sort of puzzled by the fact that it’s not like we haven’t seen these things before. I think that there’s a techno deterministic modernism that informs the way that they think of themselves as exceptional—and their practices as exceptional—that impedes their ability to see clearly.
Because history tells us that if you push people down and you oppress them and you make it hard to earn a living and you make working people live in poverty, then there is going to be agitation. There’s going to be on-the-ground agitation and, eventually, there’s going to be legislative agitation. 
The lesson for me, having watched this industry for a decade, is that it’s not going to be well-meaning people who force self-regulation through abstract concepts like “tech ethics” that will bring change. It’s going to be workers and their allies who are going to force these companies to behave differently.
Already, worker organizing and the attention it has garnered has slowed the normalization of digital exploitation. And in the coming years, I suspect we will see much more of this.
As always, thanks for reading.
Julia Angwin
The Markup
From The Markup
What Does Facebook Mean When It Says It Supports “Internet Regulations”?
California May Be the First State to Legislate Amazon Warehouse Conditions
The Downside to Surveilling Your Neighbors
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