Amazon.com workers go on strike in Germany

Amazon.com workers in Germany staged a one-day strike on Wednesday, May 15 to demand that the company increase wages and improve benefits. The workers are members of the Germany service union Ver. di. The union had negotiated an industry-wide agreement with representatives of Germany’s retail and mail order businesses. The agreement sets standard wages, benefits, and working conditions for the industry, but Amazon has refused to abide by the agreement

Leaders of Ver. di said that Amazon has been unwilling to negotiate with its workers’ union and that if Amazon continues along this path, strike actions could escalate.

“We are counting on a dispute which could last for a while,” Heiner Reimann, a spokesman for Ver.di. “Amazon so far has shown that they are unwilling to negotiate. They are willing to talk but they are unwilling to negotiate. So we are preparing for an open-ended strike.”

In April, 97 percent of Ver.di members who work for Amazon voted to authorize a strike if the company refused to improve wages and benefits.

Wednesday’s strike was the latest development in contentious relationship between Ver.di and Amazon, which employs about 9,000 workers at its warehouses in Germany. The union says that Amazon has imported labor practices from the US that threaten to undermine hard-won good wages, benefits, and working conditions that other workers in the industry enjoy.

Wednesday’s strike took place at two of Amazon’s  warehouses, one in Bad Hersfeld and the other in Leipzig.

Amazon pays its warehouse workers with less than one year on the job 9.30 euros an hour. After one year on the job, the pay rate increases to 10 euros an hour.

The union wants worker pay to begin at 10.66 euros an hour and increase to 12 euros an hour, which would put Amazon workers more in line with other retail and mail order workers in Germany.

More is at stake than just better wages though. Amazon doesn’t provide holiday or vacation pay as other German companies do, and it employs a sophisticated surveillance system that monitors workers’ every movement on the job. Two thirds of Amazon’s warehouse workforce are temporary workers, with even fewer benefits and job security than the company’s full-time workers.

Amazon says that it does not have to abide by the agreement between Ver. di and the industry because the Amazon operation in Germany is a logistics business rather than a mail order business.

The dispute between Ver. di and Amazon is not the first time that two sides have clashed over the company’s labor cost cutting measures.

In 2011, Amazon hired 1,500 unpaid interns to staff its warehouses. These unpaid interns were out-of-work workers, who were receiving unemployment insurance. Amazon justified its unpaid internships as a way of determining whether the interns might be worthy of more long-term employment. Ver. di called the unpaid internships slavery.

More recently, a television news program in February exposed Amazon’s latest attempt to reduce labor costs. The company hired foreign workers, mainly from European countries like Spain where the economy is in a severe depression, for temporary positions. The workers were housed in cheap motels and hostels and were subjected to threats and intimidation by employees of a security firm that monitored their actions.

The television station conducting the investigation said that the security firm had ties to Germany’s neo-Nazi movement.

The Mail Online reported that in addition to being bullied and intimidated, the workers had to walk up to ten miles to get to and from work, were paid less than they had been promised, and could be fired at will.

The workers had no way of addressing their concerns. “They don’t see any way of complaining,” said Reimann to the Online Globe. “They are all too frightened of being  sent home without a job.”

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