Amazon Germany: the low price and low wage giant

It has been two years since Amazon employees in Germany embarked on their fight for better pay and working conditions. Since then, there has been one strike after another.

The last one was at the end of June, at five different sites across the country.

“When the movement started, we had problems with precarious contracts, in addition to the pressure put on staff and the wages that hadn’t been increased at all for years,” Christian Krähling, an Amazon employee at the Bad Hersfeld site, told Equal Times. Some 3000 people work at this site.

Amazon has eight goods distribution centres in Germany and a site dedicated to DVD rental. All in all, the US group employs between 10,000 and 15,000 people in the country, depending on the time of year.

But many of these workers are hired on fixed-term contracts or as temporary staff. At the end of 2013, a German TV documentary exposed the miserable living conditions of the seasonal workers employed by Amazon during peak periods and their constant surveillance by security staff.

One of the main demands of the Amazon Germany workers is that the company stop its extensive use of precarious contracts.

But, above all, the strikers want Amazon to respect the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) covering the mail order and retail sector, which would mean better working conditions for all the company’s employees, as well as pay increases.

The current wages earned by Amazon warehouse staff start at around €10 (US$11) an hour, before tax, whilst the minimum wage set by the retail sector CBA is between €11.74 and €11.94 an hour, almost €2 more.

Amazon is refusing point blank.

“The discussions on the collective agreement are now totally deadlocked because of the management at Amazon,” explains Stefan Najda, general secretary of the services trade union confederation Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft (Ver.di).

“Amazon’s management does not want to talk to the unions at all. But we have, nevertheless, managed to secure wage rises slightly above inflation,” underlines Krähling. “And at our site, we have virtually done away with precarious contracts. They have also decreased elsewhere.” 

“You don’t need to be part of a collective agreement to be a fair employer,” Amazon Germany’s communication department tells Equal Times, defending its position. “In our very open corporate culture, we communicate constantly and directly with the employees and the works councils.” 

But the Amazon Germany works councils were only recently established as a result of the strike action taken over the last couple of years.

Since 2014, there has been a works council at all Amazon logistics centres in Germany. By virtue of the national legislation, the management has an obligation to discuss with these structures representing staff members.

The Amazon works councils have so far managed to set up health management programmes. “We’re trying to improve things. But it’s not easy with the Amazon system, which rests on the standardisation of all work tasks,” remarks Krähling.

Because at Amazon, everything is calculated. At the logistics centres, there is a software programme that even determines the shortest and most efficient route employees have to take to get from one place to another.


Threat of relocation

On the margins of the gains secured, Amazon is using scare tactics to stifle the workers’ demands, threatening to relocate its German operations to neighbouring countries in eastern Europe. The company opened sites in Poland and the Czech Republic last year, despite there being no Amazon website in the languages of these countries.

“In Poland, our colleagues work two hours more a day and earn a net wage of only €400 a month, around three times less than in Germany,” explains Najda. Amazon has not, however, reduced its operations in Germany since these sites were opened in Eastern Europe. And no German site has been closed.

“Here too, they threaten us with relocation. But it’s only to create fear,” says Sébastien Boissonet, an Amazon worker at the Saran site in France, and the representative of the CGT trade union confederation.

In France too, Amazon workers have been waging a fight for several years to put an end to precarious work and to improve pay and working conditions.

“Amazon is quite a rigid model when it comes to labour conditions. It’s nothing new, but it’s going from bad to worse,” underlines the French worker.

And it is a widespread phenomenon. Amazon employs 32,000 people at 28 sites across Europe. In addition to Germany, France, Poland and the Czech Republic, it also has operations in Spain and Italy.

The working conditions and management are particularly harsh, everywhere.
The trade unions are responding by globalising the fight, coordinated by the Global Union for the retail and wholesale sector, UNI Commerce.

“The Polish and German unions are working together. We are drawing up a joint strategy,” explains Grzegorz Cisoń of the Polish union Solidarność.

Last year, Amazon Germany employees went to support their French colleagues’ strike. And in June, a delegation of Solidarność members from Amazon’s Polish sites went to support their German colleagues.

Solidarity actions within the European Union are an ever-growing force.