“Make Tarif Vertrag” proclaimed one of the many signs held aloft at a Thursday protest of Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) labor practices in Germany, covered by The New York Times. Roughly translated, the curious combination of English and German demanded that the company make a collective bargain with workers, referring to the Internet retailer’s refusal to negotiate labor terms with one of Germany’s largest unions, ver.di, an abbreviation of Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, or United Service Industries Union.
Since a grim portrait of life at Amazon’s packing and distribution centers in that country was revealed in a documentary aired on February 12 by the German television channel ARD, the company has been fighting an intense public relations battle.
In a series of interviews, temporary workers hired through agencies on Amazon’s behalf spoke of long hours, short breaks, and pay lower than promised, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Many of these workers were bused in from countries like Spain or Romania, where work is difficult to find, in order to help with the company’s increased holiday package flow.
Not only were working conditions allegedly below German work standards at Amazon’s logistic centers, but the company’s temporary staff were “subjected to a climate of intimidation,” according to The Associated Press. They faced constant searches and harassment from security guards that wore black uniforms linked to Germany’s neo-Nazi culture and sported military haircuts. Even the name of security firm used by Amazon — HESS Security — is reminiscent of Nazi Germany; Rudolf Hess was one of Adolf Hitler’s deputies.
The firm denied any connection to extremists groups, but Amazon still fired the security firm. That move did little to appease German labor groups, who are still concerned about working conditions at the eight Amazon distribution centers located in the country. The fact that company has refused to negotiate wages, even though the Internet retailer does pay above the union rate, has done little to stem the tide of anger. Although Germany’s unemployment rate of 5.3 percent stands well below the European Union’s 11.9 percent, workers feel that newer, flexible job regulations have left many lower income workers with less protection, reported the Times. For them, this situation with Amazon is prime example.
Other multinational companies have had similar incidents with German workers. Back in 2006, Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) pulled out of Germany after a confrontation with ver.di, which represents two million workers, proved to be too much of a setback for its operations. Now, as the Times reported, “it seems to be Amazon’s turn “Has Amazon’s American-Style Management Angered Germany Workers”to serve as a symbol for everything that many Germans resent about American-style management and so-called Anglo-Saxon capitalism.”
Delving deeper into the issue, it appears that the current confrontation does have a basis in what is perceived in Germany as American-style management and Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Amazon’s focus on productivity — the factor that enables to company to offer next-day delivery and prices that outmatch competitors — requires quite a large amount of labor, and the company employs software on the hand-held scanners workers use to monitor their efficiency. Several former employees have complained of the unpleasant work atmosphere and extreme pressure to produce in the local newspaper Kreis Anzeiger, according to the Times.
Yet Amazon employes 2,500 workers Bad Hersfeld, where the distribution centered shown in the documentary is located, and while mayor Thomas Fehling has spoken out against the treatment of the temporary workers, he has acknowledged this fact.
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