Will Amazon respect labour laws as it expands eastwards?

As Amazon prepares to open new warehouses in the Czech Republic and Poland, there are fears that the company will bring with it the same low pay and poor working conditions it has become known for in neighbouring Germany and elsewhere.

Amazon’s operations in Germany had a difficult year in 2013, with the exposure of poor working conditions for seasonal workers by a German public television documentary and accusations of tax avoidance.

This was followed by strikes over pay at Amazon’s German warehouses in the run-up to Christmas.

It is hoped that two warehouses in Poland and two in the Czech Republic will be up and running by September in time for this year’s Christmas rush, dispatching orders to Germany and other parts of western Europe. A fifth site, in Poland, is planned for 2015.

Despite opening the new central European sites, Amazon has no domestic retail business in either country and there are no plans to launch an Amazon.pl or Amazon.cz website.

Hiring has already begun for some of the new warehouses, or ‘fulfilment centres’, where orders are packed and shipped out, and it’s expected the five centres will employ a total of 10,000 people, rising to 15,000 during the Christmas period.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka described Amazon’s investments in the country as “crucial.”

But not everyone has welcomed Amazon’s presence.

Residents of the village of Dobrovíz, near Prague, initially voted against Amazon’s plans to build the centre there in a local referendum.

Amazon retaliated by threatening to take the investment elsewhere if the obstacles were not removed. Senior Czech politicians, including Sobotka, soon intervened, and the Dobrovíz centre will now go ahead.

In Poland, work has already begun on developing the three planned sites, one in Sady, near Poznan, and two near the city of Wroclaw.

However, there have been further problems for Amazon in Brno as city councillors voted against the centre being built, a move which Czech President Milos Zeman called “stupid”.

Brno’s mayor Roman Onderka, a big supporter of the proposed Amazon investment, said in a statement after the vote that Brno had “missed its chance” for jobs and investment.

During a series of meetings with trade union representatives in the first week of March, Sobotka offered reassurances that the State Labour Inspectorate will enforce compliance with labour laws in the Czech Republic.

"As a government, we insist that here the same rules apply to everyone," the Prime Minister told Czech media.

 

Anti-union

But concerns among trade unions in both countries are widespread following reports of poor working conditions elsewhere.

There have been media reports of workers in the US working in freezing temperatures, and losing much of their break time to walking across Amazon’s vast warehouses from workstations to break rooms and queuing to be scanned by metal detectors.

Another report said workers could be fired for talking or for bursting into tears on the job.

In the UK, former employees reported similar experiences to campaign website Amazon Anonymous.

One former Christmas temporary worker at the Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, Staffordshire, said they had to quit after “two weeks of a physically and mentally punishing regime” after being left “almost unable to walk with blisters.”

The former employee also said a shift supervisor had told workers that unions were “not part of Amazon’s business model”. Another former employee wrote that they were told at interview “union members would be dismissed.”

“There’s no reason to think Amazon will operate differently here,” Jana Kašparova, a spokesperson for the Bohemian-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions (ČMKOS) in the Czech Republic, told Equal Times.

“The corporate culture is to employ staff through an employment agency, on very precarious employment contracts, and to dictate working conditions.”

“Indeed, the head of Amazon’s European operations Tim Collins told the Financial Times that in the Czech Republic and Poland he saw no need to have trade unions within their company, as he does not consider it useful, it slows down innovation and inhibits change,” she added.

Jagoda Kowalczyk, from the Polish trade union Solidarność, was also cautious in her assessment: “Although it is publicly known that in other countries Amazon warehouses offer pretty miserable working conditions, we hope the company will operate according to Polish labour law.”

In the Czech Republic and Poland, wages are considerably lower than in Germany and other western European countries, and workers are less unionised, with only around 12 percent of workers in Poland and 17 percent in the Czech Republic belonging to a union, below the EU average of 23 percent.

“There is already some advertising for jobs at the Amazon warehouse in Dobrovíz,” said Kašparova.

“Employees are allocated through the Randstad employment agency, and when signing of the contract with the agency, Amazon implied that the company does not want to deal with trade unions.”

“We’re ready to help Amazon’s future employees here and, among other things, we want the government to warn Amazon to respect labour legislation in this country.”